The Codex Gigas is the largest illuminated manuscript of the Middle Ages. In addition to religious texts, encyclopedic, medical knowledge, and color illustrations, this book contains an image of the devil on a full page, hence the second name of the manuscript. The Codex Gigas is also known as the Devil’s Bible because of its legend. The codex was written between 1204 and 1230 in Latin in a Carolingian minischool, a type of writing popular in the Middle Ages. Scholars believe that the manuscript was created by a representative of the Benedictine Order. The book is 92 cm high, 50 cm wide, 22 cm thick and weighs 74.8 kg. It was originally written on 320 sheets of parchment, believed to have been made from the skins of 160 donkeys. Over time, 10 pages of the Code have disappeared.
In a 2008 National Geographic documentary on Codex Gigas, experts suggested that the book was written by one man. It took about 5 years to write the pages alone, and another 20 years to decorate the pages with silver, gold ornaments and bright miniatures.
“First, the author had to arrange each page and only then start writing the letters,” say the experts in the film. “He probably wrote about 100 lines of text in one day.”
Most of the pages of the code are devoted to religious texts, historical treatises, medical and encyclopedic knowledge. For example, there are the Old and New Testaments, the books of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius ”Jewish Antiquities” and “Jewish War”, the encyclopedia of the scholar Isidore of Seville “Etymology”, widespread in the Middle Ages, medical treatises of Hippocrates, there are even descriptions of the ritual exorcism and astronomical calendar.
Historians point out that the Code probably reflected all the knowledge of the world and nature that the Benedictine Order had at the time the book was written. Particular attention is drawn to the location on one side of the Kingdom of Heaven, and on the other – Satan. Apparently in this way the author wanted to show the contrast between the images of Good and Evil. The legend
Legend has it that at the beginning of the 13th century in one of the monasteries on the territory of modern Bohemia lived a monk-scribe who once broke his monastic vows. As a result, the brothers decided to punish him for this act by building it in the walls of the monastery. The monk did not want to die and to avoid punishment, he promised to create a book for one night, which would include all the knowledge gained by mankind and glorify the monastery. While working on the book, the monk realized that he could not do it alone and needed help. He prayed fervently, but not to God, but to the fallen angel Lucifer, asking him to help him write the Code in exchange for his soul. The devil finished the manuscript and as a token of gratitude for the help the monk drew it on one of the pages of the book. Although the devil kept his promise, the author portrayed him in a divided language – this image is used in religious texts to denote a dishonest, deceitful person.
Painted with red horns and two tongues, with an ermine cloak, this creature stares blankly. He is depicted between two towers. It is worth noting that only members of the royal family wore ermine, so this detail defines the devil as the “prince of darkness”. Right next to the illustration of the devil there is an image of paradise, represented by many rows of buildings, which are also located between two towers. What makes the kingdom of heaven alarming is the fact that there are no signs of life there. Without explanation, the author painted a paradise completely devoid of life. These two pages ominously portrayed good and evil side by side. These illustrations are also the only full-page drawings in Codex Gigas.
Another legend haunts the Codex Gigas – it is known as the “Curse of the Devil’s Bible”. In 1477, the Benedictine monastery in Bohemia, known as the source of the medieval manuscript, experienced financial difficulties. Therefore, the monks had no choice but to sell their most valuable property – Codex Gigas. At that time the manuscript belonged to the Benedictine monastery in Brzhevnov. Shortly afterwards, the monastery in Bohemia fell under the devastation of the Hussite revolution.
A brief history of the Code
Scholars studying the Codex and other historical documents have been able to trace the “life path” of the manuscript.
From 1204 to 1230 – during this period the Code was created, the hermit monk Herman worked on it in the Benedictine monastery, which was located in the Czech town of Podlazice.
1295 – The Benedictine monastery in Podlazice pledges the code of the neighboring monastery in Siedlec, which later sells the book to the Brzevnov monastery in Prague.
1594 – The codex falls into the hands of German King Rudolf II, who places the book in his castle in Prague.
1648 – The Swedes plunder Prague. The manuscript ends with Queen Christina of Sweden, who keeps the manuscript in her library at the Three Crowns wooden castle.
1697 – Fire in the castle “Three Crowns”. Nearly 18,000 books and 5,700 manuscripts were burned in the fire. The code survives because the servants manage to throw it out the window. The cover of the book was seriously damaged when it fell.
1768 – The codex is deposited in the new residence of the Swedish monarchs – the Royal Palace in Stockholm.
1819 – The codex is restored: the binding is replaced.
1878 – The codex is moved to a new library building in Humlegarden Park.
2007 – The manuscript was sent to Prague and temporarily exhibited at the National Library.
2018 – The Codex becomes a permanent exhibition at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, where it is available to the general public.
If you want to get acquainted with Codex Gigas, you can view the book on the official website of the library. The manuscript is fully digitized.
Isidore, O. S. & Josephus, F. (1200) Devil’s Bible. [Place of Publication Not Identified: Publisher Not Identified, to 1230] [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2021667604/.
Photo: Michal Maňas / CC BY 2.5