A brave, frightened women is risking her life in a daring rescue mission. In these post-war years, medieval scholar Margarete Kühn is not dealing with spies and Nazis: instead, she has kidnapped a book. Assisted by her friend Caroline Walsh, an American military spouse, Margarete has secured the manuscript’s safe passage across 400 miles, traversing the wildest and most hostile parts of Germany’s war-ravaged landscape to a secluded monastery high above the banks of the Rhine. As well as saving the precious reams of vellum, the women are preserving something more important still: the legacy of a 12th-century saint whose reputation is second to none in Germany.
From her childhood as an enclosed nun with just a handful of companions, to her rise on the international stage as a leading scholar, theologian, visionary, musician, linguist, artist and scientist, the remarkable life of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) has been celebrated for centuries. Yet as the aftermath of the Second World War rips through her home in the Rhineland, her written works are destroyed, stolen, hidden and lost.
This is a post-war thriller with a medieval twist. Climbing the cobbled slope alone towards the imposing gates of Eibingen Abbey, Caroline Walsh knows she is doing something extremely dangerous. Her marital connections to the US air force, along with Margarete’s months of preparation, has allowed her to move across the recently partitioned Soviet and American sectors of Germany with 15 kilograms of priceless manuscript concealed on her person.
Germany’s defeat in the war has resulted in the dramatic division of the country into areas under the control of French, British, Soviet and American troops, with Berlin also divided between the allied powers. Margarete lives in the American sector of West Berlin, but she travels to the Soviet East for her job working on a huge project to collate all primary German texts from the Romans to AD 1500, called the Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
Her involvement in the reckless mission to save Hildegard’s book will make all future crossings a fraught experience, full of the fear of detection, incarceration or worse; because Margarete has deceived the Russian authorities. Catherine too has risked arrest by bringing the manuscript via train and car to the nuns of Hildegard. But as she watches the abbess of Eibingen clasp the enormous manuscripts to her chest, she knows that Hildegard’s work is home. The risk was worth it. The manuscript is priceless.
Known as the Riesencodex (“the giant book”) because of its size, it is made up of 481 folios of vellum held together by wooden boards bound in pig leather that measure 45 centimetres by 30 centimetres. Still attached to its spine is a chain, originally used to secure it to the library of the monastery Hildegard founded in Rupertsberg (today called Bingen). The book contains almost all her writings; a rare attempt to create a single version of her “definitive works” while she was still alive.
Many scribes worked for years to collect her visions, music, linguistic writings, homilies, biography and letters. Very few writers even now are so popular in their lifetimes to have such a volume made in their honour. The manuscript was compiled towards the end of her life, circa 1179, at Rupertsberg.
The story of its rescue revolves around a second monastery founded by Hildegard – the site at Eibingen.3 But many of the texts it contains were originally composed at the monastery where she spent the first decades of her life – Disibodenberg. These three sites form the basis of the “Hildegard Way” through the heart of the Rhineland, which devoted pilgrims can still travel today to get close to the woman and her works. The Riesencodex had been on the run before.
During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when Swedish troops looted Hildegard’s monastery of Rupertsberg, its nuns escaped with the book, carried it across the Rhine and hid it at their sister house of Eibingen. 200 years later, when religious establishments in Germany were secularised and their property taken in 1814, the manuscript went on another short trip 35 kilometres along the river to the newly founded State Library of Wiesbaden.
Until the start of the Second World War, the Riesencodex stayed firmly in and around the Rhineland-Palatine where Hildegard herself spent her 81 years. But under the threat of bombing raids, library director Gustav Struck sent it on a long journey to Dresden, hundreds of miles east, along with a set of eight books that also needed safekeeping. The Riesencodex was travelling with another of Hildegard’s most precious manuscripts, a priceless copy of her major work Scivias, containing illuminations that Hildegard herself had a hand in.
An insurance report at the time states that: “the total value of the manuscripts housed in Dresden should amount to at least fivemillion Reichsmarks. A replacement is completely impossible since all of them are one-offs. Fate was not on the side of Gustav Struck. His assurance from Nazi advisers that Dresden was safer than Wiesbaden was devastatingly inaccurate.
In February 1945 the beautiful city was hammered by Allied bombs, killing thousands and flattening buildings. Remarkably, the bank vault containing Hildegard’s manuscripts survived, but when officials arrived to examine its holdings they discovered that it had been pillaged. The only manuscript still in the vault was the Riesencodex, probably because it was partly hidden and its custom-made metal box was so heavy. In accordance with Soviet instructions to collect first-class artefacts found in Russian-held German territories, the Riesencodex became the property of the state. Scholars and Hildegard devotees across the world were anxious that they would never again be able to freely consult her collected works. They needed a plan and Margarete would prove to be the linchpin.
Excerpted with permission from Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, Janina Ramirez, WH Allen.