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The Codex Manesse and the Discovery of Love

Heidelberg University Library exhibits priceless medieval manuscript in the original


We have records of the House of Altstetten dating back to 1166. The family resided in the Upper Rhine Valley and stood in the service of the abbot of St Gall. The "Minnesänger" portrayed here is probably Konrad von Altstetten, hereditary steward under the abbot, for whom there is documentary evidence from 1320 to 1327.

It was in the Hohenstaufen era that European literature turned its attention to the subject of courtly love, thus sparking off one of the most complex societal discourses of the time. The exhibition “The Codex Manesse and the Discovery of Love” is Heidelberg University Library’s contribution to the University’s upcoming 625th anniversary celebrations. The exhibit reveals the way in which the debate about ideal love is reflected in the written testimonies of the High Middle Ages. To mark the occasion, the Library will be exhibiting the famous Codex Manesse in the original, one of the rare occasions on which this magnificent collection of songs and verses in Middle High German will leave the air-conditioned environs of the library’s vault. The approximately 100 exhibits on show also include many other valuable manuscripts. The exhibition runs until 20 February 2011.


The Codex Manesse came into being in Zurich in the early 14th century, probably at the behest of Rüdiger Manesse and his son Johann. Their ambition was to assemble a representative collection of Middle High German lyric poetry reflecting its full range of genres and forms. The manuscript encompasses the work of 140 poets, with the earliest texts dating back to the mid 12th century. The Codex is one of the key testimonies to the literature and culture of the Hohenstaufen era. The poems are preceded by a total of 138 miniatures, idealised depictions of their authors going about their courtly activities. 

"Saget mir ieman, waz ist minne?" (Can anyone tell me what love is?) In the High Middle Ages, this concern with the true nature of love, voiced here by poet Walther von der Vogelweide, preoccupied itinerant troubadours, nobles and clerics alike. Countless texts and pictures tell us that a major change of attitude had come about. A knight was no longer content to possess the lady who took his fancy. He was out to conquer her heart. The onset of this many-voiced, idealistic approach to love not only changed relations between the sexes, it also transformed aristocratic identity and the conduct of affairs in courtly society. The poems and pictures in the Codex Manesse embody and epitomise this sea change in medieval social attitudes.


Margrave Otto IV of Brandenburg (1266 - 1309) is known as "Otto with the arrow". During the siege of Staß an der Bode he was shot in the head by an enemy archer. His mistrust of physicians was so deeply ingrained that he left the arrowhead in the wound for a whole year.

The exhibition traces the discovery of love in the High Middle Ages as it is exemplified in the Codex Manesse and other valuable manuscripts and prints from the vaults of Heidelberg University Library. Most of the exhibits are lavishly illustrated, thus also giving the viewer a glimpse into German book illustration techniques between the 13th and the 15th century. A number of the most significant works of the Middle Ages are on show, for example Wolfram von Eschenbach’s "Parzival". In the course of the exhibition, the pages of the Codex Manesse will be turned four times to present different miniatures to the public.


The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first two are devoted to the origins and impact of the Codex and its transmission down the centuries. The third revolves around “The Discovery of Courtly Love”. The literature that began to flourish in the second half of the 12th century heralds in something sensationally new. At the courts of secular princes, poetry was no longer written in the scholarly Latin of the church but in Middle High German. Quite new was the idea of love that reigned supreme in both the epic and lyric poetry of the day. The subject of the fourth section is "The Power of Love". The dealings between knights and ladies called for in the ongoing discourse on courtly love take the form of an art based on complicated rules that first have to be mastered.


To judge by the dialect in which the songs that have come down to us are written, Friedrich der Knecht came from Austria or Bavaria. He probably wrote his poems between 1215 and 1250. The miniature shows the poet abducting his lady.

Picture material: Heidelberg University Library

The University Library and Heidelberg University welcomed guests in the Great Hall of the Old University to the opening of the exhibition on Monday, 25 October 2010. There were speeches of welcome from Prof. Dr. Friederike Nüssel, Vice Rector of Heidelberg University, and the Director of the Library, Dr. Veit Probst. In the lecture at the heart of the ceremony, Prof. Dr. Ludger Lieb of the Department of German Studies spoke on "The Idea of Love. Text and Image in the Codex Manesse". Subsequently, Dr. Carla Meyer of the Institute of Franconian-Palatinate History and Area Studies outlined the concept on which the exhibition is based. In the course of the evening there were also musical interludes from Ilan Bendahan Bitton performing piano music by Bach and Beethoven.


The exhibition "The Codex Manesse and the Discovery of Love" was be open to the public at Heidelberg University Library until 20 February 2011.


The exhibition is a major contribution to the programme of events with which Heidelberg University presents itself to the public in its 625th anniversary year from October 2010 to October 2011. It also stands in close conjunction with the large-scale exhibition "The Hohenstaufen Dynasty and Italy" at the Reiss-Engelhorn- Museen Mannheim. The Codex Manesse exhibit was made possible by collaboration between the Institute of Franconian-Palatine History and Area Studies, the Department of German Studies, Heidelberg University Library and a group of committed students from Heidelberg University’s Department of History. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available at

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Latest Revision: 2011-10-18