Myths often surround old books. The Codex Gigas (otherwise known as the Giant Book or the Devil’s Bible) is one such manuscript, and the tale that surrounds it is a dark one.
It is said that there once lived a monk in Bohemia who broke his vows in some terrible, unspeakable way. As punishment, his monastery decided to wall him up alive and force the monk to spend the rest of his days trapped in a single room with no hope of ever leaving it. To escape his punishment, the monk promised to spend a single day creating the most glorious manuscript that his monastery had ever seen. As the clock neared midnight, he began to despair; he was far from finishing his book. In a fit of anguish, he prayed to Lucifer to help him finish his grand work. In exchange, the monk offered his soul. The devil agreed to this deal, and out of gratitude, the monk added Lucifer’s portrait to several pages of the text.
Though this legend is not entirely true, it has its roots in reality, and shows that people enjoyed stories about deals with the devil. Some believe that the codex was created by Herman the Recluse, a thirteenth century Benedictine monk from the modern day Czech Republic. The Church did, indeed, wall up Herman alive and force him to inscribe holy texts, and it could have taken Herman up to 30 years to complete the Codex Gigas.
The codex itself is an extraordinary work. It weighs 165 pounds, is 36 in (92 cm) tall, 20 in. (50 cm) wide, and 8.7 in (22 cm) thick. Despite its origins in the contemporary Czech Republic, the codex found its way to Sweden at the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648 where it has been kept in the Royal Library ever since. Sweden did briefly loan the text to the Czech National Library in 2007-2008 but has retained ownership of the work.
The codex contains the Latin Bible’s Vulgate edition, which means it followed the Catholic Church’s canonical translation of biblical texts into Latin. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, the work contain’s priest Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemians, which details the history of the region surrounding Prague, and monastery and local records. The brilliant illuminations and illustrations that have captured the imagination of so many people appear throughout the codex in order to emphasize different biblical themes. In the photo at the top of this post for example, an image of the devil sits on one page and is contrasted with an image of heaven on another.
If you want to learn more about the Codex Gigas, the Royal Library of Sweden has a wonderful English language website about the manuscript that you can explore here. Because I find the stories surrounding old texts fascinating, I wanted to share this one with you. How authors chose particular texts and images can open a small window into the past and allows us to better understand our world.
For those of you who celebrate Halloween, I hope that you have a happy and safe day!
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Codex Gigas, National Library of Sweden (Kungl. biblioteket), ca. 1200’s.
Josephus Portrait, image from Codex Gigas, National Library of Sweden (Kungl. biblioteket), ca. 1200’s.