Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Codex Gigas: The Mystery of the Devil’s Bible

"Devil codex Gigas" by Kungl. biblioteket. Licensed under Attribution via Commons -

“Devil codex Gigas” by Kungl. biblioteket. Licensed under Attribution via Commons –

The Bible is revered by millions as the word of God. While many do not question its divinity, it can’t be denied that the Holy Writ has been produced in myriad versions over the long history of Christianity. We have previously covered the so-called Wicked Bible, where an unfortunate typo resulted in what is today considered by collectors among the rarest and most valuable Bibles.

There is another, one of a kind Bible with its own wicked associations. This massive tome requires two people to lift it, and contains not only the Old and New Testaments, but several other books of arcane knowledge.  It has another feature besides its size that makes it unique among Bibles, for it contains a huge engraving of none other than the Devil himself. Known as the Codex Gigas, the huge book has a more diabolical nickname: The Devil’s Bible.

 

A Doomed Monk and a Diabolical Deal

Legend has it that the Devil’s Bible originated from the pen of a desperate, doomed monk. The monk was set to be walled up in his room alive as punishment for an unnamed sin. In his desperation, he told the abbot that he would produce a tome that contained all the knowledge of man, and that he would do so in one night. The skeptical abbot allowed the man his penitence, knowing that such a thing was impossible. The monk set about dutifully working on the massive project, but when several hours had passed, it became clear that his desperate gamble would not pay off and he would endure a ghastly death. Then the Devil appeared, and offered to help the beleaguered monk with his impossible project. The monk agreed, and with his diabolical helper completed his masterwork and avoided execution. For his part, the Devil added in his own addition to the work—a huge self portrait, set on the page opposite an illustration of the City of God, a profane element within a holy book.

This story is, of course, legend. But legends contain a grain of truth. Monks who lived their lives as recluses, locked within their cells so as to avoid the distractions of the wider world so as to more closely commune with God, where not uncommon in the medieval world. Sometimes the door was even walled in.

There is some evidence within the book itself that supports the idea that the book was the work of a single monk, who perhaps lived his life confined to a cell. The script of the main books within the Bible—The Old and New Testament, the works of Josephus, a collection of medical works, the Chronicle of Bohemia, and some short works dealing with penitence, exorcism, and a calendar dedicated to the celebration of saints and important Bohemian figures—appears to be remarkably consistent. Books in those days were rare and difficult to make. They were transcribed by hand, and like the Devil’s Bible, many books were a mish-mash of several texts combined together, according to themes or whatever the monk happened to find interesting. The consistency of the script lends credence to the idea that the book was the work of one man, although most scholars agree that a book of that size and intricacy would have taken one man decades to complete, obviously far longer than the single frantic night in the legend.

 

SapientiaA Long, Winding History

The exact origins of the Devil’s Bible are unknown. Some clues to the book’s history can be found within its pages, particularly in the Calendar. It is known for certain that the book originated in medieval Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. Scholars reached this conclusion due to the fact that the author felt it was necessary to include Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicles of Bohemians in his masterpiece. That, and the Calendar contains days dedicated to the veneration of important Bohemian persons, including saints and kings. Obviously, outside of Bohemia none of this would be all that important, so the logical conclusion is that the author was Bohemian. As for his identity, it is unknown. It is believed that he was a monk named Herman, who is mentioned in the Calendar.

Whoever the author was, he completed the work between 1224 and 1230. The Devil’s Bible first appears on the historical record as belonging to a Benedictine monastery at Podlazice, although since the monastery was tiny and impoverished, it is doubtful they produced the massive tome. How they got their hands on it is unknown, but what is known is that book was sold off to the Cistercians of Sedlec, and in 1295 wound up once again in the hands of Benedictines, this time of the Brevnov monastery.

There it remained until 1420, when the monks at Brevnov were forced by the outbreak of the Hussite War to retreat to a community at Broumov. There it remained for almost two hundred years. Considered a wonder of the world, the who’s who of the medieval world came to gaze upon the strange manuscript, and left their signatures on the manuscript.

