Manuscript A 148 has always attracted attention because of its sheer size and the picture, on one of its pages, of the Devil enthroned in solitary state. Over the years it has gone by two pungent sobriquets: the Devil’s Bible and, in Latin, Codex Gigas – the Giant Book. In medieval times the manuscript ranked among the wonders of the world and was ascribed great material value. A note from the end of the 13th century on the inside of the front cover [f. 1v] records that the Benedictines of Podlažice, finding themselves in financial straits, pawned the manuscript with a Cistercian monastery in Sedlec (cf. de Hamel 2007, pp. 87-88). It was re-purchased for the Benedictines at the end of the 13th century by the wealthy monastery of Břevnov, the Archbishop of Prague deeming it right and proper for the treasure to be held by their order.
Codex Gigas contains numerous “I was here” inscriptions from the 16th and 17th centuries, testifying to its unfailing allure. As recently as the 19th century, two Czech authors, Josef Pečirka and Beda Dudik, pioneers of the scholarly study of the manuscript, inscribed their names in it.
The manuscript has also fallen victim to the greed of two famous art collectors. In 1594 Rudolph II had it transferred to his castle in Prague. The picture of the devil titillated his hankerings for the occult. Half a century later, Queen Christina added the manuscript to her splendid library at Stockholm Castle.
Codex Gigas has retained its powers of attraction right down to the present day. There is a picture of the opened volume in an American collection of stereoscopic pictures dating from 1906 and showing the sights of Stockholm. And in a series of Stockholm picture postcards published in 1929, the manuscript is made to represent the curiosities of the Royal Library.
Half the manuscript consists of the Old and New Testaments [ff. 1v-118r; 253r-286r], but these, instead of coming both together, are separated by Latin translations of Josephus’ (Josephus Flavius) two works on the history of the Jews (Antiquitates Iudaicae [ff. 118r-178v] and De bello Iudaico [ff. 178v-200v), Isidore of Sevilla’s encyclopaedic Etymologiae, in twenty books [f. 201r-239r], and eight medical writings.
The first five of these latter are a collection of medical texts [ff. 240r-243v], mainly of Greek or Byzantine origin, which, under the title of Ars medicinae (The Art of medicine), were required reading for medical students in Salerno, southern Italy, from the early 12th century onwards. Ars medicinae, later known as Articella, eventually became, with certain additions made to it, a standard medical textbook all over medieval Europe. Ars medicinae addresses medical topics in both theoretical and practical terms. The last three medical treatises [ff. 243v-252r] are devoted to practical medicine and were written by Constantine the African. He was a Benedictine monk at Monte Cassino in the second half of the 11th century and played an important role as Latin translator and European introducer of a number of Arabic medical writings.
The medical works are followed by the New Testament. This in turn is followed by the opening which constitute the core and quintessence of the whole manuscript, even though they come near the end of it, namely two full-page pictures, one of the Heavenly Jerusalem and, opposite, one of the Devil. [ff. 289v-290r] The illustrated pages are surrounded by several leaves with coloured panels, partly blank, both before and after. The pages preceding the pictures contain a confession of sins [ff. 286v-288v] in lettering twice as large as that of the other manuscript pages. Two of the following pages contain various conjurations written in the same large hand. [ff. 290v-291r]
Next comes the Chronicle of Bohemia, the last lengthy text in the Codex Gigas [ff. 294r-304r], written by Cosmas of Prague. Codex Gigas is one of the most important of the fifteen known manuscripts containing the text of this chronicle, and indeed, the second printed edition of the chronicle, published in 1602, was based on it. The note recording the mortgaging of the manuscript also states that the Rule of St Benedict was once inscribed in it, after Cosmas’s chronicle. This is quite possible, because the remains of three excised pages are still visible. But the Benedictine Rule is a relatively short text, suggesting that the missing pages can have included another text as well.
The last fourteen pages are a Calendar [ff. 305v-311r], preceded by a list of names. [f. 305r] These are probably the names of members or benefactors of a local monastic community. The Calendar has distinctly Bohemian features. Several saints are mentioned who were particularly commemorated in Bohemia, and there are also the names of deceased persons who are probably connected with the history of the Podlážice monastery or with Bohemian history in general. This Calendar is a very important document for the history of the Czech language. The last two pages contain material relating to the Calendar. [ff. 311v-312r]
The Old and New Testaments are given in the translation known as the Vulgate, the history of which goes back to the translation work of Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church. But the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation here are both from an earlier translation, called Vetus Latina. These translations, made during the second half of the 4th century, represent a European textual tradition (as opposed to a North African one) and are very important evidence of the earliest versions of the Latin Bible.
