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The first page of the Hildebrandslied manuscript.
The second page of the Hildebrandslied manuscript.

The Hildebrandslied (lay or song of Hildebrand) is a heroic lay written in Old High German alliterative verse. It is one of the earliest literary works in German, and it tells of the tragic encounter in battle between a son and his unrecognized father. It is the only surviving example in German of a genre which must have been important in the oral literature of the Germanic tribes.


The opening lines of the poem set the scene: two warriors meet on a battlefield, probably as the champions of their two armies.

As the older man, Hildebrand opens by asking the identity and genealogy of his opponent. Hadubrand reveals that he did not know his father but the elders told him his father was Hildebrand, who fled eastwards in the service of Dietrich (Theodoric) to escape the wrath of Otacher (Odoacer), leaving behind a wife and small child. He believes his father to be dead.

Hildebrand responds by saying that Hadubrand will never fight such a close kinsman (an indirect way of asserting his paternity) and offers gold arm-rings he had received as a gift from the Lord of the Huns (the audience would have recognized this as a reference to Attila, whom according to legend Theodoric served).

Hadubrand takes this as a ruse to get him off guard and belligerently refuses the offer, accusing Hildebrand of deception, and perhaps implying cowardice. Hildebrand accepts his fate and sees that he cannot honourably refuse battle: he has no choice but to kill his own son or be killed by him.

They start to fight, and the text concludes with their shields smashed. But the poem breaks off in the middle of a line, not revealing the outcome.

The text[edit]

The text consists of 68 lines of alliterative verse, though written continuously with no consistent indication of the verse form. It breaks off in mid-line, leaving the poem unfinished at the end of the second page. However, it does not seem likely that much more than a dozen lines are missing.

The poem starts:

Ik gihorta ðat seggen
ðat sih urhettun ænon muotin
Hiltibrant enti Haðubrant untar heriun tuem
sunufatarungo iro saro rihtun
garutun se iro guðhamun gurtun sih iro suert ana
helidos ubar hringa do sie to dero hiltiu ritun

I heard tell
That warriors met in single combat
Hildebrand and Hadubrand between two armies
son and father prepared their armour
made ready their battle garments girded on their swords
the warriors, over their ring mail when they rode to battle.

The text of the Hildebrandslied In Braune's Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, 8th edition, 1921.

The text is highly problematic, both because of the circumstances of its transmission and because of the uniqueness of the work. Although the written text presents no gaps, a number of places have been identified where the text appears not to follow or there are incomplete lines of verse, suggesting missing text. Other apparent illogicalities suggest misattributed direct speech and lines out of order, though these remain matters of debate.

While it has always been accepted that the text derives ultimately from an oral original, it is unlikely that the surviving text was transcribed directly from oral performance, or indeed written down by someone competent in the oral tradition. The transpositions, apparent lacunae, and unwarranted insertions all indicate a text copied from an earlier manuscript by scribes with only a partial understanding of the poetic form. The mixture of dialects and other linguistic oddities found in the text could also indicate that the poem was intentionally written to appear to be older than it was.[2]


The basic structure of the poem comprises a long passage of dialogue, framed by introductory and closing narration. [3] A more detailed analysis is offered by McLintock:[4]

  1. Introductory narrative (ll. 1–6): The warriors meet and prepare for combat.
  2. Hildebrand's 1st speech, with introductory formula and characterization (ll. 7–13): Hildebrand asks his opponent's identity.
  3. Hadubrand's 1st speech, with introductory formula (ll. l4–29): Hadubrand names himself, tells how his father left with Dietrich, and that he believes him to be dead.
  4. Hildebrand's 2nd Speech (ll. 30–32): Hildebrand indicates his close kinship with Hadubrand.
    Narrative (ll. 33–35a): Hildebrand removes an arm-ring
    Hildebrand's 3rd speech (l. 35b): and offers it to Hadubrand.
  5. Hadubrand's 2nd speech, with introductory formula (ll. 36–44): Hadubrand rejects the proffered arm-ring, accuses Hildebrand of trying to trick him, and reasserts his belief that his father is dead.
  6. Hildebrand's 4th speech, with introductory formula (ll.45–62): Hildebrand comments that Hadubrand's good armour shows he has never been an exile. Hildebrand accepts his fate, affirming that it would be cowardly to refuse battle and challenging Hadubrand to win his armour.
  7. Closing narrative (ll. 63–68): The warriors throw spears, close for combat and fight until their shields are destroyed.

