Weighing 165 pounds and measuring 36 inches in length, the immense Codex Gigas (simply, Giant Book) is the largest medieval illuminated manuscript in existence. While glorious as an artefact of medieval religion, legends say that a single monk sold his soul to Satan to write it in just one night. As payment, the Devil demanded his image be placed into the book, creating a single page that has terrified many who have seen it.
Created in the early 1200s, the Codex Gigas or “Devil’s Bible” as it has become commonly known, is the work of monks at the Benedictine Podlažice monastery at Chrast in the Czech Republic, then Bohemia. The book contains the complete Old and New Testament of the Christian Bible alongside some secular works, all in Latin. These works, located between the two testaments and include Antiquities of the Jews, Etymologiae, an etymological encyclopaedia compiled by Isidore of Seville and various medical texts.
Bound in leather-covered wood, the Codex Gigas is ornate, with metal fittings and illuminations in red, blue, yellow, green and gold. The capital letters of each page at the start of the books are illuminated, with 57 surviving. Overall, the book contains 310 leaves of vellum which were reportedly made from the skin of 160 donkeys. This skin covers a staggering 1,535 feet. Initially, the Codex contained 10 other sheets that have been removed over time. What these sheets included or why they were removed is uncertain, yet there is speculation that they contained rules for the monastery.
The most striking and famous page of the book is page 290, which contains a full-page interpretation of the Devil. It is believed to be the only Bible from the era that actually depicts Satan. Opposite this depiction is one of the New Jerusalem, the great walled city that will descend from God at the end of time according to the revelation of St. John. This creates the duel images of heaven and hell, reward and punishment. The depiction is familiar and yet different from the modern notion of The Evil One. He is horned, however of human proportions. He has claws, but no tail. The red skin that is associated with him in our times is not present here either. Instead, his head is green and possibly reptilian, with a double tongue evoking serpents. The Swedish art historian Carl Nordenfalk believed this image may have been based on an anatomical plate, linking it to the medical texts in the Codex that act as a reminder of human frailty.
The uniformity of the book throughout suggests a single writer who did not succumb to death or infirmity, the style never deviating to account for mood or whim. The common factors throughout the work have led to the belief that the entire piece was written over a short period of time.
Legend says that the work was created by Herman the Recluse who was resident at the Bohemian monastery. For an unnamed offence, Herman was horrifically sentenced to death by being walled up alive and thus starved to death with no hope of escape. Begging for his life, Herman convinced the Abbot to give him clemency if he could show his devotion to God and bring glory to the monastery by writing a single book that encapsulated all of his earthly knowledge in just one single night.
“Will you spare me if in a single night I write a manuscript containing all knowledge, to glorify our monastery forever?”
Attributed to Herman the Recluse.
Herman began to write, and soon the reality of the situation dawned on him, not even finishing a single page by midnight. Faced with the impossible, Herman set himself to prayer. But it was not God to whom he now prayed, but Lucifer. The monk made a pact with the Devil to speed up the process in exchange for his soul, with Satan himself writing the book before morning. To show his gratitude and perhaps as a symbol of their new pact, Herman drew the image of the Devil on page 209.
In reality, scholars believe that the book was indeed the work on one man but took between 20 and 30 years to finish and whether the Codex was actually used upon completion is a matter of scholarly debate. While the book might be challenging to use due to its cumbersome nature and small text, there is evidence of usage through notes given in the margins by differing hands as well as prayers from the 13th century. All the books contained would have been useful to monastic life.
The Podlažice monastery was destroyed during the Hussite Wars which featured a series of clashes between the Proto-Protestant Hussite movement and the combined Catholic alliance of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the Papacy, and European monarchs loyal to Catholicism.
Facing a financial crisis, the Monks of Podlažice pawned the manuscript to the Cistercians Sedlec Monastery in Kutná Hora, Bohemia. The book was repurchased the same year and returned to the Benedictines, this time at the Břevnov Monastery in Prague. The Břevnov monastery was noted for its wealth, and the Archbishop of Prague had found it unacceptable that the great Benedictine work wasn’t in their hands. Equally, no doubt, its presence added some level of prestige to his own backyard.
After being relocated to the Broumov monastery in 1420, the Codex Gigas was brought back to Prague in 1594. This relocation came at the request of King Rudolph II after the King had asked to borrow the book. He never returned it.
Rudolph was a firm devotee of astrology and alchemy, then mainstream belief throughout Europe. He believed he could complete the alchemical Great Work of the Philosopher’s Stone and spent a fortune to bring the most notable alchemists from across Europe to Sweden. The King himself even dabbled in these arts, performing his own experiments at the palace. He had a particular interest in all things occult and had become fascinated with the famous image of the Devil depicted in the book. Such was his renown that Prague maintains its reputation in magic circles, with Alchemists’ Alley at the palace being a popular destination for tourists.
The Devil’s Bible finally left Bohemia in 1648 after The Thirty Years War which centred on the struggle between the predominant European royal houses of Habsburg and Bourbon. The book was carried off as war booty by the Swedish Army and taken to Stockholm as a prize for Queen Christina, residing in the royal library.
In 1697, a massive fire broke out at the royal castle, spreading quickly into both the east and west wings. The fire eventually reached the library and the librarian, Johann Jacob Jaches, directed the attempts to salvage the treasure within. Initially, books were carried out in piles, an operation that had to be abandoned as the stairwells filled with smoke. Desperate, castle staff began to throw books from the windows. Many were damaged in the rescue attempt, but at least saved in some form. Three-quarters of the estimated 24,500 printed works and 1,100 of the 1,400 manuscripts were lost to the flames.
The Codex Gigas was one of the books thrown from a window, severely injuring a man below in the process according to the later account of Johann Erichsons, vicar of the German Church in Stockholm. The fall of the book damaged the binding and caused several leaves to fall loose. They were never recovered.
The book currently still resides at the Swedish National Library and is housed in a vault-like room behind bullet-proof glass. The work is insured for £8 million, yet widely regarded as priceless. In 2007 it made a brief return to Prague when it was loaned to the Czech National Library. Sweden had previously refused to lend out the book as the Czech Republic still officially considers the Codex Gigas to be stolen property.
The legends, which have existed almost since its inception may add flavour, but seen virtually unnecessary. While the Codex Gigas may not have actually been written in a single night, there can be no doubt that it is still one of the most outstanding achievements to come out of the medieval period. Rich in text and illumination, it is easy to see why it was considered a wonder of the world, with its most memorable page, the image of Satan, standing out as not something that is easily forgettable. Its ability to linger in the back of the mind may be by design, perhaps as a warning to the ever-present dangers of sin, rather than possession by the Devil himself. As the work of a single hand, the book stands not as a testament of service to hell, but instead, it stands as something far closer to its Godly intention. That being the ability of humankind to create real art.
I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.