The Devil’s Bible is an unending mystery

The largest existing medieval manuscript was written in one day, according to legend

One of the great and mysterious Gothic treasures from Bohemia unfortunately now resides in Sweden, though it did return once a few years ago for a visit. The Devil’s Bible, also called Gigas Codex, was written sometime in the 13th century in the Benedictine monastery in Podlažice, near Pardubice in the Central Bohemia region of the Czech Republic.

The book is the largest medieval manuscript of any kind in the world. The name of the book comes from a full page illustration of the devil.

Gigas Codex

Gigas Codex in Sweden. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that a monk at the monastery in Podlažice had committed some infraction of the monastic rules so serious that he was sentenced by his brethren to to be walled up alive. The monk, called Herman the Recluse, sought to have the sentence reduced by promising to make the monastery famous by writing the largest known book in one day and night. The book was to have all the knowledge in the world between its two covers.

Nobody believed he could do it, but they gave him a chance, supplying him with ink, parchment and books to copy. The scribe started by copying out the Bible onto parchment but soon realized that even at a pace meant to save his life, he was far too slow.

To complete the task, the condemned monk at midnight called on help from the devil, and promised to give his soul for help in completing the tome.

Page from the Gigas Codex

Page from the Gigas Codex

With the devil’s help, by morning the scribe had copied the Bible, an etymological encyclopedia, two books on the history of the Jews, Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemia, other historical texts, a calendar, magic formulas and local records.

To thank the devil, the monk included his portrait in the book. The book measures 92 cm tall, 50 cm wide and 22 cm thick, with wood, leather and metal covers. 160 donkey hides were used to make the 320 pages. 

In some versions of the legend, the Virgin Mary intervenes at the end to save the monk’s soul. In other versions, the monk had a year to complete his task, but still it was not enough time so he again had to call on the devil.

A final twist in some versions is that the monk was to be starved to death only after he finished the book, and took some 30 years to copy all of the texts.

At some point, a dozen pages were removed. Some say these pages had a satanic prayer or other dark text, but there is no evidence to support this. Others speculate the pages had some mundane monastic rules that were taken out to be copied and never put back.


Background

Experts estimate that it would take more than five years of constant writing to copy all of the pages of the Gigas Codex.

Written in Latin, the book dates from the early 13th century, apparently the work of a monk named Herman, of whom little is known for certain. The last date mentioned in the book is 1229, and the existence of the book was first written about in 1295.

The book did not stay in one place, which is good because the monastery at Podlažice was destroyed by Hussites, a Protestant group, in the 15th century.

For a long time, for its own protection, the location of the book was known by only a few people, including eventually Emperor Ferdinand II, the grandfather of Rudolf II. He told his grandson about it.

Emperor Rudolf II byJoseph Heintz the Elder

Emperor Rudolf in 1594 by Joseph Heintz the Elder

The tome was moved to the Cistercians Sedlec Monastery and then to the Benedictine monastery in Břevnov. It was kept in the library of a monastery in Broumov from 1477 to 1593. It was taken to Prague in 1594 and became a part of Emperor Rudolf II’s collections.

It was carted off as booty from Prague in 1648 by Swedish forces during the Thirty Years’ War, along with many other artworks. Sweden’s Queen Christina was particularly interested in getting a hold of Rudolf’s treasures, and the codex was on the top of the list.

The book was kept from 1649 on at the Swedish Royal Library in Stockholm. On May 7, 1697, the book was saved from a fire by being thrown out of a window. It injured somebody in its fall, and was damaged as well.

In the 19th century, the book was again brought to the attention of international scholars by Czech nationalist and historian Josef Dobrovský.

Vaclav Havel

Banner of Václav Havel at Wenceslas Square. Source: Wikimedia commons

In 1990, Czechoslovak President Václav Havel said in a speech that he intended to ask for the return of items taken during the Thirty Years’ War, but the request fell on deaf ears as Sweden said the gesture could lead to museum collections worldwide being drained.

The Devil’s Book, however, did come to Prague on loan from September 2007 to January 2008, but only after sufficient guarantees were made that it would be returned. The exhibition was highly successful.


An article by Baba Studio with Raymond Johnston. Copyright Baba Studio, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

Written by
No comments

LEAVE A COMMENT