Winder McConnell

title.none: Frakes, Brides and Doom (McConnell)

identifier.other: baj9928.9803.003 98.03.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Winder McConnell, University of California, Davis,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Frakes, Jerold C. Brides and Doom: Gender, Property, and Power in Medieval German Women's Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. 290. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23289-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.03.03

Frakes, Jerold C. Brides and Doom: Gender, Property, and Power in Medieval German Women's Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. 290. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23289-5.

Reviewed by:

Winder McConnell
University of California, Davis

Frakes states unequivocally on p. 5 of his "Introduction" that he is "engaged here in a political project." References to "political attempts by modern patriarchal scholarship to prevent, subvert, deny, or coopt such a reading of the texts [i.e., involving "issues of sexual politics"] a "masculist backlash," "rabidly anti-feminist signification," "bedrock patriarchal ideology," and "phallogocentric treatment of medieval texts" underscore his point. (Precisely what political point is being underscored by the capitalization of "Nazism," but not of "christian" or "christianity" [although this tends to be inconsistent, note pp. 220-221] is unclear.)

Frakes takes aim at much of "traditional" scholarship, which is viewed as the private preserve of "grand old men," although some may not have been so grand and others, in their heyday, not so old. They are seen as having cultivated a phallogocentrist or logocentrist approach, understanding, and interpretation of medieval epic. I suspect, however, that there are many who will be disinclined to regard "logocentrism" and "phallogocentrism" as "brilliant post-structuralist coinages for the privileging of the logos" (p. 34). "Reductionist" might be a more appropriate epithet.

The epics Nibelungenlied, Klage, and Kudrun are the focus of Frakes' study. I think, however, that the "political baggage" which he brings to bear on the works tends to lead to an unjustified overemphasizing of some elements and a corresponding, also unjustified, underestimating of others. Does Kriemhild truly oppose the patriarchal system (p. 94) as Frakes maintains? I see no evidence of this in the text. She opposes what she (rightly, from her perspective and that of any number of readers) sees as an incredible injustice perpetrated against her and her husband, but she does not oppose any system. Ultimately, she appears indifferent to whether or not "systems" survive or go under. She certainly rejects marriage, initially, as Frakes points out on p. 150, but she makes it abundantly clear why, namely, because of the sorrow that she now associates with it as a result of her mother's (incomplete) interpretation of the dream. There is no indication of any rejection of marriage as a social (or political) institution, in fact, Kriemhild's motive for marrying Etzel is thoroughly political, as Frakes himself points out. There is no mention by Frakes of any desire that Kriemhild herself may have had to marry Siegfried, although I doubt that many readers will believe that she ever entertained any reservations on the matter. Yet: "Nowhere does the text intimate that either of the women 'loved' their husbands" (p. 152). One can believe this of Brünhild, but Kriemhild? Joachim Bumke's declaration that, in this medieval society, there was "no place for love" notwithstanding, does it not go too far to suggest that archetypal romantic love at no times manifested itself in the early thirteenth century anywhere other than in the literary milieu? Readers are given cause to wonder if, for decades, they have totally misread, or misinterpreted, much of medieval literature. For example: "The thirteenth century certainly knew of personal affection in marriage, but the notion of star- struck, gut-wrenching love that has developed in the last several centuries in Europe and (some of) its colonies is nowhere documented, certainly not in the literature of courtly love..." (p. 133). While it is certainly true that elaborate game-playing was part of the apparatus of courtly love as we find it manifested in much of the lyric poetry of the High Middle Ages, where does this leave Gottfried's Tristan? If not understood as such, the archetype of romantic love was undoubtedly as much in evidence in the Middle Ages as it is in our own time.

In the matter of Brünhild and her "repudiation of patriarchal marriage" (p. 154), it is certainly possible to contend that the tests established by the woman were meant less to challenge second-rate "kidnapper-rapists" than to determine who, in fact, is capable of affording the Icelandic queen the stature and protection she expects -- as a married woman. After all, Brünhild does play by the rules she has established, and is there really any question that, had Siegfried defeated her as Siegfried, she would have willingly -- even joyfully -- entered into the union? This is, as Frakes points out in fn. 36 (p. 154), the "conventional scholarly evaluation," and I believe it is the correct one. This does not, however, lessen the gravity of the deception practiced by Siegfried and the Burgundians in their wooing of Brünhild, on the contrary, it escalates it.

There is some perhaps unintentional humor to be found in the author's discussion of "possible puns" (p. 121) in the "combat" scene in Brünhild's bedroom when she is "tamed" by Siegfried, as, for example, when Frakes suggests that Brünhild wished to tie up her assailant because she wanted to have "peace" and "a piece" in bed (gemach/gemaht). In this regard, many readers will undoubtedly concur with Frakes himself that, "[i]n the end ... some or all of these alleged puns are figments of a runaway twentieth-century imagination" (p. 122).

There is a tendency on the part of the author to present facts of medieval life and society as though they were being discovered for the first time. "The fact that no one (including Kriemhild) seemed particularly alarmed about this instance of battering indicates both that this behavior has been legitimized by patriarchal society, and that Kriemhild had accepted that legitimacy..." (p. 132). Wife-beating was not an uncommon occurrence in the Middle Ages, as it has continued to be into our own time; then, however, it was tolerated, sanctioned by society and its lay and sectarian leaders, and we have known that for some time. (Less known is the frequency of husband-beating, which does not appear to have been as rare as one might assume, and even Brünhild's treatment of Gunther, it could be argued, fits into this category.)

