The Codex Manesse, also known as the Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, is the most important surviving resource of Middle High German literature. Compiled around 1300 in Zürich with addition until 1340, the manuscript contains almost 6000 courtly love lyrics and songs (Minnesang) enriched with 137 brilliantly colorful Gothic illuminations depicting aristocratic symbols and activities. Produced by and for an intellectual urban elite, the Codex Manesse is treasured as a unique artistic, literary, and social artifact of medieval Germany.
The result of a complex assembly process, the Codex Manesse is an anthology of the works of 140 poets, ordered by social status beginning with Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and moving down the ranks of nobility to professional poets and commoners. It transcribes poems from the middle of the twelfth century to the time of the compilation, with many texts and corpora added by 1340.
Portraits of Love and Status
The manuscript is most famous for its magnificent series of 137 full-page miniatures depicting poets, each included at the start of their respective poet’s corpus. Each illumination is an idealized representation of the author performing courtly activities appropriate to his social status or the content of his lyrics.
The core 110 illuminations were created by a single master distinguished by his use of vibrant colors and simple geometric borders of blue, red, and gold. The remainder of the miniatures, added until 1340, are attributed to three other illuminators.
A Collection of Writing
The text of the Codex Manesse is written in two columns in a formal Gothic bookhand. As many as eleven hands may be discerned, with the core 110 corpora having been written by a single scribe, but the ductus is remarkably uniform.
At the beginning of each corpus is a large fleuronné initial in red and blue that extends over several lines, and each stanza opens with a smaller initial that alternates between blue and red according to tonal change.
A Turbulent History
The codex was produced in Zürich for the wealthy Manesse family, likely at the initiative of Rüdiger II Manesse and his son Johannes. By the 1590s the Codex Manesse was still in Switzerland, in the collection of baron Johann Philip of Hohensax.
In 1607, after the Swiss humanist Melchior Goldast published excerpts from the codex in 1604, the Prince Elector Frederick IV took the manuscript to the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg.
The Codex Manesse did not stay long in Heidelberg, however: in 1622, during the Thirty Years’ War, it was taken by the fleeing family of Prince Elector Frederick V to The Hague; and in 1632 Elizabeth Stuart, the widow of Frederick V, auctioned it off. The manuscript was next identified in the library of Jacques Dupuy, who bequeathed it to the Bibliothèque royale in Paris in 1656.
Several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the return of the codex to Heidelberg were made until, in 1888, the bookseller Karl Ignaz Trübner arranged its exchange for a large number of precious manuscripts that had been stolen from Paris in the 1840s.
Returned to the University of Heidelberg Library in 1888, the Codex Manesse was taken to Erlangen and Nürnberg for safekeeping during the Second World War. Having sustained some damage in the course of its tumultuous history, the Codex Manesse is stored in an air-conditioned safe and is minimally exhibited.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Codex Manesse":
- Codex Manesse. Vier Miniaturen facsimile edition published by Insel Verlag, 1988
- Codex Manesse: die Grosse Heidelberger Liederhandschrift facsimile edition published by Insel Verlag, 1974-79
- Codex Manesse facsimile edition published by Insel Verlag, 1925-27