Great Heidelberg Book of SongsCodex Manesse Admitted to UNESCO World Documentary Heritage

Press Release No. 58/2023
18 May 2023

“Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” is a historical testimony of extraordinary universal value

The Codex Manesse – a splendidly crafted collection of Middle High German songs and sayings in the stocks of the Heidelberg University Library – has been admitted to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme as world documentary heritage. The German Commission for UNESCO announced that on Thursday, 18 May 2023. The Codex – also known as the “Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” – is regarded as one of the world’s most famous books and can be accessed digitally worldwide. Alongside the elaborately crafted illustrations of medieval courtly life, a considerable part of what has remained preserved from German Minnesang is exclusively found in this large-format parchment manuscript. “That is what makes the Codex Manesse unique and of extraordinary universal value,” says library director Dr Veit Probst.

Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel, Rector of Heidelberg University, states: “The Heidelberg University Library has rich and highly renowned historical collections, with the Codex Manesse as its most precious item. Admission to world documentary heritage pays tribute to the significance of this unique testimony from the past”, adding that the digitisation of the “Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” enables any interested person to browse, page by page, through the centuries-old manuscript with its delicate drawings.

Codex Manesse: King Conrad the Younger

The main part of the Codex Manesse emerged around the year 1300 in Zurich – presumably at the behest of Rüdiger Manesse and his son Johannes, who wanted to collect Middle High German songs in all their variety of genre and form. Several more contributions were made to it until about 1340. The manuscript comprises 426 parchment sheets inscribed on both sides. They contain the texts of 140 poets in a total of approx. 6,000 verses. Over half the works are only extant here. Dr Probst: “Some of the authors in the Codex Manesse are only known from this volume. Without this manuscript, they and their work would be lost today.”

The opulent format of the Codex Manesse is of outstanding artistic quality. 137 coloured, full-page miniatures are placed before the texts; they show idealised portrayals of the poets engaged in courtly activities. “The illustrations had a worldwide influence on the image of the European Middle Ages and document the visual representation of this period,” emphasises Prof. Dr Bernd Schneidmüller, an expert for medieval history at Heidelberg University. The oldest texts date back to the mid-12th century. According to the historian, this makes the manuscript one of the key products of the literature and culture of the Hohenstaufen period.

The exact circumstances surrounding the origin of the Codex Manesse are unknown. It is documented that the manuscript was in the possession of the Heidelberg Electors from the early 17th century. Before the city of Heidelberg was conquered by Catholic League troops in 1622 it was presumably taken along by the princely family as they fled and, after the death of Elector Friedrich V in 1632, sold by his widow Elisabeth Stuart to meet her financial needs. From 1657 the manuscript was located in the Royal Library in Paris, the present-day Bibliothèque nationale de France. In 1888 it returned to Heidelberg in a complicated Franco-English-German exchange. Since then it has been in the Heidelberg University Library. For many years now, the Codex has been kept in an air-conditioned safe in the University Library and, for conservation reasons, it is only shown publicly on very rare occasions. Besides the digitised version accessible online, visitors can view an elaborately fashioned facsimile in the University Library.

The Memory of the World Programme was launched in 1992 with the goal of safeguarding documents of universal value and making them accessible to the public. The admission of the Codex Manesse was decided in Paris by the UNESCO Executive Board, the policy-making body of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, on 18 May 2023. Other world heritage documents in Germany include the Göttingen Gutenberg Bible, the Nebra Sky Disc and the literary estate of Goethe.