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2010-06, 365, 366, Art, Brian Taylor, German

An Insel publishing house series item

THIS IS AN ITEM from the Insel publishing house series that I was sure I had once had but had now lost, namely no. 450 Die Minnesinger in Bildern der Manessischen Handschrift [The Minnesingers in pictures from the Manesse manuscript] and which I therefore did not include in my article in an earlier issue of Biblionews.¹ It contains 24 facsimile colour reproductions of stylised portraits of medieval German poets, minnesingers, who composed and sang songs about courtly love (in medieval German called minne). These portraits come from a manuscript compiled around 1300 AD for the Manesse family of Zurich in Switzerland, which contains 137 such miniatures along with the texts of songs by these men. It is considered one of Germany‘s most valuable and beautiful medieval manuscripts, perhaps the most valuable.

How did I come by this book? My longtime friend and collaborator, Dr Horst Brunner, the recently retired Professor of Medieval German Literature and Music at the University of Würzburg, was on a visit to Australia with his wife Roswitha in late 2009, and in one of our conversations while I was showing him my Insel collection I mentioned that I was very sorry I did not have that particular volume in it, though I was certain I had once had it. After his return to Germany, what should arrive in the post but the volume that I lacked. It is in quite fine condition, though on the back of the front cover some inscription has been erased. Above the erasure is written in the old German script: “Ich bin din/ und du bist min/ des sult du stets gewiß sin.” [I am thine, and thou art mine, of that thou art always to be certain], the opening lines of what appears to be a love poem in medieval German. The writer here has attributed it to Germany‘s greatest minnesinger, Walther von der Vogelweide, but it is in fact anonymous and the latest thinking seems to be that it merely derives from some young nun practising her writing. I suspect that what has been erased was a dedication by a previous owner to his or her beloved, which, perhaps, the latter erased for reasons of privacy before disposing of the book.

The stylised portrait of Walther von der Vogelweide from the Manesse Manuscript of circa 1300 reproduced in Insel volume no. 450.

But there is a postscript to this particular showing and telling. At the beginning of May 2010 our Secretary, Dr Mark Ferson, came by to drop in the posting labels for the despatch of the September-December 2009 issue of Biblionews and passed to me two Insel volumes that he had picked up for me at a recent book sale. One was Insel book number 450, so the same one as I had received from Dr Brunner. However, while both had the same cover design, the latter one is bound in stiff card with the decorative paper cover affixed to it whereas the former is paper bound but with the same decoration on the cover. But not only that; he also gave me a further volume from the same series with the title Die Minnesinger in Bildern der Manessischen Handschrift – Zweite Folge, so with the same title except for the additional two words meaning it was the second issue or sequel to the first one. It is numbered 560, has a different design on its paper cover from the first one and contains a further 24 portraits.

Although all are from the Insel publishing house in Leipzig, all are undated. However, by the bibliography in the volume titled 75 Jahre Insel-Bücherei 1912-1987 (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1987) [75 years of the Insel Publishing House 1912-1987], a gift to me from Patrick Fox, who is mentioned under my 2008 contribution above, I am informed that no. 450 with its accompanying commentary (Geleitwort) by Hans Naumann was first published in 1933 and reprinted four times through to 1940. (There were further postwar versions, some published both in Leipzig in East Germany and Frankfurt in West Germany, with a different commentator from the pre-war one, but according to the bibliography the 1965 Frankfurt one lacked the two Minnelieder [minnesongs or love songs] either side of the picture section. There seems to be an error here, as my earlier copies do have a minnesong, by Johannes Hadloub, directly after the picture section, but the text before that section is not a minnesong but a quotation from the medieval epic poem Tristan und Isolde by Gottfried von Strassburg.)

No. 560 was published in 1945 and, as far as I can make out, not reprinted. The cover designs for both issues are based on motifs from the manuscript itself and the later one is particularly attractive with its coloured bird motifs. When one considers the parlous state of the German economy in 1945 before and after the end of the war, which ended on 8 May that year, it is perhaps surprising that it was still possible to print a book with such a fine looking cover. The text of all of these books is set in black letter Fraktur.

As regards the possible effects of war on this series, I picked up recently yet another library of a deceased German speaker² and found amongst its contents Insel book no. 120, Über die deutsche Sprache [About the German language] by the 19th century German language scholar Jakob (usually spelt: Jacob) Grimm, best known to us as one of the Brothers Grimm of fairytale fame. It is astonishingly, and uniquely for my collection, bound in plain brown paper – brown perhaps only because of advanced discolouration – without any ornamentation whatever, save a rectangular paper label on the front cover giving author, title and series number. Again it is undated, but according to the bibliography it was first published in 1914, reprinted in 1916 and again in 1941. My copy must be from 1914, as the bibliography says that a foreword (Vorspruch) by the author was pasted into some of the copies printed in that year, and mine has it, but that it was absent from the 1916 printing and, I think, by implication from the 1941 printing. If I am right then the extraordinarily cheap binding may be due to the demands made on the German economy by preparations for launching or fighting the First World War. Such exigencies do not seem to have affected the series during and immediately after the Second World War.

1. “From the Little Island Books of Leipzig to the King Penguins of London” Biblionews 246th Issue (June 2005), pp. 43-72.

2. On my collecting of such libraries see Biblionews 355th and 356th Issues (September and December 2007), p. 129.



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