The Codex Manesse, created in the 14th century and known for its 134 beautiful images, has been included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It’s one of 14 medieval documents that have been just added to this list of documentary heritage.
Also known as the “Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” – the Codex Manesse 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.
The Codex is currently kept in the Heidelberg University Library, which has made a digital version available. “The Heidelberg University Library has rich and highly renowned historical collections, with the Codex Manesse as its most precious item,” says Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel, Rector of Heidelberg University. “Admission to world documentary heritage pays tribute to the significance of this unique testimony from the past”, adding that the digitization 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.
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 genres and forms. 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.
The opulent format of the Codex Manesse is of outstanding artistic quality. 137 coloured, full-page miniatures are placed before the texts; they show idealized 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,” emphasizes Professor Bernd Schneidmüller, an expert in 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 digitized 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.
Among the other medieval inclusions just made to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register are:
The illuminated manuscripts of Charlemagne’s Court School – several different manuscripts which can now be found in libraries in Austria, France, Germany, Romania and the United Kingdom.
Documents on the history of the Hanse – different documents related to Hanseatic League, dating between the 12th and 17th centuries.
Mawlana’s Kulliyat – the works of Mawlana, a Sufi master from the 13th century.
The Four Treatises of Tibetan Medicine – compiled from 8th to the 12th centuries, it is the fundamental classic of traditional Tibetan medicine
Archives of the Republic of Dubrovnik – records dating between 1022 and 1808
Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers – created for Louis I of Anjou between 1375 and 1382, it is the largest narrative tapestry in the world.
Behaim Globe – the world’s earliest surviving terrestrial globe, a milestone in the history of cartography. The globe was commissioned by the Nuremberg city council and was constructed between 1492 and 1494.
Works of Abhinavagupta – a collection of 248 manuscripts of Abhinavagupta (CE 940-1015), an Indian philosopher from Kashmir.
The Hikayat Aceh – three manuscripts chronicling life in Aceh, Indonesia, in the 15th-17th centuries.
Documents of the Shaykh Safī-al-Dīn Ardabīlī Shrine – a collection of 590 documents, most of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, which come in several different languages during a period of religious, ethnic, and cultural coexistence in Iran.
The Monk Enchin Archives – primary sources that trace the life of the Japanese monk Enchin (814–891), who travelled to China to study Buddhism and seek spiritual enlightenment in the 9th century.
Erasmus Collection Rotterdam – The world’s largest collection of letters and books associated with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).
Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka – One of the world’s longest unbroken historical accounts, the Mahavamsa presents Sri Lanka’s history in chronological order from the 6th century BCE into the medieval and early modern periods.
There were 64 documentary collections added this year to the Memory of the World Register, bringing the total number of listed collections to 494. “For the first time since 2017, new documentary collections have been inscribed on the Memory of the World Register,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General. “This is a very positive signal. I welcome the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation that has accompanied this process, with more than 20% of inscriptions submitted jointly by several countries. I thank UNESCO’s Member States for their commitment and this renewed momentum in favour of the protection of collective memory.”