The Codex Gigas (Latin for “Giant Book”) is interesting enough for being the largest and existing medieval manuscript in the world, but the legend behind it makes it all the more intriguing for oddballs like myself!
It is so large that it is said to have taken more than 160 animal skins to make it and takes two people to lift it. The codex is bound in a wooden folder covered with leather and ornate metal. At 36.2in. tall, 19.7in. wide and 8.6in. thick and weighing 165 pounds.
The Codex is believed to have been created by Herman the Recluse at the Benedictine Podlažice monastery in the early 13th century. Although the origin of the manuscript is unknown, a note written in the manuscript states that it was pawned by the monastery at Sedlec by its owners, the monks of Podlažice, in 1295 (f. 1v). It soon passed to the monastery of Břevnov near Prague. All of these monasteries were in Bohemia (near Chrudim in Czech Republic.).
According to legend Herman was a monk who breached his monastic code and was sentenced to be walled up alive.
In order to forbear this harsh penalty he promised to create – in one single night – a book to glorify the monastery forever, and included all vital human knowledge.
Indeed, an analysis on the text does strongly suggest that it was written by just one scribe due to the level of uniformity throughout.
Near midnight the monk became sure that he could not complete this task alone, so he “sold his soul to the devil” for help. The devil completed the manuscript and the monk added the devil’s picture out of gratitude for his aid.
Legends are funny things. It seems that the legend about Herman making a pact with the devil is more likely a mistranslation of the word ‘inclusus,’ which rather than meaning “walled up alive,” more literally means “choosing to live a solitary life.”
It is due to this unique illustration (below) that the Codex Gigas is also known as the religiously propagated, ‘Devil’s Bible.’
Codex Gigas contains a complete Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible as well as five other major texts, except for the books of Acts and Revelation. It begins with the Old Testament and continues with ‘The Antiquities of the Jews,’ by Flavius Josephus (1st century AD; ‘Encyclopedia Etymologiae’ by Isidore of Seville (6th century AD); a collection of medical works of Hippocrates, Theophilus; the New Testament; the ‘Chronicle of the Czechs,’ by Cosmas of Prague (1050 AD), and others.
It also contains mystical medical formulas for anything from Exorcisms, Medical practice, Form of conjuration, to treating epilepsy. It contains spells and incantations, as well as many other strange and bizarre inscriptions.
The Codex initially contained 320 sheets, though some of these were subsequently removed. It is unknown who removed the pages or for what purpose but it seems likely that they contained the monastic Benedictine Rules.
At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the year 1648, the entire collection was stolen by the Swedish army as plunder. From 1649 to 2007 the manuscript was kept in the Swedish Royal Library in Stockholm. The site of its creation is marked by a maquette in the town museum of Chrast.
On May 7th, 1697, a fierce fire broke out at the royal castle in Stockholm, and the Royal Library suffered very badly. The codex was rescued from the flames by throwing it out of a window. The codex apparently injured a bystander and some of its leaves fluttered away and they are still missing today.
The Codex Gigas is now preserved at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm where you can also view the digital pages of the Codex. Anyone in Sweden should pay a visit to the see Codex Gigas – and do not be afraid, it is quite safe to read the so-called Devil’s Bible!
According to the National Geographic, it would take one person working continuously, day and night, for five years to recreate the contents of Codex Gigas by hand (excluding the illustrations). Therefore, realistically it would have taken at least 25 years for the scribe to create the codex from scratch. Yet, all this time, the writing retained an incredible uniformity from start to finish. This would make sense if Herman was simply living a solitary life.
The National Geographic documentary (below) included interviews with manuscript experts who pointed towards evidence (handwriting analysis and a credit to herman inclusus – “herman the recluse”) that indicates the manuscript was the work of just one scribe.