The manuscript[edit]


The manuscript of the Hildebrandslied is now in the Murhardsche Bibliothek in Kassel (shelfmark 2° Ms. theol. 54).[5] and was discovered around 1715 by Johann Georg von Eckhart,[6] who published the first edition of the poem.[7]

The Wynn Rune

The codex consists of 76 folios containing two books of the Vulgate Old Testament (the Book of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus) and the homilies of Origen. It was written in the 820s in Anglo-Saxon minuscule and Carolingian minuscule hands. The text of the Hildebrandslied was added in the 830s on the two blank outside leaves of the codex (1r and 76v).[8][9]

The poem breaks off in the midst of the battle and there has been speculation that the text originally continued on a third sheet (now lost) or on the endpaper of the (subsequently replaced) back cover.[10][11] However, it is also possible that the text was being copied from an incomplete original or represented a well-known episode from a longer story.[12]

Two examples of the wynn rune on the second page of the Hildebrandslied manuscript. The text reads "wiges warne".

The Hildebrandslied text is the work of two scribes, of whom the second wrote only seven and a half lines (11 lines of verse) at the beginning of the second leaf. The scribes are not the same as those of the body of the codex.[8] The hands are mainly Carolingian minuscule. However, a number of features, including the wynn-rune used for w suggest Old English influence, not surprising in a house founded by Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

The manuscript pages now show a number of patches of discoloration. These are the results of attempts by earlier scholars to improve the legibility of the text with chemical agents.[13]


The manuscript's combination of Bavarian dialect and Anglo-Saxon palaeographic features make Fulda the only monastery where it could have been written. With its missionary links to North Germany, Fulda is also the most likely origin for the earlier version of the poem in which Old Saxon features were first introduced.[14] In around 1550 the codex was listed in the monastery's library catalogue.[8]

In 1632, during the Thirty Years War, the monastery was plundered and destroyed by Hessian troops. While most of the library's manuscripts were lost, the codex was among a number of stolen items later returned to the Landgraves of Hesse-Kassel and placed in the Court Library.[8][15] In the aftermath of the political crisis of 1831, under the terms of Hesse's new constitution the library passed from the private possession of the landgraves to public ownership and became the Kassel State Library (Landesbibliothek).[16][17]

At the start of the Second World War, the manuscript, along with 19 others, was moved from the State Library to the underground vault of a local bank. This meant that it was not harmed in the Allied bombing raid in September 1941, which destroyed almost all the library's manuscript holdings.[18] In August 1943 the codex (along with the Kassel Willehalm codex) was moved for safe keeping out of Kassel completely to a bunker in Bad Wildungen, south-west of the city, just in time to escape the devastating air-raids the following October, which destroyed the whole of the city centre. After the capture of Bad Wildungen by units of the US Third Army in March 1945, the bunker was looted and the codex went missing. An official investigation by the US Military Government failed to discover its fate.[19][20][21]. In November 1945 it was sold by a US army officer to the Rosenbach Company, rare book dealers in Philadelphia. At some point the first folio, with the first page of the Hildebrandslied, was removed (presumably in order to disguise the origin of the codex, since that sheet carried the library's stamp), while the codex, still containing the second page of the Hildebrandslied, was sold in 1950 to a private buyer, even though the Pierpont Morgan Library had raised questions about its provenance.[22] In 1953 the codex was traced to a private library in California, and in 1955 was returned to Kassel. However, it was only in 1972 that the missing first folio was rediscovered in the Rosenbach Museum and reunited with the codex.[6][23]

The language[edit]

One of the most puzzling features of the Hildebrandslied is its language, which is a mixture of Old High German (with some specifically Bavarian features) and Old Saxon.[24] For example, the first person pronoun appears both in the Old Saxon form ik and the Old High German ih. The reason for the language mixture is unknown, but it seems certain it cannot have been the work of the last scribes and was already present in the original which they copied.

