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The Devil’s Bible – a mysterious massive medieval manuscript

The largest existing medieval manuscript, the Devil’s Bible 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 Devil’s Bible 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.

Legend has it that a monk at the monastery in Podlažice had committed some infraction of the monastic rules so seriously that he was sentenced by his brethren 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.

Gigas Codex in Sweden. Source: Kungl. biblioteket Devil's Bible
Gigas Codex in Sweden. Source: Kungl. biblioteket
Church of St Margaret on the site of the former monastery devil's bible magic bohemia
Church of St Margaret on the site of the former Podlažice monastery

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, which is why it is called the Devil’s Bible. 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 Emperor Rudolf II. He told his grandson about it.

The Devil’s Bible was moved to the Cistercians’ monastery in Sedlec and then to the Benedictine monastery in Břevnov. the book 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.

Page from the Gigas Codex magic bohemia tarot of prague Devil's Bible
Page from the Gigas Codex
Allegorical portrait of Rudolf II by Giuseppe Arcimboldo 1591 magic bohemia tarot of prague
Allegorical portrait of Rudolf II by Giuseppe Arcimboldo 1591
Banner of Václav Havel at Wenceslas Square magic bohemia tarot of prague
Banner of Václav Havel at Wenceslas Square. Source: Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Břevnov Monastery devil's bible magic bohemia tarot of prague Devil's Bible
Břevnov Monastery

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.

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 Bible, 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.

In The Tarot of Prague, the Devil card in the Major Arcana is inspired by images from a wall painting in the historical pub U Fleků and sgraffito on the facade of Martinický Palác.

For more a vintage recipe for devilish gingerbread and a look at the Temptation card in in The Bohemian Fortune Telling Cards., check out our holiday article.

Devil from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Devil from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
devilish gingerbread bohemian fortune telling
Temptation with a gingerbread devil

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

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