In the 16th century, King Rudolph II of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Emperor, showed an interest in the diabolical book. In 1594, the king received permission to borrow the book from the Benedictines. He never bothered to return it.  The book remained in Prague, where it was copied and studied extensively. There it remained until 1648, when Swedish forces taking part in the 30 Years War laid siege to the Bohemian capital and took the Codex Gigas as war booty once they broke in and looted the city.

Once it arrived in Stockholm, the book stayed put for almost fifty years, before it was almost destroyed in a fire. The Codex Gigas only survived the flames when a caretaker through the hefty book out the window, allegedly injuring someone on the ground below.  To this day, the Devil’s Bible remains in Stockholm.

 

"Codex-Gigas-Devil-enhanced" by Weaverbard - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons -

“Codex-Gigas-Devil-enhanced” by Weaverbard – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons –

Mysteries remain

There are many mysteries that remain around the Devil’s Bible. Who exactly wrote the massive book, and why? As was mentioned, it is believed a monk by the name of Herman is the book’s probable author, but nothing is known about him beyond his name, and even then no one is certain that the book is his work. An interesting tidbit is that Herman’s name is listed in the book as “Hermanus monachus inclusus,” which means that he was one of the monks who took up a life of isolation. If it is true that the author was a reclusive monk, it would at least begin to explain the origins of the bizarre legend of the book’s authorship.

But the biggest mystery of all revolves around the infamous illustration of the devil on page 577 of the Codex Gigas. Set opposite the Kingdom of Heaven, Satan himself is illustrated in his monstrous glory.  This is the only instance of the Devil being depicted in a Bible. Why would the author show the Evil One in such stark relief within the holiest work of his faith? Was it meant to be a statement of some kind, perhaps to strike the fear of God into the reader? Or was there some sort of occult reason to include such an image? Or a political reason?

Not knowing who the author was, it is difficult to speculate as to his reasons for including such an illustration. It is good to note that the drawing occurs before a section dedicated to exorcism, so perhaps the reason could be as mundane as it being a sort of illustrated chapter marker. We just don’t know. And since the Devil’s Bible only gives up its secrets grudgingly, we may never know for certain.

 

Sources:

http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/short/

http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/Long/handskriftens/

http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/Long/handskriftens/war-booty/#Looting in Prague

http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/Long/description/

Feeding the Body to Save the Soul: The Bizarre Custom of Sin-Eating

Peasant_FuneralDeath is as much a part of living as being born. This morbid fact has been handled very differently by cultures throughout history. Much has been written on this site about mummification, from the accidental to the deliberate. Certainly mummification was a method among many cultures to attaining eternal peace in the afterlife. Christian cultures, on the other hand, believed that eternal life came in the spiritual realm. While it was important in many Christian sects to have a body buried whole and in consecrated ground, they believed that said body would be raised at judgment day and transmogrified into a new body that would meet God face to face. This is why the custom of profane burial in England and other parts of Europe was considered one of the ultimate sanctions—a body that was desecrated and buried in unconsecrated ground would not be able to participate in this great resurrection.

There were other strange customs in England surrounding the treatment of the dead. Like the profane burials, it was a collision of Christian theology and local folkways. Unlike the profane burials, it was not meant as a punishment toward the deceased but rather a way to absolve the deceased of any sins. This was done by having another person—dubbed a sin eater—take upon themselves the burden of that wickedness, by quite literally eating their sins.

 

Bread, salt, and milk (or beer)

Most funerary practices involve food in some way shape or form. Some cultures have specific meals that are traditionally eaten after a funeral, while in more modern times it’s customary to eat a meal after a funeral but it is not necessarily limited to traditional fare. The corpse is generally not present for such meals, depending on tradition.

In the custom of sin-eating, however, the corpse is very much present for the meal. In fact, it is central. The custom, which was mainly practiced in parts of Wales and Scotland, generally involved hiring an impoverished local  to eat a meal over the body of the dead for the grand sum of six pence. The meal itself varied a bit from region to region, but generally speaking it consisted of bread, salt, and beer. Some regions swapped the beer for milk.

