The Codex Gigas (“giant book”), also known as the Devil’s Bible, dates to around 1230 CE and is thought to be one of the world’s largest illuminated manuscripts.
The Codex Gigas was once considered the eighth wonder of the world; the book is three feet long and weighs a hundred and sixty-five pounds. It has 600 pages which, contrary to legend, are made from calf skins, not donkey skins.
The Codex Gigas includes a combination of texts found nowhere else. In addition to the full text of the Latin bible, the book contains herbals, history books, cures for dangerous illnesses, texts caring for the soul, medical formulas for treating illnesses and diseases, conjurations, and even solutions to problems such as finding a thief.
The Devil’s Bible
The book got its nickname because it is the only bible to include such a large portrait of the devil. Half-clothed in royal ermine; half man, half beast; with claws, cloven hooves, and a huge serpentine red tongue, the drawing shows Satan walled up in a cell alone rather than loosed in Hell. Immediately across from the devil is a portrait of the Kingdom of Heaven, creating an interesting contrast.
According to the Kungl Biblioteket, legend had it that the book was written by a monk condemned to be walled up alive. To spare his life, he promised his bishop that he would create the most wonderful book the world had ever seen, including the text of the Bible and the sum of all human knowledge up to that point in time – and he would do it in one night.
In order to accomplish this impossible task, he sold his soul to the devil. The legend is actually based on a misinterpretation of the word “inclusus” as the punishment of being walled up alive, but which actually refers to a monk choosing to live in a solitary cell away from the others.
Origins of the Codex Gigas
According to the Kungl Biblioteket, the book came to light in a financially strapped Benedictine monastery in Podlacize, Bohemia. To raise cash, these monks sold the book to the Cistercians of Sedlec, near Prague. Soon after acquiring the manuscript, that monastery also failed. The bishop ordered the book returned.
Years later Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf became obsessed with this book in addition to other alchemical and occult texts. He ingratiated himself with the monks who eventually gave it to Rudolf as a gift. Soon afterward, Rudolf became erratic and paranoid. He was declared unfit to rule and was banished by his family. During the Thirty Years War in the mid 17th century, Swedish armies attacked, sacking the royal library and seizing the Codex.
One of the mysteries of this book has been who wrote it. It seems impossible that one man could have written the entire manuscript alone. However, recent investigations by a team of scholars sponsored by the National Geographic supports the belief that it was the work of one man, possibly a monk called Hermann inclusus, who had chosen the solitary life.
Because scribing a holy book was a sentence of expiation, the monk could have been given this sentence as a punishment for breaking the order’s Rule, or he might have chosen to spend his life in this manner of quiet, obsessive contemplation.
The Manuscript’s Composition
During this study, paleographers used graphology to analyze the manuscript’s text. They noted that the book uses only one type of ink which was made from crushed insect nests. The style and font of the calligraphy is consistent throughout, lending credence to the theory of one scribe rather than many.
The manuscript’s calligraphy is thought to be self-taught due to its lack of sophistication; they also felt that the author must have been a gifted amateur because of the execution of the devil’s portrait. These experts estimate that the book would have taken a minimum of 25-30 years to complete, including the time taken to rule the pages, write the text, and complete the illuminations and drawings.
The manuscript is currently owned by the National Library in Stockholm, Sweden, although it was recently loaned back to Prague for viewing.
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