The Giant Book
The Devil’s Bible, also known as the Codex Gigas (Giant Book) is the largest medieval manuscript in the known world. The book is 36″ tall, 20″ wide, and an amazing 8.7″ thick when closed. It is beautifully bound in a leather-covered wooden folder with ornate metal corner pieces and center emblem. The design alone merits consideration; it’s truly a work of art to see in person. The pages are of a fine parchment called vellum, very smooth and durable. Vellum was made from the skins of young calves or donkeys. The original manuscript was composed of 320 pages, and it has survived in it’s entirety aside from 10 missing sheets. The book is so large that it takes two people just to move it as it weighs 165 pounds. The size and weight of the book are amazing, but it’s what’s written inside, and the stories about it’s origin that gives it legendary status among scholars.
The book itself contains numerous Christian writings entirely composed in Latin. About half of the book is a complete rendition of the Vulgate bible, except for Revelation and Acts, which are from earlier translations. The Vulgate version of the bible is a late fourth century translation that became the Catholic church’s official Latin version of the bible many centuries later. Also included are two written works of Josephus Flavius, a first century hagiographer and historian, Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War. Isidore of Seville´s Etymologies, the standard textbook for teaching medicine in the Middle Ages and medical works of Hippocrates, Theophilus, Philaretus, and Constantinus are also included. Additionally the three books of the 12th-century Chronica Boëmorum (Chronicle of the Bohemians) written by Cosmas of Prague, a list of brothers in the Podlažice monastery, where the book was originally written, and a calendar with symbols of necrologicum, magick formulas, and other local records round out the codex. A full page color illustration of the devil in the middle of the text is the source behind the nickname “Devil’s Bible.”
The Origin of the name “Devil’s Bible”
The illustration of the devil in what was otherwise considered a collection of important religious writings gave rise to an odd tale. Supposedly a monk from the Middle Ages who, after breaking his monastic vows, was sentenced to the particularly cruel death of being walled up alive. This monk, who was becoming desperate in his attempt to avoid the harsh punishment of slow death by starvation tried bartering with leaders of the monastery. In exchange for his freedom, the monk promised to write a book that contained all worthwhile human knowledge in a single night. The leaders agreed to allow him one night to complete the work, which they considered impossible. As the midnight hour approached, the monk knew he would never be able to complete the task and so he fell to his knees in prayer, looking for help. But, instead of asking God for help, the monk called on the Devil; offering his soul in return for help in completing the work. The Devil in the story immediately appeared to collect on his offer and completed the text with a snap of his gnarly fingers. The monk added the illustration of the Devil with his remaining time, as a token of his appreciation to the dark lord for his aid. Extensive testing on the book by handwriting experts are conclusive that the work was indeed written by a single hand. And as part of an attempt to debunk the ancient story, these same experts tried to recreate the timetable to write and illustrate the entire text. What they found was mind-boggling. One person would have to write non-stop for over five years just to copy the text. The illustrations, coloring, and other decorative portions of the book would have added significant months to the writing portion.
The Missing Pages
Any ancient book with missing pages is certain to attract theories on what they contained or why they were removed. The Devil’s Bible is no exception and it’s believed that the missing pages had been intentionally removed over the centuries, although unknown as to why. One theory was that the missing pages held information that was deemed too dangerous for regular men to read. Others claim that that the pages were stolen to be used for some nefarious purpose. Still others claim that the pages were dedicated to Satan and were found offensive by the monks and they were subsequently removed. One theory even goes so far as to say the missing pages contained a missing book of the bible; The Book of Lucifer. Regardless of the why or how these pages came up missing, their absence only adds another layer to the story.
