Waltharius the GOTH
Waltharius and Waldere: Historical Background

 

From our period, narratives regarding the Aquitanian warrior Waltharius or Waldere survive only in two Old English fragments (known as Waldere I and II), both pieces of dialogue, and in the Latin poem known as Waltharius. The Old English text is written on two pieces of parchment that cannot be connected in any way with any other extant codices, and dates from between 950 and 1050 (Zettersten, ed. 1979, 6–11). Apart from one tenth-century manuscript, the extant witnesses for the Latin text date from the eleventh century and afterward; the poem is thought to have been composed sometime between c. 800 and c.1000.3

Nothing is known about the author of the Waldere; what little we can claim truly to know about the author of Waltharius derives from the text’s preface, which, however might be a later addition. According to this preface, the poem was composed by a certain Geraldus for a bishop Erckambald; neither can be identified.4 The other possibility is that it was written by Ekkehard I of St Gall (died 973), who is said, in the Casus Sancti Galli composed by his namesake Ekkehard IV, to have written a vita Waltharii manu fortis (Haefele, ed. and trans. 2002, c. 80); some scholars identify this work with Waltharius. Waltharius is composed in elegant Latin hexameters, clearly deeply influenced by Virgil and Prudentius (cf. below, n. 27), and it belongs without doubt to a learned and monastic context.

