With some friends I have now for years a reading club and our current project is Das Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German heroic epic from about 1300. Various historic figures from the early Middle Ages appear in this text, but in quite unhistorical settings. One of these is Brünhilde, who also has a prominent role Old Norse mythology. Undoubtedly this character is based on queen Brunhilda (543 -613), who started as a liberal queen, but became in due course more and more cruel. Her early life as queen is described by Gregory of Tours (538 – 594) in his Historia Francorum. In this work he describes the history of the Franks, a Germanic tribe ruling in France. In the 4th century this tribe invaded France and subdued the Romanized Celtic population. They were always in a minority, but could hold power for centuries. In the following excerpts Gregory describes how Sigebert married Brunhilda. Sigebert was in constant war with his half-brother Chilperic and in due course their respective wives also took sides. Feuds between brothers, cousins and father and sons were a constant menace in the history of the Franks and Gregory goes into every detail, which makes his work fascinating to read.
As for Brunhilda: the various factions of the nobility were finally fed up with her intrigues and machinations. They plotted against her, took her prison and:
Then the army of the Franks and Burgundians joined into one, all shouted together that death would be most fitting for the very wicked Brunhilda. Then King Clotaire ordered that she be lifted on to a camel and led through the entire army. Then she was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb. Finally she died. Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt. (Liber Historiae Francorum, unknown author)
According to another story she was dragged by a mare One legend has her being dragged by a wild mare down a Roman road, which is since known as La Chaussée Brunehaut..
But she did manage to become Germanic heroine, a Norse Valkyrie and a formidable Wagnerian role!
Gregory of Tours Historia Francorum book IV
(The Latin is far from perfect and Gregory sees no problem in writing tres filius instead of tres filli,)
27. Quod Sigiberthus Brunichildem accepit.
Porro Sigyberthus rex cum videret, quod fratres eius indignas sibimet uxores acciperent et per vilitatem suam etiam ancillas in matrimonio sociarent, legationem in Hispaniam mittit et cum multis muneribus Brunichildem, Athanagilde regis filiam, petiit. Erat enim puella elegans opere, venusta aspectu, honesta moribus atque decora, prudens consilio et blanda colloquio. Quam pater eius non denegans, cum magnis thesauris antedicto rege transmisit. Ille vero, congregatus senioribus secum, praeparatis aepulis, cum inminsa laetitia atque iocunditate eam accepit uxorem. Et quia Arrianae legi subiecta erat, per praedicationem sacerdotum atque ipsius regis commonitionem conversa, beatam in unitate confessa Trinitatem credidit atque chrismata est. Quae in nomine Christi catholica perseverat.
fratres: Sigebert had two full brothers who were still alive at that time.
indignas uxores acciperent: it was customary to have various concubines and wives amongst the Frankish nobility.
vilitas -atis (f): (moral) lowness
Hispaniam: In Spain the Visigoths – another Germanic tribe - held power at that time. They were not orthodox Christian but Arians. Arius (250 -336) denied the divinity of Christ and he and his teachings were condemned as heretic at the oecumenical counsel of Nicea (325). However, his teachings were accepted by the Germanic tribes, except the Franks, who were orthodox.
elegans opere: difficult to interpret. One manuscript reads elegans corpore and this could be what Gregory wrote, but all other manuscripts have the other reading.
opere and the other ablatives are ablatives of description.
denego = nego (Late Latin has a predilection for compounded verbs)
antedicto rege = ad antedictum regem: to the before mentioned king (Like in modern romance languages, word order in Late Latin was more important in determining the function of a word than its case ending. This caused more and more a great carelessness in the use of cases.)
senioribus: i.e. the nobility
aepulis = epulis (epulae: sumptuous food)
inminsa = immensa
praedicatio –onis (f): preaching
commonitio –onis (f): admonition
beatam in unitate confessa Trinitatem credidit = confessing the blessed Trinity in unity, she believed (this is of course contrary to the doctrine of Arius.)
chrismata: oiled (as a sign of being orthodox now, not baptized as the English version below translates.)