The Old Saxon features predominate in the opening part of the poem and show a number of errors, which argue against an Old Saxon original. The alliteration of riche and reccheo in line 48 is often regarded as conclusive: the equivalent Old Saxon forms, rīke and wrekkio, do not alliterate and would have given a malformed line.[25] Earlier scholars envisaged an Old Saxon original, but an Old High German original is now universally accepted.[26]

The errors in the Old Saxon features suggest that the scribe responsible for the dialect mixture was not thoroughly familiar with the dialect. Forms such as heittu (l.17) and huitte (l.66) (Modern German heißen and weiß) are mistakes for Old Saxon spellings with a single ⟨t⟩. They suggest a scribe who does not realise that Old High German zz, resulting from the High German consonant shift, corresponds to t in Old Saxon in these words, not tt, that is, a scribe who has limited first-hand knowledge of Old Saxon.

The origin of the Dietrich legend in Northern Italy also suggests a southern origin is more likely.

The East Franconian dialect of Fulda was High German, but the monastery was a centre of missionary activity to Northern Germany. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume there was some knowledge of Old Saxon there, and perhaps even some Old Saxon speakers. However, the motivation for attempting a translation into Old Saxon remains inscrutable, and attempts to link it with Fulda's missionary activity among the Saxons remain speculative.

An alternative explanation treats the dialect as homogeneous, interpreting it as representative of an archaic poetic idiom.



Legendary material about Hildebrand survived in Germany into the 17th Century[27] and also spread to Scandinavia, though the forms of names vary. A number of analogues either portray or refer to Hildebrand's combat with his son:[28]

  • In the 13th century Old Norse Thiðrekssaga, Hildibrand defeats his son, Alibrand. Alibrand offers his sword in surrender but attempts to strike Hildibrand as he reaches for it. Hildibrand taunts him for having been taught to fight by a woman, but then asks if he is Alibrand and they are reconciled.[29][30]
  • The Early New High German Jüngeres Hildebrandslied (first attested in the fifteenth century) tells a similar story of the treacherous blow, the taunt that the son was taught to fight by a woman, and the final reconciliation.
  • In the 14th century Old Norse Ásmundar saga kappabana, Hildebrand's shield bears paintings of the warriors he has killed, which include his own son.
  • In the Faroese ballad Snjólvskvæði, Hildebrand is tricked into killing his son.[31][32]
  • In Book VII of the Gesta Danorum (early 13th century), Hildiger reveals as he is dying that he has killed his own son.

Other Indo-European[edit]

There are three legends in other Indo-European traditions about an old hero who must fight his son and kills him after distrusting his claims of kinship:[33][34]

The Ending[edit]

While the conclusion of the Hildbrandslied is missing, the consensus is that the evidence of the analogues supports the death of Hadubrand as the outcome of the combat.[36] Even though some of the later medieval versions end in reconciliation, this can be seen as a concession to the more sentimental tastes of a later period.[37] The heroic ethos of an earlier period would leave Hildebrand no choice but to kill his son after the dishonourable act of the treacherous stroke. There is some evidence that this original version of the story survived into the 13th Century in Germany: the Minnesänger Der Marner refers to a poem about the death of young Alebrand.[38][39]

The historical background[edit]

Although there is no evidence that Hildebrand himself was a historical character, the background to the poem is formed by historical events in the late fifth century, when the Ostrogothic King Theodoric fought for mastery of Italy against Odoacer, the Germanic general who had deposed the last western Roman emperor, and reigned as King of Italy (476-493).

Theodoric appears widely in Germanic legend as Dietrich von Bern (Verona).

Theodoric's Gothic Kingdom of Italy was subsequently seized by the Lombards, who had close connections with the Bavarians in South Germany, both speaking closely related Upper German dialects. This accounts for the transmission of legendary material relating to Theodoric northwards, the Scandinavian analogues indicate it went beyond Bavaria. More specifically, Sturmi, the first abbot of Fulda, was a member of the Bavarian nobility, and Bavarian monks had a considerable presence at the monastery.[2][40] Along with the monastery's missionary activity among the Saxons and its links with Saxon nobility (documented in the monastery's annals), this makes Fulda a convincing location for a Bavarian original text and the attempt to Saxonize it.[2]

The Hildebrandslied hints at Theodoric's legendary (and historically incorrect) connection with Attila, which is also seen in the Nibelungenlied.


