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/