When I first heard about the “Devil’s Bible” (Codex gigas) from a snippet I caught on YouTube channel Alltime 10s, like many I thought it would be a kind of devil’s version of the bible. I imagined it would be some kind of manuscript instructive of dark arts and that the monk who wrote it must have been possessed by Lucifer himself to write it. Being nosy I of course had to consult the Google oracle.
I was a little disappointed to find that the truth isn’t quite as spectacular. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to be chummy with any kind of devil, whether real or fictitious, but I was fascinated by what a Devil’s Bible would say. Would it be the tales of an anti-Christ? Parables of a Bad Samaritan? The Ten Commandments turned upside down?
So what is it?
The Devil’s Bible is in fact for the most part a normal Christian Bible (albeit a huge one – it measures 92 cm (36 in) tall, 50 cm (20 in) wide and 22 cm (8.7 in) thick). The reason why it’s called the Devil’s Bible is actually because of the 50cm tall drawing of the devil taking up a whole animal skin page towards the back of the book. The size of this illumination is what makes this a totally unique feature of any known medieval manuscript, which is why it has left scholars puzzled as to why it was put there and is likely to have brought about the gruesome legend about the monk who wrote it.
A Dark Legend
The legend of this book, recorded back in medieval times, was that the scribe was a monk who broke his vows, and as a grisly punishment he was sentenced by his Order to be walled up alive. To prevent this from happening, he promised to create a book so magnificent it would glorify the monastery forever, but he had to do it in one day. When midnight was drawing closer, he hopelessly realised that he was never going to be able to complete the task alone, so he prayed, not to God, but to the Devil. He asked to trade his soul to help him finish the book, which Lucifer agreed to. Out of gratitude for completing it for him, the monk added the devil’s picture into the book. The monk was rescued but lost his peace of mind, until finally he turned to the Holy Virgin, beseeching her to save him. She agreed to help but the penitent died on the very point of being absolved from his pact with the Devil.
This classic Faustian devil-deal makes for a fascinating story, but legends and gruesome
devil doodles aside, there is another reason why the idea of the book being written in one night has come about. And it’s one that has baffled scholars for many years: The penmanship is incredibly neat.
Now you might think neat handwriting? So what. But the point is that it’s so consistent and so uncommonly neat, that it looks as though it should have been written in one continuous sitting. Usually handwritten manuscripts would have taken years to complete, especially in this size, so they would show signs of age, variations in the ink or changes in mood of the scribe. In fact, to write these 310 pages on the great big sheets of vellum (thought to be donkey or calf skin) would have apparently taken 20-30 years for one person to complete, including the many elaborately illuminated capital letters scattered throughout the book. So it does seem quite mysterious, even if not for the reasons you might initially think.
The book is thought to have been written by Herman the Recluse, a Czech Benedictine monk about whom we unfortunately know very little. The reason why he offered to undertake such an overwhelmingly huge task was because in those medieval times, people believed that copying the sacred texts would let someone atone for their sins and save them from eternal damnation. It does make you wonder how terrible a sin Herman must have committed to offer to complete such an produce a book so massive! Codex Gigas even means Giant Book – it takes 2 people to lift it.
What happened to it?
The codex has held a number of people spellbound over its 900 year-old life, with a few mysterious occult connections along the way.
It was the only codex thought to have been created in the 12th Century at the tiny Benedictine monastery in Podlažice in the Czech Republic (which was destroyed during the Hussite Revolution in the 15th Century). A note on the inside cover shows that the monks found themselves in financial trouble and pawned the
book to a Cistercian monastery in Sedlec – now known as the Church of Bones, since it houses among the most macabre interiors you will ever see. But this decorative bone art wasn’t installed until 1870.
It was later acquired by Queen Christina of Sweden, another practitioner of alchemy with links to the Rosicrucian order. She kept it in her splendid library at Stockholm Castle. But in 1697 a fire broke out in the castle, devastating much of the library’s collection. The codex had to be thrown out of the window to save it, unsurprisingly injuring a bystander and losing some of its pages, which were never found.
And finally, once it had been later acquired by the Swedish National library (Kungliga Biblioteket) the book was recorded to have sent a porter who was locked in the main reading room after falling asleep insane:
Upon awakening, he had a vision of the books, moving of their own accords from the shelves and hovering about in a whirling ring dance. A large clock, normally out of order, began striking the hours. Books surrounding the Devil’s Bible began falling over in all directions when the Giant Book itself joined in the dance. The following morning, the porter, literally terrified out of his wits, was found underneath the table; ‘… from that time forth he was and remained insane and had to be taken to the madhouse.’
Whilst it may not be an actual satanic bible, it’s undeniable that this book has fascinated people for hundreds of years, whether simply for its craftsmanship, its legend or its links to mystery, occultism and historical figureheads. It’s no longer on display to the general public to protect it from exposure to light, but you can still browse the full manuscript.
Personally, I do think it’s amazing that this tome has survived for so many years, escaping war and fire along the way. So who knows, maybe there is a greater power at work protecting the book – but if there is, does this power stem from Heaven or Hell? You decide.
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Find out more at:
Kungliga Biblioteket (Swedish National Library)