Humanity is fascinated with ancient relics because they serve as reminders of a bygone time and have managed to endure up to now as vestiges of those who once roamed the earth as we do today. The thought that these items were once created and used by our ancestors resonates with many of us because of their historical and cultural significance as well as the unanswered mysteries that surround them.
Ancient books and texts in particular, with the enigmatic knowledge that they contain in their old and tattered pages, are probably among the most fascinating of them all. And one of the most bizarre and mysterious books of our past is the Codex Gigas, a medieval text known for its catchier and more popular name – “The Devil’s Bible.”
BACKGROUND ON THE CODEX GIGAS
So, what is the Codex Gigas? Well, when translated into English, it literally means “giant book,” and that name fits perfectly considering that this ancient medieval manuscript is regarded as the largest one in the world. At 3 feet tall, 1.64 feet wide and with a thickness of less than a foot, its massive size cannot be denied. It also weighs heavy at 165 pounds, and it reportedly requires two librarians to lift it up.
The Codex Gigas is bound in a folder made of wood which is protected with leather and is decorated with metal. The book contains 310 sheets of parchment leaves said to have been made from donkey skin or calfskin. This means that the manuscript has 620 pages of writings and illustrations, though it is believed that a few pages have been removed from the book for reasons unknown.
The origin of this medieval manuscript can be traced back to 13th-century Bohemia, which is located in what is now known as the Czech Republic. Some believe that the text was written by Herman the Recluse, but it is generally agreed on that it was created in a Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia. It is indicated in the manuscript that the book was later pawned to a monastery in Sedlec sometime in 1295. Then, it was purchased by the Benedictine monastery Břevnov where it was safely kept in its library between 1477 and 1593. Incidentally, the monastery where the manuscript originally came from was destroyed sometime in the 15th century as well.
It was in 1594 that the Codex Gigas was brought to Prague and was added to the treasured collection of the Holy Roman Emperor King Rudolf II. But by the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the emperor’s collection was forcibly taken by the Swedish army as spoils of war and among them was the gigantic medieval manuscript. Beginning in 1649, the codex was housed in the Swedish Royal Library in Stockholm. Unluckily, a fire broke out at the royal castle in 1697, and in order to save the book, it had to be thrown out of one of the library’s windows, supposedly injuring a bystander in the process.
After this incident, the Codex Gigas continued to be kept inside the royal library until 2007. The medieval text was temporarily returned to Prague on loan where it was displayed at the Czech National Library until 2009. After that, the book was returned to Sweden where it remains to this day.
CONTENT OF THE CODEX GIGAS
There are many reasons why the Codex Gigas was once considered the “eighth wonder of the world.” Some of the more obvious reasons are its size and beauty, but much of the interest regarding this medieval manuscript is in its contents and the intricate process it took to complete it.
Around half of the pages of the book contain the Vulgate version of the Latin Bible’s old and new testaments. The manuscript also contains a variety of shorter texts written in Latin as well as alphabets of other languages such as Greek, Hebrew and Slavic. Some of them are medical texts while another set of pages contain a type of encyclopedia. The book also contains a calendar and writings about magic spells and exorcisms. Pages of the text are also heavily decorated with stylish borders, intricate lettering, and various illustrations.
Among the many illustrations prominently featured in the manuscript, one stands out the most. On the 290th page of the Codex Gigas, a full-page depiction of the devil can be found. It is this particular portrait of the devil that the medieval manuscript’s other name – the Devil’s Bible – was taken from.
MYSTERY BEHIND THE DEVIL’S BIBLE
The devil drawn in the book was a creature who is part-man and part-beast, with claws, hooves and a snake-like tongue. Satan stands alone between two pillars, and next to his image is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven. While it is not uncommon to find depictions of the devil in several ancient manuscripts, it is a rare thing to see a whole page dedicated to the Dark Lord’s portrait and it is also unusual for the devil to be drawn all alone without his subjects in Hell.
As if the devil’s image in the book is not curious and mysterious enough, experts have also determined that the uniform handwriting seen throughout the text suggests that the Codex Gigas was written by a single scribe in a relatively short span of time. Considering the various collection of texts contained in its pages, including the intricate illustrations and illuminations, the realistic estimate for a single person to complete the entire book would be around 25 to 30 years. However, whoever wrote the manuscript showed no signs of deterioration in his handwriting, which could be affected by factors such as the scribe’s age, disease or mood over time. And so, based on another estimation, it would have taken a single individual around 5 years to complete the writings alone if he wrote for six hours a day for all six days of every week.
There were also theories raised about the missing pages of the Devil’s Bible, and one of them is that they were deliberately disposed of as they held deadly information which, if utilized by mortals, could lead to catastrophic results. Others, however, are more pessimistic as they believe that the lost pages were already stolen by those who sought to fulfill an atrocious purpose.
LEGEND BEHIND ITS CREATION
How could the unholiest figure of the devil be featured in what is supposed to be one of the most sacred texts of the world? And did a single person really manage to write everything in the Devil’s Bible in a short amount of time? If so, who is he?
For now, many agree that the exact answers to these questions remain elusive. But if we must provide an available explanation right now, we can only refer to the legend behind the manuscript’s creation.
According to a version of this medieval legend, there was once a monk who served in the monastery of Podlažice. This monk had committed a grievous crime and he was sentenced to pay for his sins by being walled up alive. In order to escape this severe punishment, he vowed to write a book that would bring immense glory to the monastery which could last throughout the ages, and he promised to accomplish such a feat all in a single night.
But just as he was about to run out of time, the scribe prayed to the fallen angel Lucifer to help him finish the book by midnight. The monk offered his soul in exchange for the devil’s aid, but he also included a portrait of the Dark Lord in the text as an expression of gratitude.
Considering the dark legend involving its creation, it is not so surprising that the Codex Gigas has gained a notorious reputation over the centuries that passed for being cursed.
It is believed that the manuscript brings nothing but misfortune, tragedy, and illness to those who come to possess it. The evidence often raised by those who believe that the book is cursed is its tumultuous history. The fact that the locations it was previously housed in such as its original home and the Royal Swedish Library all have met untimely destruction did not escape attention, and this coincidence has led them to conclude that the gigantic medieval text may truly be of sinister origin.
Today, the Devil’s Bible is under the care of the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, and so far, it has yet to show any indication in recent years that it is indeed a cursed manuscript. Perhaps the image of the devil next to the illustration of heaven is nothing more than the author’s artistic demonstration of the opposing forces of good and evil. But who knows? The enigmatic Devil’s Bible may truly contain some malevolent powers that are just patiently waiting to get unlocked. But regardless of whether it is cursed or not, no one can disregard the opinions of many throughout history that the Codex Gigas is truly a marvel to behold, and deserves to be heralded as one of the wonders of the world for its beauty, size and its immortalized words and illustrations.