After the preface and a geographical and ethnographical introduction (1–10), we are given the story of how Attila, king of the Huns, moves against the nations of Europe. In the following hundred lines (11–115), we are told how the kings of the Franks, Burgundians and Aquitanians make peace by providing hostages in the form of the Burgundian princess Hiltgunt and the Aquitanian prince Waltharius; the Frankish prince Guntharius is of too tender an age to be without his mother (29–30), and Hagano, a young nobleman specifically said to be of Trojan extraction, is sent in his stead (28–29; note that the epithet Trojan isnever used of anyone from the Frankish royal family). The hostages are treated well and educated at Attila’s court, but after some years, the Frankish king Gibicho dies, and Guntharius breaks the peace treaty with the Huns; Hagano flees the Hunnish court in consequence, and makes his way back to the Frankish kingdom (116–20). There is no reprisal of any sort; one might assume that Hunnic power was waning, though no such weakening is explicitly mentioned, and in fact we are shortly told of the Huns’ continued ferocity in battle (174–214)––though under the command now of Waltharius, not Attila.
We are given a fairly lengthy description of Waltharius’s prowess as a warrior and leader of men (174–214) when he leads the Huns into battle against a certain recently conquered (but unnamed) people that now resisted the Huns and frequently waged war against them (170–73); since we learn later that the current Frankish king, Guntharius, had never seen Waltharius in battle (620), it is apparent that this could not have been the Franks, and given that we have heard of the Franks’ revolt only some 60 lines previously, this episode seems to be deliberate irony on the part of the poet. Although the Huns under Waltharius win what appears to be a famous triumph (cf. 209–13), there is no celebration on their return. Waltharius goes alone to the royal quarters and finds Hiltgunt there; they confess their love for each other and make a plan to steal some treasure, dupe the Huns, and escape from Pannonia (221–86). As planned with Hiltgunt, Waltharius arranges a party for the court, at which he contrives to get all the Huns too drunk to move; Hiltgunt, in the meantime, manages to fill two chests with treasures, and as the Huns are sleeping off their booze, the betrothed couple steals off into the night (288–357). We have to wonder just how tongue-in- cheek the remarks about the fierce Huns and their thousand-year rule were (6–10) when we read the following passages, describing Attila’s hangover (362–64), helplessness and inactivity (380–99), and the Huns’ refusal to pursue a single runaway hostage (408–18).
Waltharius and Hiltgunt make their way unmolested, travelling by night, with Waltharius refraining from enjoying carnal relations with his betrothed (419–27). They eventually reach the borders of the Frankish kingdom, and when this is made known at the Frankish court, Hagano recognises Waltharius from the way he is described, and is delighted that his old companion has escaped (464–68). Guntharius is delighted too, but for a different reason: he wants to get his hands on the treasure Waltharius bears, claiming that it is what was taken (by Attila) from his father, and thus rightfully belongs to him (469–72). Although Hagano advises against it (478–79; 487–88), the Franks get ready to fight Waltharius and take his treasure from him.
There follows an extended description of a series of battles between Waltharius and several Frankish warriors: Guntharius first sends his men to demand both Waltharius’s treasures and Hiltgunt,5 and when this is refused, one after another, the Franks approach Waltharius, exchange insults, fight, and are finally defeated.6 By the time we have finished with two-thirds of the text, all of Guntharius’s warriors are dead except for Hagano; the last third is devoted to the dialogue between Guntharius and Hagano as the king tries to persuade Hagano to fight, and to the battle between them and Waltharius and its aftermath. The last fight is described in rather more detail than the ones that preceded it.7 It is notable, though, that Guntharius––who was too tender to be sent away from his mother as hostage––is utterly ineffective as a warrior: his lance-throw is easily shaken off by Waltharius, and the king, who wanted to seize Waltharius’s treasure, is shown in a rather comic moment trying to creep up to Waltharius under cover of a diversion created by Hagano to recover his own lance––an operation he is unable to carry out. In fact, he is narrowly saved from death at Waltharius’s hand by Hagano’s intervention, and is scarcely fit to stand, shaking in shock (1313–32).
The battle ends in a most unusual manner, with no resolution and rather an anticlimax. Waltharius lops off Guntharius’s lower leg, knee included (1363–64); as the king collapses, Hagano comes to protect him from the death-blow, placing himself between Waltharius’s sword and Guntharius (1365–70). Waltharius is, we are told, unable to stop his hand, which is already extended to strike Guntharius (1371: Extensam cohibere manum non quiverat heros)––but his sword only strikes Hagano’s helmet, and breaks on impact (1372–75). Waltharius is so enraged by this that he throws away even the hilt of his sword, and such is his fury that he extends his arm too far out of the safety of his shield when tossing his hilt away, and Hagano chops off his hand (1376– 82). Waltharius, undaunted, sticks the stub of his right arm into his shield and with his left hand pulls out his short sword and slices off the right side of Hagano’s face, eye and molars included (1386–95). Tali negotio dirimuntur proelia facto (1396: ‘With all this having been done, the battle ended’). The hand, the eye and the foot lie on the ground staring up at the warriors: Sic, sic armillas partiti sunt Avarenses! (1404: ‘Thus were the arm-rings of the Avars distributed!’).Waltharius calls out to Hiltgunt to come and bind their wounds (1407–08), and when this is done, he asks her to serve the wine: first to Hagano, who is a good warrior, then to himself, who had to endure more than the others (1412: reliquis qui plus toleravi), and finally to Guntharius, who is a useless warrior (1410–1415). As the alcohol gets to them, Hagano and Waltharius indulge in a bit of light-hearted banter about their newly altered physical states (1421–42), and then they renew their bond (1443: His dictis pactum renovant), lift up the still incapable and suffering Guntharius on his shield, set him on his horse, and go off, each on their own way, the Franks to Worms, and Waltharius to Aquitaine (1443–46). Waltharius and Hiltgunt marry, and after the death of his father, Waltharius rules his people for thirty years (1447–50).

