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Literary Genres and the Ludwigslied

This is part 3 in the series about the Ludwigslied. Part 1 is the introduction, part 2 is about the manuscript.

Perhaps you are expecting more historical context at this point. About the Ludwigslied I mean. And I agree, there is much more to figure out in that regard. Yet, to understand the situation at Louis III’s court, first, it’s necessary to learn more about the poem.

The Rise of Medieval Literary Genres

Part 2 raises the question of how and which languages emerge in the Rhineland area, or shall we say, Lotharingia. The answer is clear cut. There’s a lot of mixing and mingling. The scribe seems the perfect culmination of this, being able to write in both Old French and Old High German. Can the literary genres provide a further clue to his origins or the place where he wrote the poem?

First, though, a little reversed chronology. To which literary tradition does the Ludwigslied belong? We do not know for the Middle Ages. We know for the nineteenth century. The German scholars are the first to prepare an edition and they firmly place the poem in the German(ic) literary tradition, because of its language and genre of the heilsgeschichte (more on this later). Decades later, other scholars from the French- and English-speaking world take another look at the poem. And find it fits the French tradition and the German one.

The Poem

A Summary

Two English translations are easily accessible online. One by Jake Coen on the Medieval Studies Research Blog of the University of Notre Dame and one by Hannah Frakes on the Global Medieval Sourcebook at Stanford University. All you need from me here is a summary:

The author describes Louis III’s life from the loss of his father at a young age and sharing the throne with his brother Carloman. The scene then moves to the battle, the test of God who sends the heathens (Vikings) to remind the Franks of their sinful ways. A brief dialogue between God and Louis is followed by Louis motivating his army and how he will reward them and in their death, he will reward their kin. He leads into battle singing Kyrie Eleison and is victorious.

Alliterative Verse

Now for the poem itself. There are 59 lines in total and the lines are in alliterative verse:1

L1Einan kuning uueiz ihHeiszit her hluduig
I know a king Ludwig is his name
L2Ther gerno gode thionot Ih uueiz her imos lonot
Who gladly serves God I know it was worthwhile for him.

I’ve inserted a lot of space to show the alliteration in the short verses. The scribe has written these down as lengthy sentences, though. To mark the (end) alliteration, he starts the second part with a capital letter. Depending on the width of the line, he also inserts space to distinguish between them. In places, he also uses indentation to start a fresh line. Here’s a sample of the original text to show you what I mean:

Screenshot, Ludwigslied Mss 150 (Source: BnF).

This kind of verse is common in early medieval literature. A fine example is the gospel by Otfrid written in the ninth century. He writes his Evangelienbuch in Rhine Franconian at the abbey of Weissenburg. And even includes pointers for the oral transmission of the text.2 Here are two lines of his verses:

Lúdowig ther snéllo,  thes wísduames fóllo
er óstarrichi ríhtit ál, so Fránkono kúning scal3

Otfrid of Weissenburg

There is more to be said about Otfrid of Weissenburg. Though a ‘mere’ monk, he spends time at the East Frankish court of Louis the German to whom his Evangelienbuch is dedicated. Afterwards, he teaches at the abbey and writes his magnum opus there. One particularly intriguing aspect of the gospel is the introduction in which he explains why he writes it in the vernacular and not in Latin.4

First, because Rhenish Franconian is not a language as sophisticated as Latin. Yet, he also sees room for improvement and his duty to help to improve it. Second, the state of poetry in the Frankish language does not impress him:5

Now many men undertake to write in their language and endeavour to advance and exalt the deeds of their people. Why should the Franks alone avoid this and not set out to sing God’s praises in Frankish? This language has not yet been sung in this way, with metrical rules enforced; even though it follows those rules with beautiful simplicity.6

Otfrid goes a step further and pits the East Frankish situation against the West Frankish one. You may guess which one turns out more favourable. It has one scholar wondering what political implication his text in the vernacular may have had for its time.7

The Ludwigslied is written a decade after Otfrid dies. Could his writings from the Germanic tradition have influenced the scribe? Ruth Harvey states there are few similarities between Otfrid and the Ludwigslied. In places where the same wording is used, the scribe uses a figurative meaning where Otfrid uses a literal meaning.8 Which does not make clear evidence that he was influenced by Otfrid at all. And the use of alliterative verse was common anyway.

Literary Genres

So, to which literary genre(s) does the poem belong?

Epic Poem

The Ludwigslied ceratinly belongs to the oldest literary genres around: the epic poem.

