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Object of Intrigue: The Devil’s Bible


The Codex Gigas, captured in a stereoscopic image in 1906. (Photo: National Library of Sweden)

One book at the National Library of Sweden stands out among the rest: the Codex Gigas. Bound in wood, consisting of 620 pages that are each nearly three feet long, and weighing in at 165 pounds, it is quite a hefty tome. But it’s not the size of the Codex Gigas that is its most intriguing feature. It’s the devil inside.

The Codex Gigas was created during the 13th century and initially stored at the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in what is now the Czech Republic. The manuscript contains the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as well as an assortment of other texts that tackle everything from practical instructions for exorcisms to seventh-century grammar tips written by Isidore, the scholar-turned saint of Seville.

A single scribe hand-wrote and illustrated the entire 620 pages—a colossal undertaking that, in the National Library of Sweden’s estimates, would have taken between five and 30 years to complete:

If the scribe worked for six hours a day and wrote six days a week this means that the manuscript could have taken about five years to complete. If the scribe was a monk he may only have been able to work for about three hours a day, and this means that the manuscript could have taken ten years to write. As the scribe may also have ruled the lines to guide the writing before he began to write (it probably took several hours to rule one leaf), this extends the period it took to complete the manuscript. The scribe also decorated the manuscript, so this all means that the manuscript probably took at least twenty years to finish, and could even have taken thirty.

The identity of the industrious person responsible for the manuscript has been a mystery for more than half a millenia. Such is the breadth of the feat, however, that a supernatural legend soon developed to explain the Codex’s creation. According to the National Library of Sweden, talk arose of a monk who was walled up at Podlažice monastery in punishment for his wickedness. In an effort to atone, the monk resolved to write the world’s biggest book in one night. To do so, he naturally required the help of the devil, with whom he is said to have made a pact. In exchange for enhanced overnight productivity, all the monk had to do was paint a full-page portrait of Beelzebub in the Codex and hand over his mortal soul. 


The demonic illustration that led to the nickname “Devil’s Bible.” (Photo: National Library of Sweden)
 

This tall tale provides a handy–if implausible–explanation for why there is a giant illustration of the devil in the Codex Gigas, which has come to be known as the Devil’s Bible. This satanic association has ushered in lots of conspiracy-enhanced conjecture regarding the manuscript’s origins and purpose. But such talk is not just limited to forum threads. In 2008, National Geographic produced a 51-minute documentary devoted to, in its words, the “cursed text.” It features actors dressed as medieval monks looking anxious in various dimly lit brick tunnels. 

The original Codex Gigas ended up in Sweden thanks to plundering. In the dying days of the Thirty Years’ War (a series of battles waged between Protestants and Catholics between 1618 and 1648), Swedes stormed Prague and scooped up an assortment of valuable books, including the Devil’s Bible. At the time, Queen Christina of Sweden had a habit of stealing books from other nations as “war booty” and using them to enhance her own country’s libraries. Poland, Germany, the Baltic States and Denmark were among the places whose bookshelves she ransacked in the name of knowledge.

After being snatched from Prague and shipped back to Sweden, the Codex Gigas was kept at the royal castle in Stockholm. When fire tore through the castle in 1697, the Codex Gigas was thrown out a window to prevent it from being engulfed in flames. Though damaged by the four-story drop, it survived. “One person standing beneath the window is said to have been injured in the process,” says the National Library of Sweden, evoking an amazing image that is swiftly dashed by the next sentence: ”This is probably just a tall tale, but the volume was greatly damaged.”

The Codex Gigas was re-bound in 1819 and its damaged leaves repaired. The restored manuscript is currently on view at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm as part of the library’s Treasures exhibit.

Page 24 R (left) and 254 R (right) of the Codex Gigas. (Photos: National Library of Sweden)


An actual-size replica of the Codex Gigas. (Photo: Michal Maňas on Wikipedia)