Academic journal article German Quarterly

Bibliophiles and Bibliothieves: the Search for the Hildebrandslied and the Willehalm Codex

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Bibliophiles and Bibliothieves: the Search for the Hildebrandslied and the Willehalm Codex

Article excerpt

Popa, Opritsa D. Bibliophiles andBibliothieves: the Search for the Hildebrandsliedand the Willehalm Codex. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003. 265 pp. euro58.00 hardcover.

This remarkable book recounts the improbable history of the disappearance and recovery of two of Germany's most famous medieval manuscripts, the 9th century Hildebrandslied and the mid-14th century Willehalm Codex, which disappeared from a safe storage area of the Landesbibliothek Kassel sometime after the allied bombardment of that city in October 1943. Every student of Germanistik is familiar with the former as the oldest surviving fragment of Old High German literature, and the latter is "one of the most lavishly illuminated secular manuscripts of the Middle Ages." Their loss represented a monumental blow to scholarship in Germanic Philology and to the Library at Kassel; the disappearance of the Hildebrandslied in particular was an incalculable disaster for German cultural patrimony.

Popa's account is impeccably researched and documented, but it goes far beyond a dry description of the facts and chronology of the case: she takes care to describe the historical background of the manuscripts and of the institution which had them in its care, the conditions of their relocation for safekeeping and their consequent escape from the terrible destruction which rained on Kassel, as well as the personalities and histories of all those who had a hand in the disappearance and eventual recovery of these priceless treasures. It is a brilliantly organized and beautifully told story of a very complex instance of the theft, resale, and ultimate recovery of priceless stolen cultural goods. Popa details the movement of the manuscripts, from their illegal removal in 1945 from a secure cellar outside Kassel during the U. S. Army postwar occupation, to their reappearance on the New York antiquarian market a few months later. There they were recognized by the staff of one of the world's great private libraries as having been stolen, but they were not officially reported as such. Disappearing again for five years, the Willehalm Codex and the manuscript volume which originally held the Hildebrandslied resurfaced in another great private collection, this time in California. But in a series of aborted inquiries and failed investigations which can only be described as Kafkaesque, it would be twenty more years before the origins of the two great manuscripts were finally certified and they were returned to their rightful location in Kassel. …

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