Epic – A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation.

A famous example is, without a doubt, the Beowulf. More similar to the Ludwigslied are the battle songs Battle of Maldon and the Hildebrandslied. Both poems describe a single event with a heroic figure. Which brings us to a subgenre of the epos, the lay:

Lay – A short lyric or narrative poem meant to be sung.

The most famous lays are those of Marie de France. The romantic “Oh! How I love her and now I have to behave myself to be worthy of her love” as opposed to the battle songs’ “let’s kill the heathens and celebrate” type of song. The latter are about meeting the enemy in battle, about motivations and incentives for the armies to fight, and descriptions of the fight with literary metaphors and analogies. Maldon and Hildebrandslied are outstanding examples in this sense.9 But this is also where the Ludwigslied falls short. The Northmen are one-dimensional. And there are no descriptions of fights or battle tactics. Even the Annals of St-Vaast and Annals of St-Bertin are more descriptive in the strategy and pillaging of the Vikings than the poem is.10

Vikings as a Literary Tool

Of course, there is only so much you can tell in 59 lines. And the scribe comprehensively brings the story together. But is it likely the scribe was at the battle? Or in contact with those who suffered at the hands of the Northmen? The monks were usually keen to mention the suffering at the hands of the Vikings in their chronicles.11 But for all the chances to underline this element, the scribe uses the Northmen as a literary tool. A test of God. That is why it’s difficult to read the Ludwigslied as just an epic poem. Let alone a historiographical reflection of one battle. Simply because the strongest element of such a song is underexposed in every way.


What, then, does the Ludwigslied reflect, if not mainly the battle? As said, the scribe uses the enemy a literary tool to enhance a moral element, the test of God. For this, he uses aspects of the genre of the heilsgeschichte.

an interpretation of history emphasizing God’s saving acts and viewing Jesus Christ as central in redemption.

Merriam Webster

Literally, it means ‘a history of salvation’. And it is distinctly linked to the Scripture. The first to use the term is Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann in the nineteenth century. As you may have guessed, he is a theologian. He describes it as that it “constitutes the comprehensive category within which human history (or “world history”) is contained and through which God himself brings his purposes to pass.”12

The medieval scribes are monks educated in theology and who are expected to take a theological approach to the texts they create. They are comfortable with Scripture and literary genres. The scribe of the Ludwigslied is, too. In the poem, God shows his purpose for humans. Louis III passes the test set for him by God. Thus, not just the Vikings, but the entire battle is reduced to a literary element. This element is much stronger than, for example, in Maldon or Hildebrandslied. Besides, those battle songs have dramatic endings. In the Ludwigslied the hero is victorious and stays alive.

In a recent study of the poem, the use of the heilsgeschichte is seen as a way to legitimise Louis III’s rule that is threatened not only by nobles but also the clergy.13 But more on this in next week’s part. And in short, not the battle, but the king’s relation to God is the crux.

Chanson de Geste

Apart from the language, there is another excellent reason why the Ludwigslied has sooner been considered part of the Germanic tradition rather than the Old French. Because there are no known Old French texts before the 842. The Oaths of Strasbourg contains the oldest French lines we know, and they are not literary. The next text is the Sequence of Eulalie, the hagiography from the same scribe as the Ludwigslied around the late 870s (see part 2).

The literary genres of Old French are emerging during this time. This scribe perhaps plays a pivotal role in the development of the French vernacular literature. Because further reading in the scholarly literature reveals something astonishing. The Ludwigslied could well be the precursor of the famous chanson de geste. These songs of deeds are renowned Old French epic poems that had their heydey from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. (After that, the knightly (or chivalric) romances take over.)

The characteristics of the chansons do not seem to agree, though. Whilst they are also narrative poems meant for singing, their technical specifics do not fully fit the Ludwigslied: with “lines of 10–12 syllables grouped into laisses (irregular stanzas) based on assonance or, later, rhyme.” Most chansons relate to heroes during the days of Charlemagne. They glorify the emperor and his empire. Such as… the Chanson de Roland about the battle at Roncevaux with his general Roland. Who, unfortunately, dies.14 Louis does not. The whole idea of the chansons is that Charlemagne is not the hero, he is the champion of Christendom in the background. This is not the case in the Ludwigslied. Here, it is the Christian king who vanquishes the heathens and completes God’s task.15

