Murder in Medieval German Literature: Disruptions and Challenges of Society—Crime and Self-Determination in the Pre-modern World

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Medieval literature is filled with references to criminal acts, to evil characters, and so also to murder. This paper examines the complex of killing as depicted in four medieval texts, Herzog Ernst, the Nibelungenlied, Heinrich Kaufringer’s “Die unschuldige Mörderin,” and Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken’s Königin Sibille, attempting to discriminate between manslaughter, assassination, and murder. In each case, the act of murder is rationalized and explained through a different lens, depending on the literary context. As the analysis demonstrates, already pre-modern writers were fully aware of the rich discourse on law, for which murder constituted the most egregious case. Not every murder, however, is simply condemned because at times the perpetrator seeks justified revenge, at other times the killing is condoned, if not even approved, by the king himself in order to preserve the honor of the court. Kaufringer even goes so far as to present a case where multiple murders are explained as a form of self-defense according to God’s laws, whereas Elisabeth simplifies and vilifies the killing to an extreme once again.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2019



  • Assassination
  • Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken
  • Heinrich Kaufringer
  • Herzog Ernst
  • Murder
  • Nibelungenlied
  • Rape
  • Revenge
  • Self-defense

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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