What You Should Know About the Codex Gigas, aka the Devil’s Bible
Codex Gigas, also known as ‘the Devil’s Bible,’ is the largest and probably one of the strangest medieval manuscripts in the world. Dark legends surround the tome and its origins and the full page portrait of the Devil increases its air of mystery. But what is the manuscript really about?
The Devil’s Bible is famous for two features – its size and the unique representation of the Devil. The codex became known as the Codex Gigas, ‘giant book,’ due to its immensity. It is so large that it took more than 160 animal skins to make it and it is so heavy that two people are needed to lift it. It measures 36 inches (91 cm) tall, 20 inches (50.5 cm) wide, and almost nine inches (22.86 cm) thick. It weighs 165 lbs. (74.8 kg).
The Codex Gigas in 1906. (National Library of Sweden)
Legendary Origins of the Codex Gigas
According to legend, the medieval manuscript was made out of a pact with the Devil, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Bible. The uniformity of the writing suggests that it was written by one scribe and stories say he was under immense pressure when he created the book.
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The story behind the making of Codex Gigas is that it was the work of one monk, sometimes named as Herman the Recluse, who was sentenced to death by being walled up alive for breaking his monastic vows. As a last gasp for survival he made a deal that he would create a book filled with the world’s knowledge in return for his life. His proposal was accepted, but his freedom from death would only be granted if the monk managed to complete the monumental manuscript in one night.
The only way the monk could see himself completing the insurmountable task was with the help of the Devil. After selling his soul, the scribe was able to fulfill the order and gain his freedom. The legend claims that this pact with the Devil can explain why the Prince of Darkness is depicted in such a prominent way in the codex. However, it is not known where this legend started and it is suspected that it was religiously propagated.
Real-size facsimile of Codex Gigas. (Michal Mañas/CC BY 2.5)
How Was the Codex Gigas Actually Made?
Although the story of a pact with the Devil is rather far-fetched, analysis of the level of uniformity of the Latin text does suggest that it was written by just one scribe. That person may not have been Herman the Recluse, but it was likely a 13th century monk who lived in Bohemia, a part of modern Czech Republic.
According to the National Geographic , it would take one person working continuously, day and night, 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 may be the source of the legend which says that the monk wrote it in just one day.
Originally, the Devil’s Bible was comprised on 320 vellum pages created with the skin of 160 donkeys, but at some point in its history, ten pages were removed. It is believed that those pages were the Rule of St. Benedict – a guide to living the monastic life in the 6th century.
What is the Devil’s Bible Really About?
Codex Gigas contains a complete vulgate Latin translation of the Bible as well as five other major texts. It begins with the Old Testament and continues with ‘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 and others; the New Testament; and ‘The Chronicle of Bohemia’ by Cosmas of Prague (1050 AD) - the first history of Bohemia.
Page of the Codex Gigas which may represent Flavius Josephus. This is the only portrait of a person in the codex. (National Library of Sweden)
Smaller texts are also included in the manuscript, with the most famous ones including writings on exorcism, magic formulas, and a calendar with a list of saints and Bohemian people of interest and the days on which they were honored.
As an illuminated manuscript, there are illustrations and decoration found throughout the Codex Gigas. Many of the drawings are impressive, but the most famous are the full page drawings of the Devil and the Heavenly City, which are facing each other.
Detail of the Devil portrait in the Codex Gigas. (National Library of Sweden)
The Devil is depicted as a large, monstrous figure taking up the entirety of Hell. He is drawn with large claws at the tips of outstretched arms, red-tipped horns, small red eyes, a green head and two long red tongues. He’s shown crouching between two large towers and is wearing and ermine loin cloth. This material was usually used by royalty and it may be a nod to the Devil as the Prince of Darkness. Even though portraits of the Devil were a common occurrence in medieval art, his depiction in the Codex Gigas stands out for presenting him all alone on a large page.
Across from the Devil is a full-page representation of the Heavenly City. It is shown in tiers of buildings and towers behind red walls. Towers also project from the walls and the Heavenly City is bordered with two larger towers, like the Devil portrait. This image probably was meant to inspire the ideas of hope and salvation and contrast with the evil nature of the Devil.
Taken together, the portrait and city probably were meant to be a reflection on what would await you if you lived a good or bad life. The text before the Heavenly City refers to penitence and the text after the Devil is about exorcisms. The Devil and the Heavenly City are the only illustrations occupying full pages in the Codex Gigas.
The Heavenly City in the Codex Gigas. (National Library of Sweden)
The Known History of the Codex Gigas
As noted above, the true origins of the Codex Gigas are unknown. In the text, there is a note stating that the manuscript was pawned by the monks of Podlažice in the monastery at Sedlec in 1295. From there it was located in the Břevnov near Prague. Since the monasteries associated with the early history of the Codex Gigas were located in Bohemia and the text refers to that area’s history, it is generally accepted that it was created in Bohemia too.
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The next mention of the Codex Gigas is when Rudolf II took it to his castle in Prague in 1594. It stayed there until the Swedish siege of Prague at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The Swedish army looted the city and one of the treasures they took was the medieval manuscript. That’s how it ended up in Stockholm.
In 1877 the Codex Gigas became part of the collection of the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, where it is still found today. Stories and legends say that the Codex Gigas was cursed and brought disaster or illness on whoever possessed it during its history. Fortunately, the National Library appears immune to the curse of the codex!
The Codex Gigas. (Sharon Hahn Darlin/CC BY 2.0)
Anyone in Sweden should pay a visit to see the Codex Gigas, and those who can’t see it in-person can view the digital pages of the Devil’s Bible online. Do not be afraid, it is quite safe to read the so-called Devil’s Bible!
Harlitz-Kern, E. (2015) ‘10 Things You Should Know About The Devil’s Bible (Or Codex Gigas).’ Book Riot. Available at: https://bookriot.com/2015/07/15/10-things-know-devils-bible/
Lamoureux, A. (2018) ‘How Codex Gigas Became The Devil’s Bible.’ All That’s Interesting. Available at: https://allthatsinteresting.com/codex-gigas-devils-bible
National Library of Sweden. (n.d.) ‘Codex Gigas.’ National Library of Sweden. Available at: http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/
Veronese, K. (2012) ‘Codex Gigas: Devil’s Bible or Just an Old books?’ Gizmodo. Available at: https://io9.gizmodo.com/codex-gigas-devils-bible-or-just-an-old-book-5873098
World Digital Library. (2017) ‘Devil’s Bible.’ World Digital Library. Available at: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/3042/