The text of the Acts is very similar to the one which was used by Lucifer and is preserved in the form of long quotations in his own writings. The Book of Psalms is iuxta Hebraeos, the last of the three versions of the book prepared by Jerome in the closing years of the 4th century, this time straight from the Hebrew. The various alphabets of the three biblical languages – Hebrew, Greek and Latin – are reproduced on the first leaf of Codex Gigas, reminding us of the linguistic frames within which Jerome was working.
The texts of the Acts and Revelation are among the really antiquated features of this manuscript. Similarly, the sequence of the books of the Bible represents an older tradition than the one which was current in the 13th century and which the Vulgate usually conforms to. Instead the Codex Gigas sequence follows that of the Carolingian Bibles. The Pentateuch [ff. 1v-23v] is followed by the Prophets (both the major ones, plus Daniel, and the minor ones, plus Job) [ff. 23v-64v] and then by the poetical books [ff. 81r-98r], which are followed by Chronicles, Ezra, Tobit, Judith and Esther. [ff. 98r-112r] The Old Testament concludes with Maccabees [ff. 112r-118r].
The positioning of the four books of Kings [ff. 64v-80v] after the later prophets is unusual, in that these books, with their historical content, normally come before the major prophets, usually after Ruth. (What we call the First and Second Books of Samuel were known as the First and Second Books of Kings, and our “Kings I-II” were at that time referred to as, respectively, the Third and Fourth Books of Kings.) In the New Testament, the Catholic Epistles (James, Peter, John and Jude) [ff. 274-276r] come just after the Acts of the Apostles [ff. 269v-273r], which are accompanied by the Book of Revelation [ff. 276r-277v] and the Pauline Epistles. [ff. 278r-286r]
The size of Codex Gigas, as a biblical manuscript, ties in with a tradition of Giant Bibles, very large manuscripts, often in a single volume, which were produced on the Continent between the second half of the 11th century and the end of the 12th. Some of these books could be over 70 cm high. Their size was intended to manifest the significance accorded to the Bible by the reforming popes of the 11th century, determined as they were to strengthen the liberty of the Church and its independence of the secular power. A central role was allotted to the Bible.
Large single-volume Bibles are known from earlier times, but it was not until the 11th century that their size took on a particular symbolic value. Manuscripts of this kind began to be produced in Rome, spreading eventually to Northern Europe. Often these Bibles were presented to churches and monasteries by powerful patrons as a means of indicating their status, or else they were gifts from bishops seeking to assert their power and emphasise the importance of the faith in troubled times. The exact role of these large Bibles in the practical religious context is unclear. Their size made them suitable for placing in a lectern in the monastic refectory for mealtime readings, in the chancel of the church for daily services. Several manuscripts show traces of such use. They could be used as an adjunct to other liturgical books. But above all they served as original texts and works of reference for the copying of new manuscripts.
A number of Giant Bibles are extant from the second half of the 12th century, a time when the foundation of many new monasteries had created a growing need for good biblical texts. The Devil’s Bible is the last instance of this tradition of large-format Bibles, and it is exceptional, considering that small-format single-volume Bibles were beginning to appear in Paris at this time. At 90 cm high and 50 cm wide, it is also the biggest of all large Bibles, and it differs from the others in its mixed contents and its remarkable embellishments. Taken as a whole, however, it seems well-planned and cogently conceived, an impression reinforced by the fact of the entire volume having been written by one and the same scribe. Legend has it that he was shut up in a monastery cell to produce the manuscript overnight, in a bid to expiate his sins. The task proving too much for him, he enlisted the aid of the Devil.
What was the function of Codex Gigas? Why this particular combination of texts? How are the different texts interrelated? What was the role of the pictures of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Devil?
The historical works occupy a strikingly large portion of the manuscript. The entire volume runs to 310 leaves. Leaving aside the Old and New Testaments, which are historical narratives par excellence, there are three long historical works in the true sense, and they take up 100 of the remaining 150 leaves. They comprise two works by Josephus and one by Cosmas of Prague, plus two works of a certain historical character, namely the list of names mentioned above and the Calendar with its necrology.