  1. ^ Braune & Ebbinghaus 1994, p. 84.
  2. ^ a b c Young & Gloning 2004, p. 51.
  3. ^ Düwel 1989, p. 1243.
  4. ^ McLintock 1974, p. 73.
  5. ^ Handschriftencensus.
  6. ^ a b Edwards 2002, p. 69.
  7. ^ Eckhart 1729.
  8. ^ a b c d Wiedemann 1994, p. 72.
  9. ^ Haubrichs 1995, pp. 116–117.
  10. ^ Düwel 1989, p. 1240.
  11. ^ Haubrichs 1995, p. 117.
  12. ^ Bostock, King & McLintock 1976, p. 47.
  13. ^ Edwards 2002.
  14. ^ de Boor 1971, p. 66.
  15. ^ Popa 2003, p. 33.
  16. ^ Hopf 1930, p. I, 82 (104).
  17. ^ Popa 2003, p. 36.
  18. ^ Popa 2003, p. 12.
  19. ^ Wiedemann 1994, p. XXXIII.
  20. ^ Popa 2003, p. 5.
  21. ^ Twaddell 1974, p. 157.
  22. ^ Popa 2003, p. 6.
  23. ^ Popa 2003, p. 7.
  24. ^ Bostock, King & McLintock 1976, p. 77.
  25. ^ Bostock, King & McLintock 1976, p. 79.
  26. ^ Bostock, King & McLintock 1976, p. 78.
  27. ^ Curschmann 1989, p. 918.
  28. ^ Düwel 1989, pp. 1253–1254.
  29. ^ Bertelsen 1905–1911, pp. 347–351. (Chap. 406–408)
  30. ^ Haymes 2008, pp. 248–250. (Chap. 406–408)
  31. ^ Bostock, King & McLintock 1976, pp. 70–71.
  32. ^ de Boor 1923, pp. 165–181.
  33. ^ Heusler 1913–1915, p. 525.
  34. ^ Hatto 1973.
  35. ^ Meyer 1904.
  36. ^ Ebbinghaus 1987, p. 673, who dissents from this view and believes that Hildebrand is the one killed
  37. ^ de Boor 1971, p. 67.
  38. ^ Strauch 1876, p. 36.
  39. ^ Haubrichs 1995, p. 127.
  40. ^ Lühr 1982, pp. 251–252.