The Manuscript – From Bohemia to Stockholm
The Codex Gigas originated in Bohemia, a fact which has been verified by the many names included in the text and most importantly by the inclusion of the works of Cosmas of Prague. The dates of the manuscript range from 1204 to 1230, using a system of correlating data found within the pages of the Codex with real world facts. Birth and death dates of religious figures, kings, and other important people were used as part prayers and divine worship. Despite some variability in the historical record, this type of analysis is fairly accurate. A note written on the first page of the Codex puts the Benedictines of Podlažice, monks near Chrudim, as the original owners. In later years, the Codex was transferred to the Cistercians of Sedlec for an undisclosed amount of money to rescue the monastery from financial ruin. In 1295 or 1296 the Codex Gigas was recovered by Benedictines by the Abbot of the Břevnov monastery at the instance of Bishop Gregory of Prague. The historical records revealed that the manuscript, even then, was considered as one of the wonders of the world.
Not much information exists from the time the Codex was recovered until the Hussite War in 1420 forced the monks of Břevnov to leave their monastery and relocate in Broumov. Written evidence details the book being in Broumov in 1477. During the 16th century church leaders from Prague and Silesia entered their names in the manuscript when visiting the monastery; something which seems almost a crime today considering the value of the text. A search of the many signatures show the Codex remained in place for an extended period of time until Rudolph II, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, became interested in the Devil’s Bible and wanted to borrow it. It was dispatched to Prague on 4th March 1594 under the supervision of the current Abbot.
Once in Prague, the Codex Gigas was methodically analyzed and transcribed for the Emperor. It was also used by a German historian named Marquard Freher, for his second complete edition of the Chronicle of Cosmas in 1607. Rudolph never allowed the Devil’s Bible to be sent back to Broumov. This, apparently, was not the only monastic property that Rudolph borrowed and never returned. Instead, the manuscript was registered in several catalogues of Rudolph’s Chamber of Treasures and Art. It was about this time when the stories about it’s creation began to gain notoriety.
The Battle of Prague
The Thirty Years War was a series of conflicts raging across central Europe between 1618 and 1648. It began as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants in a fragmented Holy Roman Empire but soon developed into an all out war. Ferdinand II who had replaced Rudolph II as Holy Roman Emperor was much more devout than his predecessor, tried to force Catholicism on everyone. The opposition refused and battles broke out across the lands. Things continued to escalate until Sweden, which was a major military power at the time, intervened and the conflict escalated to include most of Europe.
The Battle of Prague was the last major action of the lengthy war with the Swedes capturing Prague Castle. Before a peace treaty ended the war, the castle was looted by the invading Swedes. Many of the treasures collected over time by Rudolph II, including the Codex Gigas and the Codex Argenteus were were taken to Sweden. The Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Book, is a 6th Century manuscript originally containing a 4th century Gothic translation of the bible.
Stockholm Until Present Day
The Codex along with many other spoils of was arrived in Stockholm in 1649 and kept at Stockholm Castle. There aren’t many references to the text until the great castle fire of 1697. After ruling for 37 years, Charles XI had died and his body was still lying in state at the castle when the fire broke out. The flames quickly spread and did heavy damage to the buildings and about 1/3 of all the written records in storage were also lost. The Codex was saved when a few of the guards began throwing piles of books out the windows to save them. Many of the books were damaged during this event, and it’s theorized that the pages missing from the Codex may have been lost at that time. All written works that were rescued from the fire were moved around but eventually ended up at the National Library. There, many historians and scholars spent countless hours reading, translating, and trying to characterize the book. During this time the book was also repaired. Further information on the repair work and the current binding can be found on the National Library of Sweden’s website.
Who Wrote the Codex ?
We can see that the book itself is a masterpiece both in content and presentation; with very few ancient works comparable to it’s grandeur. Yet, to date, no one is really sure who was the writer. The page inscription noted earlier shows the original owners but doesn’t identify the actual monk who did the writing. History shows us that the monastery at Podlažice was very poor and quite small. Scholars assume they would have been unable to undertake a large project like the Codex as it would have required enormous resources. Considering that no other medieval manuscript is extant from the monastery, this theory holds weight.
