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What is the Manesse Codex?

Research by Todd Mohr

Much of this information comes from the University of Heidelberg in Germany:

The Manesse Codex is a collection of love songs (minnesang) written in Middle High German by a variety of 140 or so contributors, or Minnesangers. The High German word for “love” is minne; a single love song is a minnelied. The songwriters included royals, famous rulers and noblemen, and commoners. The Codex is estimated to have been copied and illustrated between 1305 and 1340 in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also known as “The Great Heidelberg Book of Songs”, and some have been translated in Barbara Ann Seagrave’s book, Songs of the Minnesangers.

Each poet (or songwriter) is depicted alongside their contribution to the Codex, so it looks like your print shows the author: Konrad von Altstetten (more on him later). Below is the color print of your print, estimated date circa 1305-1315. It looks like it includes von Altstetten’s shield and/or a helmet of some kind.

This link contains a brief timeline of the Codex’s journey, from its creation to its involvement in several conflicts and thefts throughout later centuries, and finally more recent resting places like libraries, museums, and universities. As far as I can tell, the University of Heidelberg in Germany is the current “keeper” of the Codex Manesse.

Who’s Konrad von Altstetten?

It doesn’t look like our Romeo is a royal ruler, but he does have his own WikiPedia page. While the Codex Manesse guesses that he might be a “mayor” (of Altstatten, St. Gall, Switzerland, circa 1320-1327), this could be a mistranslation. There is one reference that says Konrad may have been a knight or “steward” of the Altstetten house. He is largely referred to as a Minnesanger, or minstrel - a person who sings songs “advertising” love for a woman.

What’s it all mean?

People who are more educated on Medieval German imagery than I am have a couple theories on what the art itself may actually mean.

The most specific source I’ve found, from the University of Iowa library, claims that the rose bush above Konrad is supposed to be “sprouting from his loins” - a la the “Tree of Jesse”, a representation of Christian genealogy, and apparently a common motif in Medieval art. The falcon might depict a “tamed sexual aggression”. So, this PG-13 image may actually be rated R for Romance!

On the other hand, this is one of the more popular prints from the Codex Manesse, and there are several broader interpretations of it. The roses could simply represent love; falconry was a status-symbol activity in the Middle Ages, and both men and women of the aristocracy participated. It could be that the two lovers are just enjoying each other’s company after returning from a hunt. While they aren’t included in your print, the shield and family crest/helmet/whatever it might be above the happy couple could be Konrad’s “heraldic devices”. Maybe armor back then was actually very sexy? The song:

Although I couldn’t find anything via the University of Heidelberg, some random site seems to actually have a copy of one of Konrad von Altstetten’s minnelied. As best as I can tell with Google Translate (and the internet has many warnings about the accuracy of translating High German to modern German to English), one song is titled “Loblied der Libstein”, or “Praise of Loved Ones”, and it goes something like this:

“Praise of Loved Ones”

“I have sent my heart to my beloved; Because longing pain Never sees it stolen Unless grace gives me the one. I am alone from that which Conquers me.

Go, Empress, To my grace That your love Relieves me of my complaints; Let me rejoice in your love and goodness. That, in my mind, disappears the pain.

Who, then, shall turn to me? The sadness in my mind, Do you not want it to end? With feminine kindness, You, who I remember in the evening, and in the morning I live in grief, I complain like always.

Should I not look at her? It increases my suffering; I do not like to gaze on other women. No other face has ever shone so wonderfully; No stars flicker, Or shine purer in the lake

I never saw a flower in the thaw more beautiful Than her, my wife. I sing glory to her! And I sing how beautiful she is in body and soul, Nothing I miss then, I stand in joy!”

There may be mistranslations in certain words or phrases, because we don’t know what the original words meant in contextual High German. I think I read that the University of Heidelberg is still in the process of transcribing the Codex Manesse, so hopefully we can do some more digging and get a more accurate Minnelied to accompany the print!


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