Codex Gigas, otherwise known as ‘the Devil’s Bible’ is the largest and probably one of the strangest manuscripts in the world. It is so large that it is said to have taken more than 160 animal skins to make it and takes at least two people to lift it. It measures approximately 1 meter in length. 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. It was written in Latin during the 13th century AD, and although the origin of the manuscript is unknown, a note in the manuscript states that it was pawned in the monastery at Sedlec in 1295.
What is a codex?
A codex is bleeding edge 2nd Century CE technology – a collection of bound pages that replaced a scroll. If you wanted to, you could walk around carrying A Dance with Dragons, announcing you’d bought the new GRRM codex.
Codex is often translated into English using the word “code,” which might be part of the reason a little more mysterious meaning is lent to codices in general. In an academic sense, a codex simply refers to a hand-written book, often containing hand drawn illustrations in the margins of the text or on separate pages.
The story behind the making of Codex Gigas (“the giant codex”) is that it was the work of one monk who was sentenced to death by being walled up alive. Indeed, an analysis on the text does suggest that it was written by just one scribe due to the level of uniformity throughout. The legend says that the monk produced the manuscript in just one night… with the devil’s help. However, it is not known where this legend started and it is suspected that it was religiously propagated. Stories and legends say that the Codex Gigas brought disaster or illness on whoever possessed it during its history. Fortunately, the National Library in Stockholm, where it is currently housed, appears immune to the curse of the codex! Codex Gigas contains a complete vulgate Latin translation of the Bible as well as five other major texts.
Inside the Codex Gigas
Within the codex is the sum of the Latin Vulgate Bible at the time, along with several contemporary histories, a comparative alphabet, medical texts, a calendar, and a few spells. The Old Testament and New Testament are separated and in an unusual order, with a number of works placed in between and after the religious texts, including Flavius Josephus’ 1st century history of the Jewish people and a history of the area of Bohemia.
Gigas is Latin for giant, so the translation of the Codex Gigas is “giant book.” An apt name, as this codex is the largest single volume religious text surviving from 13th Century monks. The codex is thought to be from a Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in the modern Czech Republic (then called Bohemia), but the codex became a spoil of Swedish Army after the Thirty Year’s War.
Each one of its pages is handwritten, likely by a single scribe over his lifetime, with the codex three feet tall by a little over three feet wide when opened. Only 10 pages are missing from the codex – none of the texts are affected. Scholars believe the missing pages likely detailed a series of rules for the monastery.
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). Smaller texts are also included in the manuscript with the most famous ones including: text on exorcism, magic formulas, a picture of the Heavenly City, and a full page illustration of the Devil. The illustration is the reason why legend says the codex was written with the devil’s help.
The details in the Devil
After the image of the devil is a page devoted to warding off evil spirits and sickness. On this page are three conjurations and two spells, likely intended as protection from the devil and not an invocation, due to their juxtaposition with the previous page. Further removing an intentional demonic connection is an image of the Heavenly City placed before the demon and the spells.
The lack of additional demonic content makes it seem that the image of the devil is present only as a symbol, not as an object of worship. The codex contains nothing else out of the ordinary for the time period. It is the last of a dying breed – one of the final single volume handwritten copies of the Old and New Testament created before moving to an easier to replicate (and carry) multi-volume format.
According to the National Geographic, it would take one person working continuously, day and night, for 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. The manuscript is currently displayed at the National Library in Stockholm where you can also view the digital pages of the Codex. Anyone in Sweden should pay a visit to the see Codex Gigas – and do not be afraid, it is quite safe to read the so-called Devil’s Bible!