Event though the evidence doesn’t fully support it, a monk at Podlažice named Herman the Recluse is believed to be the author of the Codex. He is also the person of interest in the many versions of the legend about the pact with the Devil. It is believed that he committed a serious transgression against the church and was serving a lifetime sentence, cloistered in a cell, inscribing holy texts as penitence. What happened behind monastery walls might seem strange to modern observers. During the Middle Ages, an anchoritic lifestyle was quite common for monks; being anchored to a place or monastery or even a cell for their entire lives. In some rare cases the monk was actually walled up in their cell, but not usually sentenced to death. Their mortal needs were taken care of by other monks while they focused on their spiritual callings or in this case earning forgiveness. Obviously by the length of time this work required, the story of the monk has been exaggerated. The text, although handwritten is considered error-free so Herman, if he was indeed the author, must have been well cared for in his lifetime.
The full page illustration of the Devil has been the focus of attention in the Codex for centuries. But what is often overlooked is the fact that the opposite page also has a full sized illustration. A depiction of a towering Heavenly City seems to be placed as a visual foil to the picture of the Devil. The two together were intended to remind the reader that life has choices and that the two pathways are very different. The bad life choice is associated with the crouched Devil, wearing an ermine loincloth, ugly, and menacing. The good choice is illustrated with the city. Although no people are present, it’s assumed to be the afterlife for the pious.
Portraits of Heaven the Devil are fairly common in medieval art. The Devil picture in the Codex Gigas is somewhat unique as it shows him alone and occupying a whole page. The Heavenly City (photo on the right) and the Devil Portrait are the only full page pictures in the Codex Gigas. The lack of additional demonic content makes it seem that the image of the devil is present only as a symbol to be understood but not worshipped.
Another interesting fact not commonly discussed is the following page. After the image of the devil, a page is devoted to warding off evil and sickness, but not through prayer. This page lists three conjurations and two magickal spells, likely intended as protection from the devil. The codex contains nothing else out of the ordinary for the time period.
The rest of the Codex is heavily illuminated throughout. some of the pages are adorned with various decorations using multiple colors and an artistic styling. Other pages have overly large stylized letters at the start of a paragraph. There are also miniature illustrations, ornate borders, and decorated initials, all colorfully highlighted in red, blue, yellow, green, and gold.
The After-The-Fact Stories and Supposed Curse
Stories over time have alluded to illness or disaster to befall anyone who possessed the book, but no evidence exists to validate those claims. It’s quite easy for conspiracy theorists to cherry-pick historical facts and weave them together into a tale of gloom and doom surrounding the Codex. Starting with the first owner’s financial ruin, followed by the forced evacuations due to war, and of course the castle fire, one could easily paint a “curse” picture as part of greater narrative. But when we compare this historical object to others of similar age that have survived, the curse theory quickly loses steam. Considering the entire known world was almost always in a state of war, famine, or any of a number of other hardships, the relatively few incidents directly related to this book make it almost boring as a conspiracy topic. If it wasn’t for the illustration of the devil and a few other minor details, the Codex would have received little fanfare over the centuries aside from it being huge in size and a very well-preserved piece of religious history.
The fact that the book survived the Inquisition would imply that the Church did not view it as having been written by or influenced in any way by Satan. When the church had almost complete control over Europe, anything that was even remotely considered a tool of evil was destroyed. This included human beings sometimes as young as ten years old. Doctrines of the church were considered the only valid texts and any others were summarily destroyed. Even today, the Codex Gigas is in a class all its own. It has no measurable counterpart among other surviving medieval manuscripts. It’s one of the final single volume handwritten copies of the Old and New Testament. But, the question remains of who the actual author was and why he chose to include the full size picture of the Devil. And the missing pages continue to be the fictional “smoking gun” the conspiracy theorists hold on to for supporting many unique theories. It’s likely the answers will never be discovered. It’s also likely that because of that fact, that theories will continue to be debated and reworked and glamorized for consumption by the masses.
The Devil’s Bible is housed within the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm but is no longer on display for viewing by the general public. Digital images of the complete book are available for further research here.
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