Der Welsche Gast

The First Code of Conduct Written in German

The didactic poem der Welsche Gast, which has been translated as “the Italian Guest”, is the oldest comprehensive code of conduct written in German. A learned Romance cleric from Friuli, Thomasin von Zerklaere, wrote it ca. 1215/16 and might also have designed the pictorial cycle illustrating the verses. The entertaining poem was very popular among medieval audiences. There are 25 witnesses to the text preserved today, only some of which are illustrated. The most lavishly illuminated manuscript is kept in the Gotha Forschungsbibliothek. This 14th-century codex delights the viewer with its 120 miniatures. The pages are populated by vividly gesticulating figures identified by labels and inscribed banderoles, jousting knights, gamblers, people on board a ship or in other situations; animals, angels, and devils. The verses and images offer us windows into the world of the Middle Ages, revealing amazing parallels with the present time.

Welscher Gast

Der Welsche Gast: The Manuscript

Der Welsche Gast, fol. 8v

A Didactic Poem

Der Welsche Gast was conceived as a didactic poem of about 15 000 verses. Around 1215/16, the author, Thomasin von Zerklaere, dedicated it to the “German language” personified here as a courtly lady, but really referring to the German-speaking nobility during the reign of the Staufers and the Welfs. From 1198, those two houses had been embroiled in bitter confrontations over the throne, leading to moral decline and social disorder. Thomasin is critically aware of the behaviour of the secular and religious leaders. Appalled by the deteriorating customs of his time, Thomasin makes an outstanding effort to improve society by teaching his audience a lesson and guiding them toward the proper, virtuous conduct of their lives.

A Change for the Better in 10 Books

Der Welsche Gast essentially aims to provide a number of courtly and religious rules of proper conduct as well as to convey ethical values. Of fundamental importance here are values like faithfulness, moderation, justice and generosity. Among the subjects discussed are proper table manners, marital fidelity, proper uses of worldly goods, the obligations of a virtuous ruler, and the effects of man’s actions on life in the hereafter. Thomasin’s work is made up of 10 books. The first presents rules of good conduct for young men and women in courtly society, while the following books are specifically directed to remind lords and knights, ladies and clerics of their duty to act as models of exemplary behaviour in society.

From Southern Germany to Gotha

The manuscript of dem Welschen Gast housed in Gotha is the most richly illuminated version. We do not know who commissioned in ca. 1340 the text and the accompanying miniatures, which were to be carefully copied from a model which is now lost. The literary language of the script points to the region of East Franconia. From there it can be traced to Regensburg where the codex received its binding between 1477 and 1516. Until 1543 der Welsche Gast was owned by the noble family of Raidenbuch whose coat of arms is displayed on the dedication image (fol. 101r). In 1580 the manuscript was included in the Munich royal library. After being plundered by William Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1632, the manuscript finally made its way to Gotha.

The Gotha Research Library in the east wing of Schloss Friedenstein

Welsche Gast

Under the Magnifying Glass: The Battle between Virtue and Vice as a Graphic Novel

Welsche Gast, fol. 7v

Der Welsche Gast is the first literary work written in German and illuminated by a comprehensive cycle of miniatures. The author had to present the material to his courtly audience in such a way that clerics, knights and noble ladies could gain a better insight, irrespective of their intellectual attainments. The miniatures added to the verses written in vernacular German helped them to comprehend the instruction and to commit it to memory. The vast majority of the illustrations depict personifications of forces, powers or concepts, contrasted with their opposites and affecting the actions of man. The miniatures are placed so as to illustrate the texts into which they are intercalated. The inscribed banderoles, acting like speech bubbles in a comic book, help to identify the figures and refer them to the text.

As an introduction to the medieval world of der Welsche Gast, the Gotha manuscript opens with a full-page tournament scene on fol. 7v. Virtue and Vice are enthroned at the top. “Drive off the vices”, Virtue shouts, prompting her four knights and clapping her hands encouragingly. Vice, however, instructs her warriors: “Protect yourselves against the virtues”. The scenes below show knights on horseback, fully engaged in single combat: faithfulness against inconstancy, justice against injustice, moderation against immoderation, and generosity against avarice. There seems to be some cause for optimism, since the knights defending Virtue gain the upper hand over the warriors standing up for Vice. This means that men can be reformed: by education and study, and by practicing ethical values in their lives.