Sigeberts brother Chilperic sees that his brother has married a real princess and is now striving for her elder sister Galswintha. The problem is that he has a concubine Fredegund († 597). She was initially a servant of his first wife Audavera, but won the affection Chilperic and she persuaded him to put his first wife Audovera to a convent and then to marry her. However Chiliperic marries Chalswintha and only after the death of Galswintha he would marry her. In the meantime his Audovera has died in the convent, probably being killed at the instigation of Fredegund. Fredegund cannot bear that he is now married to Chalswintha and she tries to make the life of Chalswnitha as difficult as possible: with success. Chalswintha asks to return to her father, but Chilperic persuades her not to go. She stays but after some time he let her be strangled. Gregory doesn’t say, but undoubtedly Fredegund and he had contrived this together. Now Brunhilda had every reason to hate Fredegund. The two ladies would for year fight each other and Fredegund even managed to have Sigebert being poisoned in 575 (and she a lot of other kinsmen assassinated too). In 584 Chilperic dies under mysterious circumstances and all wealth went to Fredegund, No historian doubts who was behind the murder…
That the initially charming Brunhilda became so cruel can be well explained as a strategy for survival. As for Fredegund: she has survived in folklore and fairy tales as the stepmother of Cinderella. Fredegund tried to kill her own daughter Rigunth when the latter boasted that she would be a better mistress than her mother.
28. De uxoribus Chilperici.
Quod videns Chilpericus rex, cum iam plures haberet uxores, sororem eius Galsuintham expetiit, promittens per legatus se alias relicturum, tantum condignam sibi regisque prolem mereretur accipere. Pater vero eius has promissiones accipiens, filiam suam, similiter sicut anteriorem, ipsi cum magnis opibus distinavit. Nam Galsuintha aetate senior a Brunichilde erat. Quae cum ad Chilpericum regem venisset, cum grande honore suscepta eiusque est sociata coniugio; a quo etiam magno amore diligebatur. Detulerat enim secum magnos thesauros. Sed per amorem Fredegundis, quam prius habuerat, ortum est inter eos grande scandalum. Iam enim in lege catholica conversa fuerat et chrismata. Cumque se regi quaereretur assiduae iniurias perferre diceretque, nullam se dignitatem cum eodem habere, petiit, ut, relictis thesauris quos secum detulerat, libera redire permitteretur ad patriam. Quod ille per ingenia dissimulans, verbis eam lenibus demulsit. Ad extremum enim suggillari iussit a puero, mortuamque repperit in strato. Post cuius obitum Deus virtutem magnam ostendit. Lyghnus enim ille, qui fune suspensus coram sepulchrum eius ardebat, nullo tangente, disrupto fune, in pavimento conruit et, fugientem ante eum duritiam pavimenti, tamquam in aliquod molle elimentum discendit, atque medius est suffossus nec omnino contritus. Quod non sine magno miraculo videntibus fuit. Rex autem cum eam mortuam deflessit, post paucos dies Fredegundem recepit in matrimonio. Post quod factum reputantes ei fratres, quod sua emissione antedicta regina fuerit interfecta, eum a regno deieciunt. Habebat autem tunc Chilpericus tres filius de Audovera priore regina sua, id est Theudoberthum, cui supra meminimus, Merovechum atque Chlodovechum. Sed ad coepta redeamus.
per legatus: as if legatus is a u stem!
alias: the other wives
tantum condignam sibi regisque prolem mereretur accipere: Gregory often loses track of syntax in long sentences and this is a good example. As it stands, it means: and to accept her as only equal to himself and he could deserve (= to marry) the child of a king. But it is more logical to take it as as si regis prolem mereretur.
distino = destino: to send
conversa fuerat: Fredegund
Cumque se regi quaereretur assiduae iniurias perferre: and when she complaind to the king about the constant injustices she had to endure (from the side of Fredegund.)
nullam se dignitatem cum eodem habere: contrary to what Chilperic had promised her father.
dissimulo: to neglect
demulceo, mulsi mulctum: to soften
suggillo: to strangle
virtutem magnam: a great miracle (wherever he can, Gregory inserts miracles!)
funis funis (m): rope
coram: in front of
fugientem ante eum duritiam pavimenti: the hardness of the pavement giving way to it.
tamquam in aliquod molle elimentum: like in some soft substance.
medius est suffossus: half buried
contero -trivi –tritum: to grind, waste, destroy
deflessit = deflevissit (defleo: to bewail)
reputo: to reckon, ascribe
sua emissione: at his command
eum a regno deieciunt: not true as far as is known. As Gregory describes events which took place during his lifetime, it is possible that this was not the original reading. The Liber Historiae Francorum says: they tried to expel him out of his kingdom (as has been accepted by the English translation below). It is possible that the Liber Historiae Francorum, which made use of Gregory’s book, has preserved the original reading and that a later copyist made the mistake which thus has crept into the text of subsequent copies.
Brünhildes immolation scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung:
Marriage of Sigebert and Brunhilda from a 15th century manuscript.