The Old English Waldere fragments are clearly about the same story; although some differences are discernible even from the few lines we have, there is too little evidence to make much of a judgement about the thrust of the narrative or its function. Fragment I consists almost in its entirety (31 lines) of a speech (only the first half-line is not a part of this speech) encouraging the (leading-) warrior of Attila (6a: Ætlan ordwyȢa),8 the son of Ælfhere (11) not to lose heart and to fight against Ɨuðhere (named at 25), ðæs ðe he ðas beaduwe onȢan / mid unryhte ærest secan (26b–27: ‘because he first began to seek strife without right’).9 We are told that Forsoc he ðam swurde ond ðam syncfatum, / beaȢa mæniȢo (28–29a: ‘he [Ɨuðhere] forsook the sword and the treasures, many rings’), and will therefore have to lose the battle and seek a lord, or die (30–31). Ælfhere’s son, it is reasonably supposed, must be an equivalent to Waltharius; he is also the leading warrior of Attila, as in the Latin poem, and fights against Ɨuðhere, cognate with Guntharius, who has refused his offer of treasures. The speaker in fragment I must be Hiltgunt, assuming that the narrative framework is the same as in the Latin poem. We should note that regardless of what the rest of the lost Old English poem must have been like, from this speech alone Hiltgunt can be seen to have had a larger role than in the Latin text.10 While I am not sure this amounts to taking over the role of a senior member of a comitatus (Schwab 1979, 245), it certainly gives her far more prominence than in the Latin text, though the reason for her long speech––that, ultimately, if she cannot successfully get Waltharius to fight and win, she herself is lost to the enemy–– exists in Waltharius too.
Fragment II is rather more confusing, and more allusive to a wider world of legend. There are references to Ðeodric, Widia (4b), Niðhad (8b), and Weland (9a; he is also referred to in I, 2a), all known from other vernacular narratives in the Germanic languages; a reference to Weland occurs also in Waltharius (965).11 It begins with a speech by someone who is obviously opposed to Waldere, and this is followed by Waldere’s own rejoinder, in which he mentions that his interlocutor, the lord or friend of the Burgundians (14: wine BurȢenda12 ) thought that Hagen would have managed to end the battle. Putting the two fragments together makes it all the more apparent that we are dealing with the same story as in the Latin; the Old English version even has the format of abusive speech between warriors before they fight.13 As in the Latin text, there are allusions both to the mythological figure of Weland the smith, who was a character only of Germanic mythology, and to the legend of the Burgundian kings; Guntharius is here—as in the fifth-century chronicles, Paul’s Romana, and all later vernacular legends—Burgundian, not Frankish as in Waltharius. Unlike in the Latin text, Ðeodric is also mentioned; he is most likely connected to the Ostrogothic king Theoderic of Italy, whom we have already encountered in the context of the sixth-century Latin Fredegar chronicle, and who crops up again in three other extant shorter vernacular heroic poems from this period. At present, we need to note only that this brief fragment, like Beowulf, Deor (which also refers to the Weland legend) and Widsith, evokes a wider world of past kings, unrelated to each other, all of whom––whatever their afterlife might have been in the Christian conception––manifestly enjoyed quite a Nachleben in narrative form.The most important way in which the Walter legend is connected with both historical fact and vernacular legendary traditions is in the naming of the historical kings Gibicho and Guntharius, and the fact that they are located along the Rhine and have some conflict with the Huns. It is crucial, though, that these kings are Franks in Waltharius; there is no record of any Frankish king called Gibicho or Guntharius.14
There were, however, historical kings of the Burgundians with similar names in the fifth century, who are commemorated in the Burgundian law code of the early sixth century.15 Walthariusis the only text that designates these kings as Frankish; in the Waldere fragments, Waltharius’s interlocutor is a Burgundian (II,14), and this is also true of all the (later) vernacular narratives that treat of these kings, as well as Paul the Deacon’s Romana, in which—unlike the fifth-century reports, but like all the later vernacular versions—Guntharius dies fighting Attila (Droysen, ed. 1879, XIV,5). In fact, Guntharius’s encounter with the Huns took place c. 436, when Attila was not yet reigning over the Huns; the chronological confusion is first evident in Paul’s text. Attila’s campaign through western Europe is recorded most memorably and fully in Jordanes’s Getica; both he and Gregory of Tours inform us that the Visigoths—then ruling in Aquitaine—and the Franks fought the Huns under Attila in 451, and Jordanes also has Burgundians in his list of Roman allies fighting the Huns (Get. 185–218 for the battle; Franks and Burgundians at 191; Hist. II,7).16 There was no independent Burgundian kingdom by the middle of the sixth century, long before the Waltharius was written, but Burgundy remained a more or less self-conscious unit within Francia.17 Vernacular texts from the thirteenth century in Old Norse and Middle High German (the Norse Edda and VNjlsungasaga and the German Nibelungenlied) provide us with a narrative of the fall of the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine at the hands of Attila the Hun, and it seems likely that some sort of narratives concerning these kings––as kings of the Burgundians––were known during the Carolingian period in those parts of Francia where a Germanic vernacular was spoken (Ghosh 2007). The author of Waltharius and any members of his audience sharing the same level of Latin education (and probably most other members of the audience as well) would have known that Gibicho and Guntharius had not been Frankish kings; they would also quite possibly have known the legend of the fall of the Burgundians under Guntharius, in which he dies in an encounter with Attila. The fact that Burgundian kings are Franks in Waltharius might have something to do with the absorption of the historical kingdom of Burgundy into the Frankish empire. What is equally possible, though, is that by the time the text was written, there had taken place sufficient melding between different groups as to make the differences between them in the past unclear, allowing for the conjoining of material concerning them in ways that did not represent historical fact.
Although very tenuous, there is nevertheless some relation between the basic premise of the Walter legend (conflict between Attila and his Huns and Franks, Burgundians and Aquitainians) and historical fact, and the names of some characters (Attila, Gibicho, Guntharius) are known both from historical record and later legendary tradition. The eponymous hero, however, is harder to place within any kind of historical context. There have been attempts to link him to the Visigothic king Vallia who ruled in Aquitaine for three years, but beyond the first element of the name, there is no discernible connection between Waltharius and Vallia, and it is far from certain that the latter is the historical antecedent of the former.18 Vallia’s successor Theoderic (not to be confused with the Ostrogothic Theoderic) ruled the Visigothic kingdom of Aquitaine for thirty years, and in fact took part -and died—in the battle against Attila.19 How any of this historical matter could have been transformed into the Walter legend as we have it is a question impossible to answer.

