Dark legends abound regarding the Codex Gigas, the largest Medieval illuminated manuscript in existence, not only regarding the origins of the text but also the content as well. According to these legends, the codex was created in a single night when a condemned monk formed a pact with Satan himself. Some of these legends contend that the codex contained a now missing section known as The Devil’s Prayer.
Due to these dual references, the codex has come to be referred to as The Devil’s Bible. The book itself is enormous. In fact, Codex Gigas is Latin for Giant Book. At nearly 3 feet long, almost 1 foot thick, and almost 2 feet wide, it weighs 165 pounds (nearly 75 kilograms). It is almost as if it were designed by or made for something much larger than a human. It requires two people to transport. More than this, the codex has survived wars, plundering raids, a raging fire, and eight centuries of curiosity.
Today the codex rests in Stockholm, Sweden. However, in the late 16th century it was part of a magisterial collection of oddities and resplendent works of both art and science owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Rudolf II (1552–1612) was a man of exquisite and exotic taste. Not only was his royal court frequented by astrologers, alchemists, healers, and prognosticators of all sorts, but he also was the purported owner of both the Codex Gigas and the renowned Voynich manuscript.
The Voynich is also a medieval illuminated manuscript, however, it is perhaps even more perplexing than the Gigas. The Voynich appears to date to the early 1400s and contains at least one, thus far, indecipherable code or language. According to experts in graphology, the Voynich seems to have been written by at least two distinct authors and the artwork was provided by yet another hand altogether. These elements do not even begin to scratch the tip of the iceberg in terms of the mystery and strangeness of these two texts.
More on the Voynich text in the next article.
A Codex of Legends
The Codex Gigas has an additional legend around it which is more extensive than the first one that I referred to above. This one says that the condemned monk made an agreement with his fellow monks at the monastery that if they would give him one year, he would produce the most magnificent compilation of knowledge up until that time to honor the monastery. They agreed.
In turn, he began his work but as the end drew near he knew that he would not be able to complete the task. Rather than calling upon the powers of heaven through prayer, he instead said a special prayer to Satan. Promising to give up his soul in exchange for Satan’s help in completing the manuscript, the monk sealed a Faustian deal and his own fate. The legend continues that in exchange for the dark assistance, he drew a special image of his helper to honor the Devil.
On top of this has been layered yet another legend which asserts that because The Devil’s Bible is missing 10 to 12 pages, that these pages contained a lost apocryphal text made up of the special prayer that the monk said in order to summon the Prince of Darkness. The natural follow up questions to all of this are: How much of this is true? What can history and science tell us about this text?
The Historical Context and Science
The relatively cosmopolitan and open-minded era of the Renaissance was a period typified by great interest in learning about other peoples, lands, languages, art techniques, architecture, holy relics, and so on. It was in this atmosphere that there were a number of beginning attempts to create encyclopedic compendiums of knowledge. Interestingly, the Codex Gigas was a late medieval precursor of this approach.
The codex was created in the early 1200s and contains the entirety of the Vulgate Bible, Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and his De bello iudaico, Isidore’s Etymologiae, a chronicle of Cosmas, several medicinal treatises, two Hebrew alphabets, a Slavic and a Glagolitic alphabet, some conjuration spells, and information about exorcisms. It was written by a monk named Hermann Inclusus or Herman the Recluse. The interpretation of “Inclusus” changing from a particular form of medieval punishment, which was being walled-up like in The Cask of Amontillado (1846), to that of “the Recluse” has allowed historians to come closer to figuring out what actually happened in the writing of this manuscript.
A National Geographic study of the codex opened a number of new conclusions about The Devil’s Bible. Handwriting experts, known as graphologists, studied the text and discovered that it was indeed written by a single hand. Estimates reveal that even without the numerous illustrations, the writing of this manuscript would have taken a minimum of five years. When the illustrations are included, the estimate balloons to ten to fifteen years. Once one includes the common expectations for the duties of a monk, the estimate gets as high as 30 years.
Notably the graphologists detect almost no deterioration in writing ability for Herman over that period. In fact, they find virtually no errors nor corrections. Impressive to say the least.
I have put together a much more complete history of the Codex Gigas in the video below along with images from my own pdf copy of the book:
Myths and legends are often born out of genuine mysteries. Although the Codex Gigas may not fall into the category of an actual medieval grimoire, in some ways it comes close. References made to the sisters of Satan, the names of specific demons being mentioned, and spells of conjuration all lend themselves to the interpretation of deeper layers of mystery that reside within this document. The fact that certain pages are missing also adds to the elusive nature of the manuscript.
The Codex Gigas is one of the most fascinating works of the 13th century. It still holds mysteries awaiting to be unlocked. But it is not the most mysterious manuscript in the world. That honor goes to the subject of my next article and video: MS 408 (the label given by Yale’s rare book Beineke Library) or the Voynich manuscript. Like the Gigas, it is an illuminated manuscript written on vellum. Yet unlike the Gigas, Voynich is written in a language that has not yet been translated. That is only the beginning of the numerous curiosities related to MS 408. Check out the next article and video for more information…