Gormont et Isembart

The Ludwigslied is not a chanson de geste. But scholars recognise early characteristics. Especially when compared to a ‘real’ chanson de geste: Gormont et Isembart (composed before 1150). The events it describes lead up to a battle that resembles Saucourt. Here is its summary: There is a young French lord Isembart who joins the Saracen army of Gormont in England (!) and together they attack the French army of his uncle Louis. In the end, Isembart dies shortly after taking Christianity as his faith again.16

Jan de Vries states in 1959 in this poem that the Vikings are replaced by the Saracens. He traces the events related to Saucourt by the place names such as the abbey of Saint-Riquier and Cirencester. Furthermore, he sees the name ‘Gormont’ as a variation of the Viking leader Guthrum. He is convinced this is the Guthrum who retires at Cirencester in 879 after his defeat by Alfred the Great. The Vita Alfredi seems to underline the sequence of events how the army then moves to Francia where it burns the abbey of Saint-Riquier before facing defeat at Saucourt.17

Whilst perhaps not a chanson de geste, there are elements of heroism and God in the Ludwigslied. And if Gormont and Isembart can indeed be seen as a late version of the battle of Saucourt, then the Ludwigslied can be seen as a predecessor of the literary genre of the chansons de geste 18

Another Preliminary Set of Conclusions

If anything, this article shows how much interconnection there is. As Ruth Harvey said, in the Ludwigslied both old and new seem to merge. It borrows elements from existing languages and literatures such as the epos and heilsgeschichte. At the same time, it serves as an inspiration for later genres such as the chansons de geste.19 Is it really the literary innovation that transcends language, geography, and politics?

Hang on in there for the next part.


  1. See either Jake Coen or Hannah Frakes.  ↩
  2. Anna Grotans, Reading in Medieval St. Gall. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 22–23.  ↩
  3. Otfrid of Weissenburg,’ Wikipedia. Published 24 January 2006. Last Accessed 22 March 2020.  ↩
  4. Elizabeth Dearnley, Translators and Their Prologues in Medieval England. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2016), pp. 41–43.  ↩
  5. Parshia Lee–Stecum, ‘Otherwise the Same: Latin Models of Poetic Self–Representation in the Evangelienbuch of Otfrid (I. 1.1–126),’ in: Germanic Texts and Latin Models Medieval Reconstructions. Edited by K.E. Olsen, A. Harbus and T. Hofstra. (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), pp. 94, 99 [pp. 93–106]. Anna Grotans, Reading in Medieval St. Gall. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 22.  ↩
  6. Lee–Stecum (2001), pp. 99.  ↩
  7. Lee–Stecum (2001), pp. 103.  ↩
  8. Ruth Harvey, “The Provenance of the Old High German ”Ludwigslied”,’ in: Medium Ævum Volume 14 (1945), pp. 8–10 [pp. 1–20].  ↩
  9. Dennis H. Green, ‘The “Ludwigslied” and the Battle of Saucourt.’ In: The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Edited by Judith Jesch. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002), pp. 295 [pp. 281–302].  ↩
  10. The Annals of Saint–Bertin. Translated and annotated by Janet L. Nelson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991) pp. 222. Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Annales Vedastini (De Annalen van Sint–Vaast),’ Gjallar. Last Accessed 17 January 2020.  ↩
  11. Viking robbery of churches and monasteries,’ National Museum of Copenhagen. Last Accessed 22 March 2020.  ↩
  12. Darian Lockett, ‘Limitations of a Purely Salvation–historical Approach to Biblical Theology.’ In: Horizons in Biblical Theology Volume 39.2 (2017), pp. 211 [pp. 211–231].  ↩
  13. Green (2002), pp. 290.  ↩
  14. The Song of Roland,’ Translate by John O’Hagan. Medieval Sourcebook | Fordham University Last Accessed 22 March 2020.  ↩
  15. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Chanson de geste,’ Encyclopædia Britannica. Published 10 February 2007. Last Accessed 08 February 2020.  ↩
  16. Michael A. Newth, ‘Introduction,’ in: Heroes of the French Epic: A Selection of Chansons de Geste. Translated by Michael A. Newth. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005), pp. 3–5.  ↩
  17. Jan de Vries, ‘Le chanson de Gormont et Isembart,’ in: Romania (1959), pp. 34–62. Michael A. Newth (2005), pp. 3, 8.  ↩
  18. Green (2002), pp. 295.  ↩
  19. Harvey (1945), pp. 8.  ↩

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