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Notes

3 Views on the dating of Waltharius diverge strongly; I believe my interpretation would be valid for either of the dates proposed, the early ninth or the late tenth century. The prominent early daters are Dronke (1977, 66–79;1984) and Önnerfors (1979; 1988; 1998); Jacobsen (2002) suggests a date before 915, but is not more specific. The prominent late daters are Langosch (1989–90) and Schaller (1983; 1989–90).

 

4 The preface is only in four manuscripts (Strecker, ed. 1951, 12); that it was a part of the poem and written by the author is doubted because of Ekkehard IV’s testimony in his Casus Sancti Galli (composed in the mid-
eleventh century). Cf. the works cited above (n. 3) for discussion regarding the value of Ekkehard’s statement.

5 It is apparent that Guntharius wants not just the material goods (treasure and horse) but also Hiltgunt (all three are demanded at 602 and 819; in addition, Hiltgunt appears confident that she is one of the prizes for the Franks: 542–46).

 

6 The motif of single combat is common to heroic epic in most languages, but also occurs in Prudentius, where the combat is between personified vices and virtues (cf. Strecker’s apparatus and Katscher 1973 on Prudentius; and Oakley 1985 on the historical incidences of single combat in ancient Rome).

7 Useful analyses of the last fight are given by Katscher (1973, 99–104), and Wolf (1976).

8 Cf. Waltharius 126-28, where Attila’s wife calls Waltharius the imperii columna […] in quo magna potestatis vis extitit huius (‘the pillar of the empire [...], which contains the great strength of this power’); at 378 he is called lux Pannoniae (‘light of Pannonia’).

 

9 Note that in both versions the Guntharius figure seeks battle against what is right.
Old English poem must have been like, from this speech alone Hiltgunt can be seen to have had a larger role than in the Latin text.10 While I am not sure this amounts to taking over the role of a senior member of a comitatus (Schwab 1979, 245), it certainly gives her far more prominence than in the Latin text, though the reason for her long speech––that, ultimately, if she cannot successfully get Waltharius to fight and win, she herself is lost to the enemy–– exists in Waltharius too.
Fragment II is rather more confusing, and more allusive to a wider world of legend. There are references to Ðeodric, Widia (4b), Niðhad (8b), and Weland (9a; he is also referred to in I, 2a), all known from other vernacular narratives in the Germanic languages; a reference to Weland occurs also in Waltharius (965).11 It begins with a speech by someone who is obviously opposed to Waldere, and this is followed by Waldere’s own rejoinder, in which he mentions that his interlocutor, the lord or friend of the Burgundians (14: wine BurȢenda12) thought that Hagen would have managed to end the battle. Putting the two fragments together makes it all the more apparent that we are dealing with the same story as in the Latin; the Old English version even has the format of abusive speech between warriors before they fight.13 As in the Latin text, there are allusions both to the mythological figure of

10 Not also that the female figures of Guðrún/Kriemhild and Brynhild in the Norse and German versions of the Burgundian legend have very prominent roles indeed, and are far from passive figures, unlike Hiltgunt in Waltharius.

