A gem on parchment is stored in a Heidelberg safe: the Codex Manesse. It is guarded by Dr Karin Zimmermann, director of the historical collectionsof the library of Heidelberg University. Recognised by UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme the book comprises texts by Walther von der Vogelweide, among others. But what makes it so unique?

There are several sheep in here. Not just a few animals, but a few flocks. Dr Karin Zimmermann bends over a very large and very thick book and starts calculating. The Codex Manesse from the Middle Ages comprises 426 sheets. “You can only get two sheets of parchment from one sheepskin,” says the guardian of the collection of manuscripts at Heidelberg University thoughtfully. “This amounts to over 200 skins.”

With 426 sheets made of more than 200 sheepskins, the Codex Manesse is a real heavyweight (literally).

The effort for the manufacturing of the book must have been enormous when it was made some 700 years ago. Today, the Codex Manesse is not only the most famous and most valuable treasure in the library’s collection at Heidelberg University. It even plays in the same league as, for example, the Nebra Sky Disc or Goethe’s literary estate since UNESCO has included it in its Memory of the World programme. The insurance amount is 80 million euros. “But the actual value cannot be measured in figures,” says Karin. She should know, because she guards this gem.

Impressive: The conference room in the library of Heidelberg University.

The library of Heidelberg University is located in a very special building. It is more than 100 years old, with columns and spiral staircases, marble on the walls and mosaic floors. This is where the medievalist works. What a privilege! Six metre ceilings and walls with wood-panelling the conference room is particularly impressive. In the middle of the room there is a huge round table with 16 chairs and above it a simple but beautiful chandelier. The medieval expert has prepared something on the table, supported by two wedge cushions: a copy of the precious Codex Manesse. The book lies open at the page where Walther von der Vogelweide is depicted. He was the most famous of the Manesse poets. By far the most verses in the manuscript come from him. The portrait shows him sitting on a stone, just as he describes it in his well-known poem: “Ich saz ûf eime steine und dahte bein mit beine…” Karin translates a few of the Middle High German lines: “I sat on a stone, my legs crossed, my elbow propped up, my cheek nestled in my hand, and pondered for a long time how to live in this world.” It is a pretty topical text, actually. Walther von der Vogelweide was an unusually critical contemporary.

The Codex Manesse comprises texts by 140 poets. The songs were performed by Minnesingers at court or at festivals in the Middle Ages. However, the book does not provide sheet music. Among the poets are many aristocrats. Naturally, the volume begins with the greatest celebrity of that time: Emperor Henry VI. Yes, he wrote poetry too. Kings, dukes, counts and bourgeois professional poets like Walther von der Vogelweide follow. All of the authors are depicted in colourful miniatures—in an idealised way and in many cases together with coats of arms, horses, servants or the women that the songs talk about. Pictures and rhymes tell us how people lived and, above all, how they loved. The poets usually wrote about a purely platonic desire. After all, the women they adored were noble—and married. “You would think something like that should be completely taboo. But in poetry it was actually fashionable at that time,” Karin says. It even raised the prestige of these women. Some Minnesingers, however, wrote more sensual lyrics, hiding real sex behind metaphors. The falcon and the bent rose, for example, symbolize eroticism. And when a morning was sung about, this was actually about the night before.

We are expected not only to protect the document, but also to make it accessible to the public

Dr. Karin Zimmermann

Falcons, roses and other allusions are well visible in the pictures. Karin enjoys deciphering the subtleties. She can also discuss them with her husband, who is an art historian at the university library. Describing and analysing old writings is usually a complicated puzzle. Like a detective, she follows clues and pieces together fragments.

A copy of the Codex Manesse is on display in the manuscript reading room on the ground floor of the library of Heidelberg University.

Particularly difficult to reconstruct is the path the Codex Manesse took through the centuries, and there are still questions about it. It is known, however, that Rüdiger Manesse from Zurich and his son initiated the collection of the texts. That was from 1300 onwards. Manesse commissioned four painters for the illustrations and ten to twelve scribes. They put the verses on parchment in Gothic script. The original book then passed through various hands from Zurich. The scholar does not know all the stations either. But it is certain that after long negotiations, Elector Frederick IV succeeded in bringing the Manesse manuscript to Heidelberg in 1607. Frederick IV fled when the Catholic League under General Tilly conquered the city and carried the Manesse manuscript with him, having to leave the large Bibliotheca Palatina behind him though. Someone sold the rescued gem later, probably his widow. It ended up in Paris, in the royal library. The Codex Manesse returned to Heidelberg some 230 years later, thanks to the bookseller Karl-Ignatz Trübner. He arranged a multilateral exchange at the highest level. “It was very exciting and had been planned at a great effort,” says Karin. Trübner bought several valuable manuscripts from England in 1888 with money from the Emperor’s disposition fund and the approval of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. These were then given to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in exchange for the Codex Manesse. A win-win deal. With a lot of luck, the gem even survived the second world war. The US Army had found the book in a bunker near Nuremberg and handed it back to Heidelberg University in 1947.

Precious gems are stored on plain shelves in the cellar of the university library.

The precious piece now stands there well packed in a controlled-climate safe. Karin descends into the cellar. There are two large rooms with a number of plain shelves and metal cupboards, row upon row. The keeper of the old writings has prepared something here as well. It lies on a table, still covered. “No,” she regrets, it’s not the original Codex Manesse, which she is not allowed to show. It is too vulnerable. Small particles of colour easily pop off upon turning the pages. As compensation she presents the magnificent binding of the original instead. It is from the French period, made of dark red, finest Moroccan kidskin. Embossed on it in gold are the lilies and the crown of France.

The lilies and the crown of France are embossed in gold on the magnificent binding of the Codex Manesse.

Karin does consider presenting the original Codex Manesse again one day, just for a short time in a special exhibition. “That’s what UNESCO expects, too,” she says. “We are expected not only to protect the document, but also to make it accessible to the public.” After all, as she adds, it is a unique source of information about customs and traditions and about the art and love poetry of the Staufer period—an actual Memory of the World.

The content of the Codex Manesse is accessible in digital form, freely available and with the option to turn all pages and see all images at: https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/touch/cpg848/

A copy (facsimile) of the Codex Manesse is on display in the manuscript reading room on the ground floor of the library of Heidelberg University.


Tips for excursions and interesting stories about the Rhine-Neckar region can be found regularly in our newsletter.

And this is how it works: Enter your e-mail address in the field and click subscribe. You will then receive an automatically generated message to the e-mail address you entered, which you only need to confirm. Done!