The idea was that, by consuming the food over the corpse, the sin-eater would take upon themselves the sin of the deceased. The custom was usually employed when someone died unexpectedly. Naturally, this did not sit well with local church officials, who saw it not only as superstition but perhaps as an affront to their own authority. Still, many priests looked the other way, since the custom lasted from at least the 17th century to the late 19th and early 20th century.

 

The Life of a Sin-Eater

Every community in areas where sin-eating was practiced had a village sin-eater. Typically these individuals were low status members of the community, who were desperate enough to take on the sins of others for money. With their ritual uncleanness came social stigmatization. As the village sin-eater partook in the ritual more often, they became more and more unclean in the eyes of their peers.

However, not all sin-eaters were social pariahs or poor, desperate beggars. The last known sin-eater, Richard Munslow, passed away in 1906. Running counter to the general trend, he was a prosperous farmer in the area around Shropshire village. So, not all the sin-eaters were necessarily outcasts, but neither was it an acceptable occupation. No mention seems to be made about what their fate would be for taking upon themselves the sins of others when their own death came. Perhaps if they were fortunate some kind soul would eat their sins and take that burden upon themselves, leaving the sin-eater in peace.

 

Sources:

Brown, Erica. “Soul Food and Sin-Eating: Folklore, Faith, and Funerals.” ShapWorkingParty.org. 2009/10. The Shap working party on Education in Religions.  November 1, 2015. http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/journals/articles_0910/browne.pdf

“Last ‘sin-eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC.com. September  19, 2010. BBC News. November 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-shropshire-11360659

“Sin eaters and sin eating.” Logoi.com. 2007. November 1, 2015 http://www.logoi.com/notes/sin-eaters.html

Veronese, Keith. “The Weird but True History of Sin Eaters.” Io9.com. April 30, 2013. Io9. November 1, 2015. http://io9.com/the-weird-but-true-history-of-sin-eaters-479990066

 

Modern Day Hermits: The Sad Story of the Collyer Brothers

Homer Collyer, arguing with police. "Homer Collyer 1939" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Homer Collyer, arguing with police. “Homer Collyer 1939” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Throughout history, some people have decided to forgo human contact and live a life of solitude. Whether for religious reasons or simple preference, these hermits become objects of gossip and curiosity in the surrounding community.

While history is scattered with such lonely souls, one of the saddest and strangest stories of self- imposed solitude is that of the Collyer brothers. The descendants of one of the country’s oldest families, Homer and Langley Collyer were wealthy eccentrics who med a sad, lonely end after years of solitude in their New York brownstone mansion.

 

Upbringing and hermitage

Homer Collyer was born in 1881, while Langley was born four years later. Their father, was Herman Collyer, a prominent New York doctor. They grew up i the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, and summered on Long Island on the family’s spacious country estate. Both brothers attended college: Homer graduated from City College in 1902, then moved on to study law at Columbia. Langley studied electrical and mechanical engineering, also at Columbia.

In 1909, Herman Collyer purchased the brownstone manner on 2078 Fifth Avenue, where his sons would meet their sad fates 38 years later. Herman and his wife separated sometime after that, allegedly because Herman wanted to turn the brownstone into a sanitarium and his wife disagreed. After the split, Herman moved into another house, where he lived until his death in 1923. Mrs. Collyer lived the remainder of her life with her sons in the brownstone, until she passed away in 1929. The brothers Collyer inherited their father’s estates, and with the death of their mother, they withdrew more and more into their reclusive little world.

 

A reclusive life

“All we want is for people to leave us alone. A man’s home is his castle. What we do inside it is our business.” Homer Collyer

After their parent’s deaths, the Collyer brothers withdrew into their three story brownstone. Homer briefly worked for the City Title Insurance Co., from 1929 to 1931. But by 1932, he told a neighbor that he was going blind. After that, the neighbors never saw him leave the house again.