 

11 On Theoderic, see further chapter seven, pp. 223–29; on the other three, cf. the references at n. 36 below.

 

12 But cf. Atlaqviða (Neckel and Kuhn, eds 1983, 16, 3), where—if we follow the manuscript—the Huns are referred to as vinir Burgunda; this makes sense because in this version Atli is married to the sister of Gunnar.

 

13 This is a typical feature of much Germanic literature (including Beowulf), but is not restricted to works in the Germanic languages, and thus need not be seen as necessarily linking Waltharius to Germanic traditions. For comparative studies of flyting in a Germanic context, see Clover (1980); Harris (1979); for comparison with literature in other languages (especially the Homeric tradition), see Parks (1986; 1990). Highet lists 33 episodes of ‘taunts, threats, challenges’ in the Aeneid; as he points out, the Virgilian warriors’ verbal combats, although having the same function as in the Iliad, are of much shorter length (Highet 1972, 116–17; 318–19 [list of passages]). On flyting in the ancient Mediterranean, see also Glück (1964). According to Oakley (1985), single combat was in fact common in the Roman world, often taking place after a challenge, but he does not examine the issue of verbal combat further.

14 The first Guntharius in the Merovingian family is a son of Chlodomer, and is killed by his uncles (Hist. III,18; he is named at III,6). The other Guntharius is a son of Chlothar I, who dies while is father is still alive (Hist. IV,3).

 

15 Gundicharius is attested as a Burgundian king in sources of the mid-fifth century, which state that under him, the Burgundian kingdom is destroyed; one source (Prosper’s chronicle) specifies that they were wiped out by the Huns. The fifth- and early sixth-century sources are: Prosper’s chronicle (Mommsen, ed. 1892a, 1322); Hydatius’s chronicle (Burgess, ed. and trans. 1993, §§ 99; 102); the Gallic chronicles of 452 and 511 (Burgess, ed. and trans 2001a, s. a. 436; Burgess, ed. and trans. 2001b, s. a. 437/438). Gundicharius is commemorated as belonging to a line of Burgundian kings beginning with Gibica in the Lex Burgundionum (von Salis, ed. 1892, §
3). The sources are presented and discussed, with reference to their relationship with later legendary matter, in Ghosh (2007, 221–23); overviews of Burgundian history are given by Favrod (2002) and Kaiser (2004a); see also Wood (2003b); and for an archaeologically-oriented introduction, Escher (2006).

16 The Franks had also fought another people from Pannonia, the Avars, in the 560s, and more recently under Charlemagne. As we have seen, the Huns are called Avars in the Waltharius, and the late-ninth-century historical poem of Poeta Saxo refers to the Avars as Huns, stating that they had, under Attila, also fought against the Franks (von Winterfeld, ed. 1899, III,12–53). The identification of Avars as Huns was a very old one, occurring in Gregory: Hist. IV,23; IV,29. For the contemporary and later ninth-century historiography on Charlemagne’s Avar wars, see Collins (1998, 89–101).

17 On the place of Burgundy within the Merovingian and Carolingian kingdoms: Kaiser (2004a, 177–84); on changing forms of Burgundian identity after the collapse of the kingdom: Favrod (2002, 131–37); Kaiser(2004a, 184–200).

18 Cf. Murdoch (1996, 90), with further references on the supposed relationship between historical king and literary character; Murdoch appears to accept the identification.

 

19 Theoderic’s death: Get. 209; 204; the contemporary source is Hydatius (Burgess, ed. 1993, § 142). Given that the Walter legend is—in the Latin at least—about a warrior from Aquitaine, it might be possible that the Old English Ðeodric represents the Visigothic king of Aquitaine, Theoderic, who succeeded Vallia and did, in fact, rule for thirty years.

 

 
 
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