  • de Boor, Helmut (1923–1924). "Die nordische und deutsche Hildebrandsage". Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie. 49-50: 149–181, 175–210. Retrieved 6 January 2018. 
  • ——— (1971). Geschichte der deutschen Literatur. Band I. Von Karl dem Großen bis zum Beginn der höfischen Literatur 770-1170. München: C.H.Beck. ISBN 3-406-00703-1. 
  • Bostock, J. Knight; King, K. C.; McLintock, D. R. (1976). A Handbook on Old High German Literature (2nd ed.). Oxford. pp. 43–82. ISBN 0-19-815392-9.  Includes a translation of the Hildebrandslied into English.
  • Curschmann M (1989). "Jüngeres Hildebrandslied". In Ruh K, Keil G, Schröder W. Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters. Verfasserlexikon. 3. Berlin, New York: Walter De Gruyter. pp. 1240–1256. ISBN 3-11-008778-2.  With bibliography.
  • Düwel K (1989). "Hildebrandslied". In Ruh K, Keil G, Schröder W. Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters. Verfasserlexikon. 4. Berlin, New York: Walter De Gruyter. pp. 918–922. ISBN 3-11-008778-2.  With bibliography.
  • Ebbinghaus EA (1987). "The End of the Lay of Hiltibrant and Hadubrant". In Bergmann R, Tiefenbach H, Voetz L. Althochdeutsch. 1. Heidelberg: Winter. pp. 670–676. 
  • Edwards, Cyril (2002). "Unlucky Zeal: The Hildebrandslied and the Muspilli under the Acid". The Beginnings of German Literature. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester New York: Camden House. pp. 65–77. ISBN 1-57113-235-X. 
  • Handschriftencensus. "Kassel, Universitätsbibl. / LMB, 2° Ms. theol. 54". Paderborner Repertorium der deutschsprachigen Textüberlieferung des 8. bis 12. Jahrhunderts. Retrieved 28 December 2017. 
  • Hatto, A.T. (1973). "On the Excellence of the Hildebrandslied: A Comparative Study in Dynamics" (PDF). Modern Language Review. 4: 820–838. doi:10.2307/3726048. Retrieved 1 January 2018. 
  • Haubrichs, Wolfgang (1995). Die Anfänge: Versuche volkssprachiger Schriftlichkeit im frühen Mittelalter (ca. 700-1050/60). Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn der Neuzeit. 1, part 1 (2nd ed.). Tübingen: Niemeyer. ISBN 3-484-10700-6. 
  • Heusler, Andreas (1913–1915). "Hildebrand und Hadubrand". In Hoops, Johannes. Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde (in German). 2. Strassburg: Trübner. pp. 525–526. Retrieved 30 December 2017. 
  • Hopf, Wilhelm W (1930). Die Landesbibliothek Kassel 1580-1930. Marburg: Elwert. Retrieved 7 January 2018.  (Page numbers in parenthesis refer to the online edition, which combines the two printed volumes.)
  • Lühr, Rosemarie (1982). Studien zur Sprache des Hildebrandliedes (PDF). Frankfurt am Main, Bern: Peter Lang. ISBN 382047157X. Retrieved 15 January 2018.  (Page references are to the online edition.)
  • McLintock, D. R. (1966). "The Language of the Hildebrandslied". Oxford German Studies. 1: 1–9. doi:10.1179/ogs.1966.1.1.1. 
  • ——— (1974). "The Politics of the Hildebrandslied". New German Studies. 2: 61–81. 
  • Norman, Frederick (1973a) [1937]. "Some problems of the Hildebrandslied". In Norman, Frederick; Hatto, A.T. Three Essays on the "Hildebrandslied". London: Institute of Germanic Studies. pp. 9–32. ISBN 0854570527. 
  • ——— (1973b) [1958]. "Hildebrand and Hadubrand'". In Norman, Frederick; Hatto, A.T. Three Essays on the "Hildebrandslied". London: Institute of Germanic Studies. pp. 33–50. ISBN 0854570527. 
  • Popa, Opritsa D. (2003). Bibliophiles and bibliothieves : the search for the Hildebrandslied and the Willehalm Codex. Berlin: de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-017730-7. Retrieved 27 December 2017. 
  • Strauch, Philipp, ed. (1876). Der Marner. Strassburg: Trübner. 
  • Twaddell, W.F. (1974). "The Hildebrandlied Manuscript in the U.S.A. 1945–1972". Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 73 (2): 157–168. 
  • Wiedemann, Konrad, ed. (1994). Manuscripta Theologica: Die Handschriften in Folio. Handschriften der Gesamthochschul-Bibliothek Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek der Stadt Kassel. 1. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-3447033558. Retrieved 30 December 2017. 
  • Wilkens, Frederick H (1897). "The Manuscript, Orthography, and Dialect of the Hildebrandslied". PMLA. 12 (2): 226–250. doi:10.2307/456134. 
  • Young, Christopher; Gloning, Thomas (2004). A History of the German Language Through Texts. Abingdon, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-18331-6. 


  • Braune, Wilhelm; Ebbinghaus, Ernst A., eds. (1994). "XXVIII. Das Hildebrandslied". Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (17th ed.). Tübingen: Niemeyer. pp. 84–85. ISBN 3-484-10707-3.  Provides an edited text of the poem which is widely used and quoted. Line numbers for the text of the Hildbrandslied in all modern scholarship refer to this work and its earlier editions.
  • Bertelsen, Henrik (1905–1911). Þiðriks saga af Bern. Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 34. Copenhagen: S.L.Møller. Retrieved 29 December 2017. 
  • Eckhart, Johann Georg von (1729). "XIII Fragmentum Fabulae Romanticae, Saxonica dialecto seculo VIII conscriptae, ex codice Casselano". Commentariis de rebus Franciae orientalis. I. Würzburg: University of Würzburg. pp. 864–902. Retrieved 28 December 2017. 
  • The Saga of Thidrek of Bern. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Series B, 56. Translated by Haymes, Edward R. New York: Garland. 1988. pp. 65–77. ISBN 978-0824084899. 
  • Meyer, Kuno (1904). "The Death of Conla". Ériu. 1: 113–121. Retrieved 29 December 2017.  Translation reproduced at the Celtic Literature Collective

Further reading[edit]

  • Wolfram Euler: Das Westgermanische - von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert - Analyse und Rekonstruktion. 244 p., London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8. (Including a Langobardic version of the Lay of Hildebrand, pp. 213–215.)
  • Willy Krogmann: Das Hildebrandslied in der langobardischen Urfassung hergestellt. 106 p., Berlin 1959.

External links[edit]