What antiquarian blog would be complete without a mention of the Codex Gigas? Also known as the Devil’s Bible, the Codex is famous for its magnificent dimensions and the gruesome, green-faced devil inscribed upon one of its pages.
This heavyweight tome has baffled scholars for centuries and is undoubtedly one of the strangest books in the world. Legend tells that the Codex was written in one night; penned by the feverish, desperate hand of a doomed monk who made a pact with the devil. What the man did to deserve such a fate has unfortunately been omitted from the book’s colorful lore, but let it suffice that it was a deed terrible enough to warrant inclusion (being bricked alive) inside the walls of the monastery. Was he guilty of murder? Rape? Both? One can only guess.
As an author of horror and fantasy it’s very easy for me to imagine this groveling monk; his trembling lips and upturned eyes as he begs some higher power to deliver him from his horrible fate. Perhaps his deeds are so heinous that in his moment of greatest need, God abandons him to the hands of Satan. Imagining that part is easy, what comes next, a bit more comical in my mind.
Did Lucifer magically procure the largest book he could muster so he’d be assured that the monk would never finish on time? Did this giant book just suddenly materialize in a puff of smoke followed by the booming words, “Get to it!” Did he also provide candlelight, a desk, quills and ink? It’s possible, I mean he is the devil after all, but somehow, I doubt it.
To better understand the Codex’s origins we must look at its construction and the economics of 13th Century book making.
Written in Latin around 1210 AD, the Codex Gigas is a hefty book. Assuming it wasn’t instantly conjured by Satan, the creation of such a book would have required a large community of people. Professionals who made books for profit were usually found near the largest religious institutions where literate individuals (the clientele) tended to gather. Scribes, illuminators, binders, tanners and a slew of other artisans were needed to produce just one book.
In order to create such a grand book, the carcasses of no less than 160 animals were used. That’s quite a lot of meat! A community that can spare 160 animals for a single book is 1) large 2) peaceful 3) prosperous. The Benedictine monastery of Podlažice near Chrudim in the Czech Republic was just such a place.
The Codex Gigas holds the entire Vulgate version of the bible along with Isidore of seville’s encyclopedia Etymologiae, Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemia, chapters of history, etymology and physiology, a calendar with necrologium, a list of brothers from the Podlažice monastery and details of magic formulae, spells, medicine and other local records.
Scholars have determined that the Codex is the work of a single scribe. The book doesn’t have any mistakes, but that is not surprising. Scribes worked in scriptoriums, on loose sheets of flat vellum. The sheets were set aside and later collated. Blank books were rarely bound. When mistakes were made (depending on the budget and the client) the pages were discarded and redone. Books cost small fortunes and mistakes were rarely tolerated by paying patrons. Thus, it behooved a scribe to work very slowly and be very careful. Some scribes were even illiterate–adept only at copying.
More than likely, the monk who authored the Codex–a man by the name of Herman the Recluse, was not sentenced to death (by inclusion), but was rather in reclusion. The two words are similar in meaning and subject to interpretation.
Writing at a speed of 20 seconds per line and taking into account the various illustrations, Herman the Recluse would have spent anywhere from 5 to 35 years penning this enormous book. The manuscript includes illuminations in red, blue, yellow, green and gold. Capital letters are elaborately illuminated, frequently across the entire page. Remarkably, The codex has a unified look and the nature of the writing is unchanged throughout, showing no signs of age, disease or mood on the part of the scribe.
Originally the book contained 320 parchment leaves, 11 of which were cut off. To this day no one knows the whereabouts of the missing pages or their content. Some believe the ripped out pages contained the secret rules of the Benedictine order.
Like any valuable oddity, the Codex has been around the block. This ancient time traveler has been wandering the globe for over 800 years. It is nothing short of a miracle that it has survived in such great condition! I am a skeptic when it comes to the myth that the book itself is cursed. Death, illness and destruction are bound to happen in the course of such a long tenure.
As for the devil’s part in writing it? Consider this: The page directly following the image of the devil is a page containing three conjurations and two spells intended to provide protection from evil. When the book is closed, the image of the Heavenly City crushes the green-faced, goblin-like fiend. I believe that Herman drew the devil as a component of his religious belief, as a warning not an object of worship.
The most remarkable thing about the Codex Gigas is its stupendous HUMAN achievement.