The Legend of the Codex Gigas
The mythology is more interesting than the facts.
A legend states that in the 13th century in what is now the Czech Republic, a monk was condemned to be walled up alive in a room in the monastery for some serious infraction of the monastery’s rules.
He made a deal with his superiors. He would create by hand, in one night, a copy of the Bible and several scholarly works, a feat so astonishing that it would make the monastery a site for pilgrimages (and subsequently would bring in a lot of money for the monastery). If he succeeded, he would be set free. The other monks agreed, and the man settled down to his task.
No matter how quickly he copied the source works, however, he soon knew that he would never be able to finish by morning.
Around midnight, he did the unthinkable. He made a pact with the devil: if the dark prince completed this task, not only would he get the monk’s soul, but he would be able to include a large and horrifying self-portrait in the work.
The devil agreed.
The following morning, the monks found a massive book in the room with the scribe monk and they inspected it carefully. It did, indeed, contain the contents the monk had promised, so he was released.
The resulting book became known as the Codex Gigas (“Giant Book”) or the Devil’s Bible.
What We Know About the Devil’s Bible
Scholars have since tried to analyze this unique book known today as the Devil’s Bible. Its dimensions are staggering: 36 inches tall, 20 inches wide, and nine inches thick. It weighs more than 160 pounds and holds the title for the largest medieval manuscript currently known to exist. The pages are made of donkey or calfskin.
Mysteriously, it is now incomplete. Some pages were removed throughout time for reasons unknown. Some suspect that these missing pages merely contained benign rules of the host monastery, while others believe they contained information too sinister to be passed along.
The book does contain both Testaments of the Bible, medical texts, an ancient encyclopedia, and a calendar.
There are threads of the legend in the real book: there is a large illustration of the devil in the book, and the book seems to be the work of a single unknown scribe. Scholars believe, however, that instead of the one night of the legend, the creation of the book by that monk took more than 20 years to complete.
After the 13th century, the book apparently continued to remain with local monasteries until 1594, when it was added to the library of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. It remained there until 1648 (at the end of the Thirty Years’ War), when the book was, along with other manuscripts, taken by victorious Swedes back to Stockholm.
When a fire broke out in the Swedish Royal Library in 1697, the 400-year-old book was thrown out of an upper-story window in an attempt to save it, which caused some of the existing pages to come loose and blow away—and they have never been recovered.
Despite its many unique features, the book is most famous for that portrait of the devil. Sweden’s Kungliga Biblioteket points out that the picture is distinctive for the era in several ways: it shows the devil alone, it takes up a full page, and the demon is wearing a loincloth of ermine–which typically was reserved for royalty at that time.
The exact history of the Devil’s Bible may never be known, and the missing pages may be lost forever.