Another 40 leaves are taken up by the Etymologies of Isidore of Sevilla, the main purpose of which was, by investigating the derivation of words, to answer the question of the origin and genesis of the entire universe in all its forms, all human activity included. The work’s original title was Origines (Origins). From this point of departure, Etymologies gives a broad description of human history in general and the history of the Church in particular. The work was compiled in a time of change, the beginning of the seventh century, when the Catholic Church in Spain had defeated Arianism, the version of Christianity embraced by the Visigoths. This was a decisive period during which the need was felt for retrospect and summarisation. The past in all its variation was to be made visible.
The character of Codex Gigas as a work of historiography is accentuated by the disposition of the texts. The Old Testament narrative of the history of the Jews is supplemented by the histories of Josephus, extending right down to the author’s own times, i.e. the first century of the Christian era. A brief passage in Antiquitates Iudaicae (in fact a later interpolation) concerning the Passion of Our Lord signals the beginning of the narrative of the people of the New Covenant, i.e. the Christians.
The ensuing Etymologies deals at length with the history of the Christians. But Isidore was aiming for something far bigger: a summary of all knowledge at that time, from a Christian perspective. His work stands as an introduction to the New Testament story of the new age, of the age of the Church and the fulfilment of promise which had been ushered in by the appearance of Christ on earth. This was a focal point in world history, imparting new meaning to everything that had gone before. The Old and New Testaments are concerned with two orders, two covenants, two peoples. The first was only meant to prepare the way for the second. At the same time, the appearance of Christ on earth, God’s intervention in human destinies through His son, is but an adumbration of the approaching end, the Last Judgement, when the contest between good and evil will be decided, when the longed-for salvation, the ultimate goal of all the faithful, can be accomplished. And this is very expressively illustrated in the two famous pictures which, in juxtaposition to each other, adjoin the New Testament. On the left, Jerusalem, and on the right, the Devil – Heaven and Hell, Civitas Dei (the City of God) and Civitas Diaboli (the City of the Devil).
The historical arrangement of the manuscript acquires a moral-theological dimension through the perspective of the last things. Augustine, one of the Fathers of the Church, portrayed this historical drama of the human race in his City of God. The City of God, abode of peace, is man’s ultimate objective and the supreme good. The confession of sins preceding the picture of Civitas Dei is the necessary precondition of admission to the Kingdom of God. The exorcisms following the picture of the Prince of Darkness offer necessary protection from the harm which the very sight of Lucifer is capable of inflicting.
The New Testament concludes the Codex Gigas exposition of a history of the universe and all humanity, from the Creation to the foundation of the Christian Church. This history is played out against the background of the promised ultimate salvation. It is followed by the history of a single people, the Bohemians. Cosmas’s relation of Bohemian history is a story of the passage of time and of the changes to which man in his physical frailty is subject. Nothing is permanent. It is only when world history is viewed in relation to sacred history that the worldly acquires meaning. The short introduction to the chronicle, describing the earliest, mythical period of Bohemian history, is followed by the true beginning of the work – the story of the country’s Christianization. The people of Bohemia become part of the wider unity represented by the Church and in this way their history is encompassed by universal history. All the events which the author described are predestined and are seen as mere tools for God’s consummation of His purpose. The earliest history of Bohemia is also the history of the Benedictine Order.
The first book of the chronicle describes how Princess Mlada, daughter of Duke Boleslav I (929/35-967/72), travelled to Rome to study the monastic rules and eventually was given the Rule of St Benedict and the abbot’s staff by the pope, enabling her to found the first monastic community in Bohemia. Probably the Rule of St Benedict is the text which has been removed from its place in Codex Gigas, after the Chronicle of Cosmas. Perhaps it was intended as a counterpoise to the chronicle’s secular history. At the same time it led onto a narrative of hic et nunc, here and now, i.e. the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice.
