Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Codex Gigas: The Devil's Bibile | This Old Book

Old books with a history are kind of becoming a fascination of mine.  So, I've started a new feature: welcome to the first installment of This Old Book. 
Photo credit: Kungl. biblioteket
Was it really written in one night? Was the Devil himself responsible?

The Codex Gigas is huge.  It's 36 inches tall, 20 inches wide, and over 8 inches thick.  It weighs 165
pounds (~75 kg). It's the largest medieval manuscript known to man, and is dubbed "The Devil's Bible."  Why?  Well, it has a full-page depiction of the devil himself, you see.  And, legend has is that the Bohemian Benedictine monk who scribed it made a deal with the devil for his soul so he could finish it in one night to avoid being walled-up as a death sentence the next day. Not only that, but the pages around the devil's portrait are darker than all of the others, and the book itself has a pretty sordid history.

So, what started as penance for an unspeakable sin (so bad, whatever it was was never even recorded), ultimately became the life's work of a single monk.  A few decades after it was finished, the black-cloaked Bohemian Benedictine monastery near Podlažice fell into financial trouble.  In order to settle some of that trouble, they decided to sell the book to the white-cloaked Cistercians Sedlec Monastery (that's the one with all the bones!).  After the black death hit Sedlec, the Cistercians sold the Codex back to the Benedictine monks near Broumov.  There it stayed, until Holy Roman Emporer, Rudolph II, obsessed with the occult and mystical arts, showered favors upon the Broumov monks until they happily sent the Codex to Rudolph II as a gift.  He had it housed in his collections in Prague.  He was so engulfed with his religious education that he completely failed as Holy Roman Emprorer, and at the end of the Thirty Years' War, the Swedes took the Codex Gigas home to their King, Kristina.  (Yes, you read that right, their KING, who was a WOMAN.  Swedish girl power is so stinking awesome!)  She listed it first on her account of all of the spoils the Swedes seized as part of their war.  It was housed in Sweden, even after Kristina abdicated, where it was saved from a blaze by a servant who threw it out a window.

The National Geographic special, "The Truth Behind the Devil's Bible", (embedded below), shows the complex processes a team of scientists went through to determine if the book was written by one person.  It seemed impossible given that it was eerily perfect, and that it would have likely taken one man nearly 30 years to complete.  Twenty at minimum.  And since these compilations were usually done as penance at the end of a monk's day, it seems supernatural that one man could have done it. They determined that it was though, written by Hermann Inclusus. Based on the insect-derived ink used from beginning to end, the graphology (specifically its lowercase g), its amateur quality when compared to other works done by groups of monks in the same period, and what appears to be a posthumous credit for Hermann.  Inclusus translates as recluse, giving the scholars a glint into how he was able to complete it.  It was his life's work.  It's what he did as a solitary monk.

What's inside is the complete Old and New Testaments of the bible, followed by conjurations and excorcisms, advice to care for one's body and mind and eternal soul, and cures for dangerous illnesses.  There is nothing like it in all of history, which of course, scares a lot of people.  It's seemingly supernatural ability to be completed, survive, and age well.

The pages around the devil (which is opposite a page depicting the kingdom of heaven) are darker because they are made of vellum, which is animal skin, which tans in UV light, and that means, that it isn't just modern-day people that are obsessed with the picture of the devil inside, it's been an obsession from the start.

I think it's a beautiful book.  And I loved learning its history.  If you have 45 minutes to spare and want to learn more, watch the special below.

1. Tilstra, Elizabeth. "The Dark Legend Of The Devil's Bible".  The Lineup. Web. 23 May 2015. <>.

2. The Truth Behind the Devil's Bible. Dir. Robert MIchaels. By Amanda Gronich. Perf. Dominic Monaghan. National Geographic, 2008. Web. YouTube/The Truth Behind - The Truth Behind the Devil's Bible. National Geographic, 14 Dec. 2008. Web. 25 May 2015.

3. "Codex Gigas." Wikipedia. Ed. Worldcat. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 May 2015. Web. 25 May 2015.

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