Langley followed his brother’s lead. He only left the mansion at night, when he bought food and dumpster dived for cast-offs with which he increasingly hoarded their home. He fed Homer 100 oranges a day, hoping it would cure his blindness. He bought several daily papers for his brother, which he kept in boxes so that his brother could catch up on current events when his sight returned.

Conditions in the house deteriorated as the hoarding situation worsened and the brothers withdrew into themselves. The city cut power because the brothers would not allow anyone in to read the meter. In response, Langley rigged up a generator to provide electricity, but the system proved too cumbersome to use so the brothers resorted to kerosene for light and heat.

Rumors began to spread about the brothers. Many assumed that the dilapidated house contained a trove of riches: from rare antiques, to valuable artwork, to safes full of cash. Neighbors frequently knocked on the front door, while vandals threw rocks and bottles at the windows.

The unwanted attention made Langley paranoid. He boarded up the windows and formed all the junk he had accumulated over the years into makeshift barricades and a maze of tunnels rigged with booby traps that would drop hundreds of pounds of garbage upon any hapless intruder.

By 1940, Homer’s health was in decline. Rheumatism paralyzed his body. Langley moved him to a barricaded room where he attended his brother’s every need. The last time anyone saw Langley alive was six years after Homer was stricken with Rheumatism. He testified against a man accused of attempting to break into his house.

During the trial, Langley claimed that he had ten grand pianos in the house, one of which was a gift to his mother from Queen Victoria. He played this treasure for his brother. It was later found that the total was not ten as he had claimed, but fourteen. Perhaps this lapse was a sign of Langley’s deteriorating mental state, or a simple oversight by a man who owned far too much to keep track of it all.

 

A mysterious call and a grisly discovery

A view inside the Collyer house. "Collyer1a". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

A view inside the Collyer house.
“Collyer1a”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

The morning of March 21, 1947, a man calling himself Charles Smith called the police, saying that there was a dead man in the Collyer house.

Officers arrived to find that they couldn’t force the front doors. When they took the doors off the hinges, they found a wall of boxes. Upon breaking the first floor window, they found that the ground floor was crammed with stacks of junk to the ceiling.

By noon, officers found entrance through a second story window. They wound their way through the piles of junk to find the corpse of Homer Collyer. He had not eaten or drank for three days before his death. He died from a combination of chronic bronchitis, gangrenous bedsores, and emphysema. Langley was nowhere to be found. Officers suspected that he was the one who placed the call once he found his brother dead, and he then slipped away.

On the second day, clean up began. By the end of the day, officers had removed 19 tons of trash from the residence. The curious gathered, but didn’t stay long due to the horrendous stench. Police smoked cheap cigars to ward off the foulness. A housing inspector present at the scene said that the house was rotten inside and out due to a leaky roof and open windows.

By March 31, the city hired movers to finish the clean up. The hoard was an eclectic mix: 25,000 books, 14 grand pianos, hope chests, toy trains, 13 ornate mantel clocks, fine violins, two organs, and ton after ton of papers, assorted bric-a-brac, and trash. By April 3, the movers cleaned 51 tons of trash from just the first floor rooms.

On April 8, after removing another 52 tons of junk, the movers made a grisly discovery: a foot poking out of a pile of garbage. It was the body of Langley Collyer. Officers believed that, when crawling through a tunnel in the garbage, his cloths caught on a trip wire and he was buried under tons of garbage. He eventually suffocated to death.

Once the mansion was cleaned out, the city’s building commissioner ordered it demolished.

 

Sources:

Bryk, William. “The Collyer Brothers.” NYSun.com. April  13, 2005. The Sun. October 21, 2015. http://www.nysun.com/on-the-town/collyer-brothers/12165/

“The Collyer Mystery Solved.” The Pittsburgh Press. April 9, 1947. Pg 21

“Police Await Hermit’s Return Following Death of Brother.” The Pittsburgh Press. March 22, 1947. Pg 3