Hildebrandsleid - Northern European Literature
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stone carving of men fighting on foot and on horseback
Pictish battle (Aberlemno, Scotland, ca. 700 AD)

The story of Hildebrand is one of the earliest stories written in German. Nobody knows who wrote it or exactly when, but we think this version must have been composed about 700 AD. The earliest copy of it that we still have was written about 830 AD, probably in a monastery. The tragic story is set in a time around 500 AD.

The story begins with two warriors, a young man and an older man, facing each other on a battlefield, about to fight. The older man's name is Hildebrand. Their armies stand behind them, but the two men are going to fight alone (This was a common way of deciding battles without killing a whole bunch of men).

Hildebrand asks the younger man who he is, and the younger man says that his name is Hadubrant. Hadubrant says he can't tell much about his origins: he never knew his father. The old men told him that his father's name was Hildebrand, and that Hildebrand got in a fight with Odoacer, and fled to the east, where he worked for Dietrich (Theodoric the Ostrogoth). When Hildebrand fled, he left behind his wife and their little son, and he, Hadubrant, is that son. He thinks his father must be dead.

Hildebrand hears this story with a sinking heart. That's enough information for him to realize that Hadubrant must be his own son, now grown up. He himself, just as Hadubrant says, ran away from Odoacer, left his wife and his baby, and worked for Dietrich. Now that he has finally gotten to see his baby, he doesn't want to fight him!

Hildebrand tells Hadubrant that he's his father,and tries to get out of the fight. He offers to give Hadubrant some gold arm-rings that he got as a present from the King of the Huns (Attila), when he was working for Dietrich.

two men fighting; one stands on the other's head
Battle, ca. 800s AD (Boulogne-sur-Mer Bib. Mun. MS. 20)

But Hadubrant isn't convinced. He thinks his father is dead, and he's sure Hildebrant must be trying to trick him, or maybe he is afraid to fight. Anyway, Hadubrant says there's no way out of it, and Hildebrant sees that if he doesn't kill his son, then Hadubrant will kill him.

They start to fight, and both of their shields are smashed to bits. But that's where the story breaks off. We don't have the end of it, and nobody knows what would have happened. Wouldn't it be interesting to have everyone in your class write the end of the Hildebrand story, and see what you think would have happened? Or, if you are studying on your own, write an end for it yourself - what would you like to see as an ending?

(P.S. - Most modern scholars now think that the poem must have ended with Hildebrand killing Hadubrant. The story may be related to the Persian story of Sohrab and Rustem (since both the Persians and the Germans are descended from Indo-Europeans in Central Asia).)


Bibliography and further reading about Northern European literature:

More about medieval literature
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 28 March, 2017