If there is a major weakness in this book, it lies not so much in Frakes' political interpretation of the texts, even if one often may not agree with the particular understanding he has of a specific section (as in the case of Nibelungenlied 1394 (see p. 158) which I take in the sense of the devil abetting Kriemhild's deceit in feigning friendship when she takes her leave of the Burgundians). It lies in Frakes' tendency to see certain outrages perpetrated against women and commoners (in medieval society as well as its fiction) solely as socio-political constructs. This is a reductionist view which hardly does justice to the multifaceted attraction of the texts. I would concur with Frakes that such behavioral patterns and attitudes are often enough reinforced -- regrettably -- by societal norms, but I think we are also dealing with a much more basic and, perhaps, archetypal phenomenon. Such reductionism can lead to misinterpretation as does, in my opinion, the suggestion on p. 246 (fn. 47) in his discussion of Kudrun, that the use of kint in Middle High German to designate females, "whether adult, adolescent or otherwise," is tantamount to participation "in the typical patriarchal tradition of trivializing -- by infantilizing -- women and their actions." This statement conveniently ignores the fact that the same appellative is used to depict Giselher well on into the second half of the Nibelungenlied (2191,1b) and at a point where his actions are neither trivial nor infantile. At another juncture, Frakes declares that Gerlind is "hardly the villain that the text pretends and patriarchal scholarship has elaborated" (p. 262, my emphasis). He continues: "She commits no murder, no kidnapping, no rape, no invasion, no theft, and at no point counsels anyone to perform such acts" (p. 262). One can argue about her complicity in the abduction of Kudrun, but the latter part of Frakes' statement is simply incorrect. The Norman queen does, in fact, offer a "groze miete" to anyone who will slaughter Kudrun "mit allem ir ingesinde" (1471,3-4).

Frakes takes a non-idealistic view of the figure Kudrun and his stance on the conclusion to the epic of the same name is decidedly cynical. Certainly as an interpreter, one is free to approach the work and its characters from a variety of perspectives, but this reviewer was left unconvinced that the inconsistencies and incongruities in the depiction of the main character of Kudrun in any way detracted from the major theme of reconciliation or the role assumed by Kudrun in affecting it. Frakes looks beyond Kudrun to what will come after the plot has run out, to the "inevitable cycle of recurring chaos" (p. 253). One could approach the Nibelungenlied in a similar fashion, look beyond the catastrophic conclusion of that work and suggest that the "inevitable cycle" will soon restore (at least apparent) harmony (which, in turn, will again lead into chaos....), but what is the point of such projecting? Insofar as the epic Kudrun is concerned, the final note of the text itself is positive and there is no need to look further, even if one knows that a new epic could begin the cycle of joy-sorrow all over again, as is the case with German romance. The Klage poet did precisely that with respect to the Nibelungenlied, clearly unhappy at the prospect of no sense of continuity whatsoever. Apparently, there was no need for a contemporary "commentary" on the outcome of Kudrun.

It is unlikely that the Nibelungenlied will ever been seen simply as "an exploration of the terms of [women's] socially imposed conventional dependence" or that Kudrun "must be regarded as a response to that analysis" (p. 261). There is no reason why scholars should feel compelled to approach the epics from such a limited standpoint. This is not to say that socio-political considerations are to be ignored, only that they are to be relativized. Overemphasis of any perspective can so easily lead to the impression, as one colleague stated some years ago in another context, of "eine Theorie auf der Suche nach einem Text."

We can maintain that the Nibelungenlied, Klage, and Kudrun are, among other things, concerned with the interactions between powerful individuals in an aristocratic, highly stratified society, and that male-female relationships constitute a major aspect of such concern. Clearly, in the matter of human relationships, socio-political factors are only one element of the picture.

Frakes had referred early on to his "skeptical, cynical, and anti-traditional mind" (p. 44). One cannot help wonder how long it will be before his own approach to medieval epic is seen as rather "traditional." Perhaps more than anything else, this book could prompt a reader to consider whether terms such as "traditional," "conservative," and, above all, "cutting edge" are not actually meaningless when it comes to viewing the literary text. Approaches to literary works only too often have more of the fad than anything else to them. Witness the rush by scholars to jump aboard the bandwagon that happens to being going by at any particular time, whether it is decked out with the banners of New Criticism, Structuralism, New Historicism, Post-Structuralism, or Deconstruction (which, as John Ellis has so aptly demonstrated, purports to be innovative but is actually resistant to change, and, in its worst forms, is intolerant of diversity).

A final note: controversial theses regarding literary criticism, history, and theory deserve a forum in a liberal academic community. It is disturbing, however, when, in the presentation of such theses, one feels obliged to resort to collective or individual argumenta ad hominem, as on p. 252 of the present book when, in a footnote, Frakes refers to "Werner Hoffmann's final abdication of his role as a literary scholar." It is remarks such as this which will prompt many (who know and respect Werner Hoffmann's contributions to Nibelungenlied and Kudrun scholarship) to refrain from taking Brides and Doom seriously. Some traditions are worthy of emulation, and there is much wisdom in the old German saying: "Der Ton macht die Musik."