The manuscript is so large and complex, and its illuminations are so magnificently elaborate, that legends quickly arose suggesting it was created by Lucifer himself.
Within the walls of Stockholm’s National Library of Sweden there lies a mesmerizing medieval illuminated manuscript, the largest one in the world, called the Codex Gigas (“Giant Book”). Measuring over 90 cm (35 in) long, this enormous manuscript is also known as the Devil’s Bible, referencing both its unusual full-page illustration of Lucifer, and the legend behind the book’s creation.
Within its hundreds of pages, it contains a complete Latin reproduction of the Bible, alongside many other popular works, including Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, and several medical texts. Most illuminations depict geometrical or vegetable shapes, rather than animal shapes (humans included). Folio 290 is a noticeable exception, however. A whole page is dedicated to a single, disturbing red figure, 50 cm (19 in) tall, with horns and claws and seemingly ready to leap out of the book. On the opposite page there’s an illustration of the kingdom of heaven, thus completing the contrasting struggle between Good and Evil.
There are several unexplained facts surrounding the Codex Gigas. First, it is unknown why this particular manuscript is so much bigger than any other book made at the time. Sure, large illuminated Bibles were common back then, but even among the biggest of those, the Codex Gigas is exceptional. Records don’t say anything that would explain the reason behind the unusual size—maybe it’s as simple as monks wanting to show off.
What’s more difficult to explain, however, is the fact that the text shows no signs of fatigue, tiredness, hesitation, or other common imperfections and errors on the part of the scribe writing it. Furthermore, the handwriting and style are so uniform throughout the whole work, that some experts have argued it was elaborated by a single person. A credit in the book, the mention of one name, and one name only, would support this claim.
But scientists estimate it would take a single scribe five years of uninterrupted, sleepless writing to complete the text alone, and considerably many more years if we count all illustrations and embellishments. A whole dedicated team of scribes working on it would probably spend about 20 to 30 years to finish the whole thing. Yet, the use and state of the ink, as well as the incredible consistency of the calligraphy, would suggest the Gigas was written in a significantly shorter amount of time, with a relatively low number of idiosyncratic penmanships involved.
These very confusing and conflicting facts have unsurprisingly given rise to a dark legend. We know that the Codex Gigas was made during the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. What the legend further suggests is that a monk there, known as Herman the Recluse (Herman Inclusus), was sentenced to be confined in a room with no exits, or walled-in, for breaking his monastic vows. To avoid his dreadful fate, he asked for a chance at redemption and promised to write a book so immense, it would include all human knowledge and immortalize the monastery in everlasting glory. And he would do it in one night.
After a few hours’ work, the scribe realized the task was simply impossible. So, he prayed. But he needed a quick and expedient answer, and as his prayers to God went unheeded, he turned to the Devil instead. He thus made a pact: in return for the help of the Evil One, the monk pledged his own soul. And that was it.
Lucifer quickly completed the colossal manuscript, and the grateful scribe added the Devil’s image as a token of appreciation for his new master. Or so the legend goes...
Who knows how the book came about. The final record in the codex is dated 1229, and no mention is made about the purpose or circumstances of its creation. We will probably never know, but that’s fine. Mystery and dark magic just makes everything far more interesting anyway.
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