The Codex Manesse, Manesse Codex, or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift is a Liederhandschrift (book of songs/poetry), the single most comprehensive source of Middle High German Minnesang poetry, written and illustrated between c. 1304 when the main part was completed, and c. 1340 with the addenda.
The Codex Manesse is an anthology of the works of a total of about 135 minnesingers of the mid 12th to early 14th century. For each poet, a portrait is shown, followed by the text of their works. The entries are ordered approximately by the social status of the poets, starting with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Kings Conradin and Wenceslaus II, down through dukes, counts and knights, to the commoners.
Most of the poems are Minnesang, but there are also other genres, including fables and didactic poems.
The oldest poets represented in the manuscript had been dead for more than a century at the time of its compilations, while others were contemporaries, the latest even late additions of poems written during the early 14th century.
In the portraits, some of the nobles are shown in full armour in their heraldic colors and devices (therefore with their faces hidden), often shown as taking part in a joust, or sometimes in single combat with sword and shield, and sometimes in actual battle.
Some images are motivated by the biography of the person depicted, but some designs just draw their motif from the poet's name (thus, Dietmar is shown riding a mule, since his name can be interpreted as meaning people's horse), while others draw on imagery from their lyrics (Walther von der Vogelweide is shown in a thoughtful pose which exactly matches the description of himself in one of his most famous songs).
The compilation of the codex was patronized by the Manesse family of Zürich, presumably by Rüdiger II Manesse (born before 1252, died after 1304). The house of Manesse declined in the late 14th century, selling their castle in 1393. The fate of the codex during the 15th century is unknown, but by the 1590s it had passed into possession of baron Johann Philipp of Hohensax (two of whose forebears are portrayed in the codex, on foll. 48v and 59v). In 1604, Melchior Goldast published excerpts of its didactic texts.
After 1657 it was in the French royal library, from which it passed to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where the manuscript was studied by Jacob Grimm in 1815. In 1888, after long bargaining, it was sold to the Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg, following a public subscription headed by William I and Otto von Bismarck.
The first critical editions of the Codex Manesse appeared in the early nineteenth century. The codex is frequently referred to by Minnesang scholars and in editions simply by the abbreviation C, introduced by Karl Lachmann, who used A and B for the two main earlier Minnesang codices (the Kleine Heidelberger Liederhandschrift and the Weingartner Liederhandschrift respectively).