Thursday, 20 September 2012


The Codex Gigas
Within the Swedish National Library lies a book, in fact the largest medieval book known to man, the `Codex Gigas` or `Giant Book`. The codex is bound in a wooden folder covered with leather and ornate metal. At 92 cm (36.2in.) tall, 50 cm (19.7in.) wide and 22 cm (8.6in.) thick it is the largest known medieval manuscript. Weighing 74.8 kg (165 pounds), Codex Gigas is composed of 310 leaves of parchment allegedly made from the skins of 160 donkeys or perhaps calfskin.

Seldom displayed publicly, as the book is kept in an environmentally controlled room to preserve the aged book for posterity.

To some, the `Codex Gigas` is known as the `Devil`s Bible`, on account of an embellished image of the Devil (Folio 290 recto - page 577 ) which fills an entire page. Less commonly known however, is an opposite image of heaven which juxtaposes the "good versus evil," in contrast with the picture of the devil.

The codex is believed to have been written and illustrated in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice near Chrudim in Czech Republic. The monastery was destroyed during the 15th century. Records in the codex end in the year 1229. The codex was later pledged to the Cistercians Sedlec monastery and then bought by the Benedictine monastery in Břevnov. From 1477–1593 it was kept in the library of a monastery in Broumov until it was taken to Prague in 1594 to form a part of the collections of Rudolf II.

The devil entrapped
At the end of the Thirty Years' War in the year 1648, the entire collection was taken by the Swedish army as plunder. From 1649 to 2007 the manuscript was kept in the Swedish Royal Library in Stockholm. The site of its creation is marked by a maquette in the town museum of Chrast.

On Friday 7th May 1697, a fierce fire broke out at the royal castle in Stockholm, and the Royal Library suffered very badly. The codex was rescued from the flames by throwing it out of a window. The codex apparently injured a bystander and some of its leaves fluttered away and they are still missing today.  In September, 2007, after 359 years, Codex Gigas returned to Prague on loan from Sweden until January 2008, and was on display at the Czech National Library.

Contrary to a number of theories that the book was written as a form of religious text in praise of evil, the book actually contains a number of Judaic/Christian religious texts, and the image of the Devil is actually depicted trapped within a boxed area. The Devil appears enraged, and far from celebrating evil, the book balances the eternal struggle of man on earth between the forces of good and evil.

Written in a time of great instability and great social suffering, the book reflects that period view and was believed to have taken over 20 years to complete. Without any imagery, the text is believed to have taken 5 years alone of writing around the clock, and the entire work is believed to be the work of one man - `Herman the Recluse`, who must have spent his entire life shuttered off from the troubled and persecuted world outside.
The sheer size of this medieval work compared to the figure behind
Legend however paints a different picture, and that is the scribe was a monk who broke his monastic vows and was sentenced to be walled up alive. In order to forbear this harsh penalty he promised to create in one single night a book to glorify the monastery forever, including all human knowledge. Near midnight he became sure that he could not complete this task alone, so he made a special prayer, not addressed to God but to the fallen angel Lucifer, asking him to help him finish the book in exchange for his soul. The devil completed the manuscript and the monk added the devil's picture out of gratitude for his aid.

The `Codex Gigas` has been described by some academics as the product of a `confused and rambling mind`, but today the book is appreciated for it`s historical and artistic appeal.

View the Codex Gigas here:

Chris Halton
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