Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Manuscript in the World

Bar­gain with the dev­il and you may wind up with a gold­en fid­dle, super­nat­ur­al gui­tar-play­ing ability, or a room full of gleam­ing alchem­ized straw.

Whoops, we mis­at­trib­uted that last one. It’s actu­al­ly Rumpel­stilt­skin’s doing, but the by-morn­ing-or-else dead­line that dri­ves the Broth­ers Grimm favorite is not dis­sim­i­lar to the ulti­ma­tum posed to dis­graced medieval monk Her­man the Recluse: pro­duce a giant book that glo­ri­fies your monastery and includes all human knowl­edge by sun­rise, or we brick you up Cask of Amon­til­la­do-style.

Why else would a book as high-mind­ed as the Codex Gigas (Latin for Giant Book) con­tain a full-page glam­our por­trait of the dev­il garbed in an ermine loin­cloth and cher­ry red claws?

Per­haps it’s the 13th-cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent of “sex sells.” What bet­ter way to keep your book out of the remain­der bin of his­to­ry than to include an eye-catch­ing glimpse of the Prince of Dark­ness? Hedge your bets by posi­tion­ing a splen­did vision of the Heav­en­ly City direct­ly oppo­site.

Notable illus­tra­tions aside, the Codex Gigas holds the dis­tinc­tion of being the largest extant medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script in the world.

Weigh­ing in at 165 lbs, this 3‑foot-tall bound whale required the skins of 160 don­keys, at the rate of two pages per don­key. (Ten pages devot­ed to St. Benedict’s rules for monas­tic life were lit­er­al­ly cut from the man­u­script at an unknown date.)

It’s a lot.

A Nation­al Geo­graph­ic doc­u­men­tary con­clud­ed that the sprawl­ing man­u­script would’ve required a min­i­mum of 5 years of full-time, sin­gle-mind­ed labor. More like­ly, the work was spread out over 25 to 30 years, with var­i­ous authors con­tribut­ing to the dif­fer­ent sec­tions. In addi­tion to a com­plete Bible, the “Devil’s Bible” includes an ency­clo­pe­dia, med­ical infor­ma­tion, a cal­en­dar of saints’ days, Flav­ius Jose­phus’ his­to­ries The Jew­ish War and Jew­ish Antiq­ui­ties and some prac­ti­cal advice on exor­cis­ing evil spir­its.

The actu­al let­ter­ing does seem to come down to a sin­gle scribe with very neat hand­writ­ing. Experts at the Nation­al Library of Swe­den, where the Codex Gigas has come to a rest after cen­turies of adven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures, iden­ti­fy it as Car­olin­gian minus­cule, a pop­u­lar and high­ly leg­i­ble style of medieval script. Its uni­form size would’ve required the scribe to rule each page before form­ing the let­ters, after which 100 lines a day would have been a rea­son­able goal.

You can have a look for your­self on the Library’s web­site, where the entire work is view­able in dig­i­tized form.

Cer­tain­ly the dev­il is a great place to start, though his appear­ance may strike you as a bit com­i­cal, giv­en all the fuss.

Begin your explo­rations of the Codex Gigas here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Mak­ing Deals with the Dev­il: Nic­colò Pagani­ni, Robert John­son, Jim­my Page & More

The Medieval Ban Against the “Devil’s Tri­tone”: Debunk­ing a Great Myth in Music The­o­ry

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

See Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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