Monday, November 29, 2010

Codex Gigas: The Devil’s Bible

In the early 13th century, a book came into existence that mystifies the literary and theological worlds to this day. Not much is known about this manuscript called the Codex Gigas (Giant Book).  Many legends and myths have grown around its origins.  That this book has created so much speculation is not shocking.  The very appearance and content of the Codex, also called The Devil’s Bible,  are as mysterious as the quandary of its creation.  It holds the distinction of having once been regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World.

The Codex Gigas is the largest Medieval Manuscript in the world.  Bound within a leather covered wooden folder, ornamented with metal, the giant book is 92 cm (36.2in.) tall, 50 cm (19.7in.) wide and 22 cm (8.6in.) thick.  It originally contained 320 pages, however 8 were removed by unknown hands for unknown reasons.  Weighing in at an incredible 165 pounds, the vellum (calf or donkey skin) pages were created out of approximately 160 animals.

So, who wrote this Giant Book?  It is believed to have originated from the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic.  Attributed to a Monk known as Herman the Recluse, the records in the codex end in the year 1229.  Legend has it that good old Herman was a monk who broke his monastic vows.  As punishment, he was sentenced to be sealed alive into the walls of the monastery.  In an effort to circumvent said sentence, Herman vowed to create a book to glorify the monastery for all time.  The book was to contain all vital human knowledge.  He promised to complete this book in one night.

He set about his task, but as the witching hour approached, Herman became convinced that his goal was unattainable.  Rather than praying to God for mercy as a good monk should, he made a plea to the fallen one himself….Satan.  Of course being the agreeable fellow that he is, Satan completed the book, and Herman showed his gratitude by adding the now infamous illustration of the Devil himself.  Of course, the Devil then possessed poor Herman, who was then forced to add a number of exorcism spells within the Codex in an attempt to exorcise himself.

Of course legends are funny things.  It seems that the legend about Herman making a pact with the devil is more likely a mistranslation of the word inclusus, which rather than meaning “walled up alive”, more literally means choosing to live a solitary life.  However, as experts have analyzed the book, it does appear to have been written entirely by the same hand, and is not beyond belief that perhaps Herman was commissioned to write the Codex as a form of punishment. But it certainly took him more than one night.  Scholars estimate that the book would have taken a minimum of 25-30 years to complete, including the time taken to rule the pages, write the text, and complete the illuminations and drawings.

Besides a desperate attempt at exorcising his own demon, what else did Herman put withing the wooden covers of this massive tome?  Well, it contains the entire Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, except for the books of Acts and Revelation. It also contains mystical medical formulas for anything from treating fevers and epilepsy to resolving practical issues such as finding a thief.  It contains spells and incantations, as well as many other strange and bizarre inscriptions.  The above mentioned portrait of Satan is placed on a pace that directly faces an illustration of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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