Welsche Gast

Der Welsche Gast: The Edition

Der Welsche Gast: the facsimile edition

The Manuscript and the Facsimile at a Glance

The Gotha codex of der Welsche Gast is the most lavishly illustrated of all the manuscripts of the instructions in good conduct written by Thomasin von Zerklaere in 1215/16. The facsimile reproduces the vibrant hues of red, yellow, green and blue of the 120 miniatures true to the original.

Manuscript: Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein, Forschungsbibliothek, Memb. I 120
Date of Origin: ca. 1340
Place of Origin: South Germany (East Franconian dialect area)
Dimensions: ca. 32.0 x 23.5 cm
Extent: 204 pages (102 leaves)
Patron: Unknown, presented as a gift to a noble lady
Illumination: 120 miniatures painted in opaque watercolours, 119 of them illustrating the Welscher Gast, usually inserted into the columns, occasionally in the margins; occasionally half-page, three-quarter-page or full-page; dedication image added later, showing the coat of arms of the Bavarian noble family Raidenbuch
Binding: Fine pale pigskin, blind stamped with decorative lines, floral motifs and inscribed banderoles
Commentary for the Edition (including a complete transcription and translation of the text into Modern German) by Dagmar Hüpper / Holger Runow / Katrin Sturm / Eva Willms
Print run: 680 copies

Welsche Gast

Enjoy Viewing 10 Sample Pages:

A Glance at the Facsimile

The sequence from the Gotha manuscript of der Welsche Gast presented here for your joyful viewing comprises fols. 12r-16v from the first book of Thomasin’s voluminous didactic poem. The author admonishes young men and women at court for indulging in laziness, reprimands them for their boisterous behaviour and encourages them to learn from the heroes of antique epics and Arthurian romances how their conduct will determine their social prestige.
Fol. 12v shows an interesting illustration of the evils of gambling. Affected by greed and anger, the gambler on the right raises his hand grasping the dice cup and wagers the clothes off his back.

Welsche Gast

A Challenging Production: fac simile

Comparing the proofs with the original page by page in the Gotha Research Library

Colour Reproduced to Perfection

In the course of production, the original codex never leaves the Gotha Forschungsbibliothek, where digital photos of all pages of der Welsche Gast are taken. Processing the photographs on the computer screen, the lithographers make individual proof runs for each colour. Proceeding page by page, they then compare the proofs with the original. It takes many years of experience, the highest concentration, and a trained eye to perceive and correct even the smallest colour divergences. After further proof runs serving for comparison and correction, print approval is finally given. However, while operating the printing press, the printer keeps on controlling the sheets at regular intervals.

A Codex Marked by Centuries of Use

The Gotha codex of der Welsche Gast bears the marks of a long life. Almost 700 years of popularity with diverse audiences have left numerous signs of ageing and use. These marks have to be reproduced as carefully as the still vibrant colours of the original. Only by including all these features can an authentic experience of the manuscript be ensured. To reproduce precisely the slightly uneven surface and the sound created by turning parchment pages, the special paper is reworked by hand. For the decorative lines, floral motifs, and inscribed banderoles on the leather binding the book binder needs an elaborate panel specially made for stamping the leather of each book cover.

Der Welsche Gast: the slightly wavy paper for the edition, which can reproduce the natural quality of parchment
Der Welsche Gast: details of the blind stamped binding

Welsche Gast

The Facsimile Folder for the Edition

Der Welsche Gast: the facsimile folder for the edition

The facsimile folder for the Gotha codex of der Welsche Gast provides an exemplary impression of the lavish illumination featuring delicately drawn contour lines. It offers the viewer windows into medieval culture and the fascinating world of Thomasin von Zerklaere’s work. The folder contains an original richly illustrated facsimile double-leaf (fols. 28 and 29). The transcription and translation into Modern German of the labels and inscribed banderoles help one to follow the text, which is relevant and inspiring even today. A 16-page brochure introduces the reader to the content and composition of dem Welschen Gast, explains the text and the miniature cycle and gives some biographical information on the author. The reader learns more about the history and the illumination of this manuscript made in 1340, now available as a facsimile.

Welsche Gast

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