There is something about ancient books and texts that holds a certain sense of mystery and allure. To hold something that was once handled by ancient hands long ago brings with it a fascination about the past, and the enigmatic knowledge held within the worn, dusty pages beckons from across the vast field of time separating us from the past. Ancient books are just naturally mysterious, often inscrutable, and sometimes spooky. Surely one of the weirdest and most bizarre books from the ancient era is the one known as the The Codex Gigas, a text dating from the 13th century AD that is also known as the Giant Book, or more ominously as The Devil’s Bible.
The first thing that impresses upon seeing the Devil’s Bible is the sheer size of it. The book is 92cm (36 inches) tall, 50cm(19.7 inches) wide, 22cm (8.6 inches) thick, and weighs 74,8kg (165 pounds). These enormous dimensions make the Codex Gigas the largest known medieval manuscript. The whole thing is bound in a leather covered wooden folder that is decorated with ornately shaped metal designs. The strangeness of the book does not end with the impressive proportions and unique appearance. The 310 pages contained within the book are fashioned of some sort of animal skin, most likely donkey or calf skin, and it is thought that 160 animal skins were required to make them.
Scrawled upon these pages are both testaments of the Vulgate Bible, various medical texts, some sort of encyclopedia, a calendar, magical spells, and a text on exorcisms, among others, mostly penned in Latin but also featuring Hebrew, Greek, and Slavic alphabets. The text is heavily illuminated throughout, meaning that the pages and letters are adorned with various decorations such as miniature illustrations, ornate borders, stylized letter designs, and decorated initials, all colorfully highlighted in red, blue, yellow, green, and gold. The book also prominently features various illustrations, including one of the kingdom of Heaven as well as a large, ominous illustration of the Devil that is about 50cm (19.7 inches) high. Adding a sinister twist to the prominent Devil illustration is the presence of several pages leading up to it that are somewhat blackened in stark contrast to the other pages of the book.
The contents of the text hold many enigmas. The meticulous handwriting is amazingly uniform throughout, suggesting a single scribe. This detail becomes more mysterious when considering that it has been speculated that the entire gigantic collection of texts held within the Codex Gigas’ pages, including the illuminations and illustrations, would have taken a single person around 5 years of continuous, nonstop writing all day and all night to complete, and that a realistic estimate for creating the entire thing, including the animal skin pages and cover, would be around 25 years for a single individual. This is particularly impressive as the handwriting shows no signs of being deterioration or being influenced by age, disease, or the mood of the writer, never deviating throughout the vast tome of texts. Adding to the bizarre nature of the manuscript is the fact that around 10 pages are missing, having apparently been intentionally removed over the centuries, although it is unknown for what purpose. It has been theorized that these missing pages could have held information that was deemed too dangerous to fall into the hands of mere mortals, that the pages were stolen for some nefarious purpose, or that they were simply found to be offensive to some long ago owner of the book.
Also unknown is the identity of the scribe or indeed the reason why they took on such a monumental undertaking. This is where the creepy legends and history surrounding the book come into play. One legend has it that a Benedictine monk in Bohemia, which is now known as the Czech Republic, committed a grievous infraction against his monastery and was sentenced to be walled up alive within the monastery indefinitely. The monk, desperate to avoid his fate and certain death, is said to have struck a deal with the other monks. He offered to pen in one night a huge religious text the likes of which the world had never seen. It was agreed that if the monk could accomplish this task in one night, then he would be freed. The monk got to work, but it quickly became apparent that it was an impossible feat, and that he would never finish it in time. The monk called for help from the Devil, who appeared and offered to help in return for the monk’s soul and also if he could also include a picture of himself within the manuscript. The monk agreed to the dark pact and was able to complete the manuscript, as well as the illustration of the Dark Prince himself, in time to be set free. This menacing legend is somewhat supported and given a grain of truth by the image of the Devil contained within the book, as well as the fact that indeed it appears to have been penned by a single person with an incredible amount of uniformity that would suggest it was written in a short time rather than over decades of toiling.
Whatever the true origins of the Codex Gigas, it certainly has a tumultuous history. After its creation, the monastery where it was held was destroyed in the 15th century AD and the manuscript passed hands between several local Benedictine monasteries over the years, until ending up in Prague in 1594, where it became part of the collections of the Holy Roman Emporer Rudolph II. The book remained there until 1648, when it was forcibly taken as plunder by Swedish forces during the 30 Year War and taken to Stockholm, where it was kept at the Swedish Royal Library. In 1697, a huge fire broke out at the library, and in order to save it from the flames, someone threw it out of a window. The book survived the fall and the fire, but a few of the existing pages are reported to have come loose and blown away, after which they have never been recovered. The Codex Gigas remained at the Royal Library until 2007, when it was returned to Prague on loan and exhibited at the Czech National Library until 2009, after which it returned to Sweden and remains on display to this day in the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm.
Throughout its history, the Codex Gigas has accrued a reputation for being cursed, bringing misfortune, disaster, and disease to all who possessed it. Indeed, the destruction of its original home, as well as the fire at the Royal Swedish Library have been attributed to this dark curse. As of now, the National Library Sweden has managed to avoid a similar fate, but who knows what sinister powers may lurk within these ancient pages. The mysterious Codex Gigas is one of the biggest draws for the library, and visitors come in droves to look upon the gigantic text as well as read digitized pages of its contents.
The Codex Gigas is certainly one of the most bizarre, mysterious, and little known ancient texts in the world today. What was the impetus for its creation? Who created it and how long did it really take them? Why were pages removed from it? What happened to the pages lost during the fire in 1697? These are questions for which we may never know the answers. For now, all we can do is marvel at the sheer scale of this weird, beautiful manuscript and speculate on the impenetrable mysteries contained within its archaic, mystical pages.