The Wiesbaden ("Giant") Codex

The Wiesbaden Codex (“Riesencodex“, or “chain codex”), is the most significant legacy of Hildegard of Bingen (1097/8-1179). This is not only because of its great scale (481 fols. long, whilst measuring 46x30 cm, and weighing 15 kg) – very unusual for mediaeval manuscripts – but also because it has become for many “the relic and icon of her spirit” (Embach p. 57) through the centuries. Another reason is the underlying concept, unheard of at the time, of a “definitive edition” of Hildegard’s writings.

Hildegard herself, or at least her literary executors, must have considered the compiled works of the Codex as the culmination of her achievements. It is uncertain whether the bulk of the Codex was finished during her lifetime (i.e., before 1179) or shortly after, even though we can take for granted that she had knowledge of the project and consented to it. In a collaborative effort, five or six scribes in her monastery, Rupertsberg near Bingen, were entrusted with copying individual works, which were ultimately bound in a single volume. The binding, comprised of two wooden boards covered with pig leather, is unlikely to be contemporary to the work, but more likely dates to the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The Codex contains

  • the visionary trilogy (Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum, Liber divinorum operum),
  • the complete musical works (Symphonia, Ordo virtutum),
  • a collection of Hildegard’s letters (Epistolarium),
  • the linguistic writings (Lingua ignota, Litterae ignotae),
  • a fragmentary collection of homilies (Expositiones evangeliorum),
  • her biography (Vita Hildegardis) by the monks Gottfried and Theoderich,
  • the letter to the prelates of Mainz (Ad praelatos Moguntinenses).

Additionally, it has the short “letter of the Villarense monks after Hildegard’s death”, which is a theological questionnaire. (Villarense here means the Cistercian abbey of  Villers-la-Ville/Brabant).

Surprisingly enough, none of Hildegard’s prominent works in the fields of medicine and science figures in the Codex - perhaps evidence that there was a second "volume" of the compilation of her work that has not come down on us?

The Riesencodex remained for centuries in its place of origin, the Rupertsberg Convent near Bingen. During the Thirty Years’ War, when Swedish troops looted the monastery (described on fol. 1r by Caspar Lerch von Dirmstein, the brother of its last abbess), the Codex was passed over to the sister  monastery of Eibingen on the opposite side of the Rhine. Early nineteenth-century secularisation brought about another transfer. In 1814, the newly founded state library in Wiesbaden, the capital of the young Duchy of Nassau, was entrusted with the manuscript.

During World War Two the Codex, together with the library’s other treasures, was transferred to what was vainly hoped to be the safety and remoteness of Dresden. Even though it survived the War, it took several lucky turns, and the collective effort of a number of dedicated bibliophiles and librarians in Dresden, Berlin, and Wiesbaden, to restore it to its rightful place in Wiesbaden State Library from the Soviet Occupation Zone by 1948.