In the manuscript the Rule is followed by a list of the names of various deceased ecclesiastics and laymen. This is partly destroyed and illegible, but it probably began with a short prayer for the souls of the dead. According to Beda Dudik, who has closely described the manuscript, it could be a list of persons granted indulgences by the monastery. (Dudik, 1852, p. 403)
The Calendar which follows reflects, with its saints’ names, the history of the Catholic Church in general and the Bohemian church in particular. It also includes a number of obits including the names of deceased members of a large monastic community, as well as the names of the monastery’s benefactors and various persons of historic importance. All of them were to be remembered by the monastery on their death days. Certain of the historically known persons had already died before the Podlažice monastery was founded in about 1160. Moreover, nearly all of them have been entered by the same scribe (who is also the scribe of the manuscript). The whole thing gives the impression of being a transcript made on one and the same occasion. These necrology entries in Codex Gigas differ appreciably from others of the same type, which are usually written by different scribes over a long succession of years.
The practical usefulness of the manuscript has been a topic of discussion, and the observation has been made that it seems difficult to use, owing to its size and the relatively smallness of the script. This is certainly true, but all the texts in the manuscript were of great importance to monastic life. The Bible and the Rule of St Benedict had to be read daily, and the names of the deceased members and benefactors of the monastery all had to be mentioned on their death dates at the daily chapter meetings. The works of Josephus and Isidore were very widely distributed and read during the Middle Ages and were very commonly included in Benedictine libraries. The Chronicle of Cosmas, written probably in 1110-25, was the most important work of its time on the history of Bohemia and was clearly connected with the Benedictine monastery of Břevnov, the country’s largest, because it was written partly on the initiative of the abbot of the monastery, Clement, to whom the second book of the chronicle is dedicated.
In addition, there are a number of minor traces of the manuscript actually having been used. There is the Latin word Nota (N.B.) which occurs in the margins at a number of points, written in different hands next to passages of particular interest (certain Nota marks, however, may have been transcribed from the exemplar). A number of thirteenth century prayers have been added in the margins, and at the bottom of each Calendar page we find the opening words of the various introits to the mass, with musical notation. Their use has not been made clear. Possibly they furnished guidance during the Sunday services. At the end of the medieval period the manuscript was given parchment leaf-marks, clearly showing that it was meant to be used.
The eight medical treatises which come after Isidore may also have had a practical use. They were probably intended as an enlargement of the fourth book of the Etymologies, which is about medicine, a field in which the Benedictines took a particular interest. The Benedctine Rule made care of the sick a prime monastic concern – ante omnia et super omnia. The abbot was to serve as father and teacher, shepherd and physician. In addition to an infirmary and a herb garden, every monastery had its library and scriptorium. The monastery of Monte Cassino in Southern Italy was famed in the 9th century for its school of medicine. And other Benedictine monasteries, such as St Gallen, Tours and a number of communities in the south of Germany, were known for their medical activity and their book collections on the subject. We know that the Benedictine Thiadagus from Corvey practised as medicus at the court of Duke Boleslav in Prague during the 11th century.
It may also be that there is a connection between the medical texts of Codex Gigas and the picture of the Devil, which according to Carl Nordenfalk may have been modelled on an anatomical plate. The medical texts are a reminder of man’s frailty, a memento mori in this symbolically charged book.
Codex Gigas amazes by its size, its decoration, the profusion of its contents and its sophisticated combination of different texts and pictures to impart power and eschatological depth to the presentation. It puts one in mind of the Book of Life mentioned in Revelation (Rev. 5:1, 21:27). With its various antiquated features both inside and out, the manuscript is unique for its age. Its Bohemian and Benedictine elements are clearly and articulately manifested. These characteristics are further underscored by a subsequent addendum, comprising a Glagolithic and a Church Slavic alphabet which has been glued to the pastedown of the front cover, beside the original three alphabets, namely the Hebrew, Greek and Latin. This addition was written during the second half of the 14th century by Abbot Divisius of the monastery of Břevnov and is one of the very earliest records of these two Slavic alphabets.
But was Codex Gigas really written in a small monastery in Podlažice, a monastery not known for any other manuscripts and hardly mentioned in the surviving documents? It really does seem as though the assistance of the Devil, as related by the legend, would have been needed. The legend also reflects the medieval belief that the slow, painstaking business of writing made the scribe deserving of remission of sins. But it was very tempting to invoke the aid of the Evil One when the assignment proved beyond one’s powers or downright dangerous.
Codex Gigas is in many ways sui generis – in a class of its own – with no real counterpart among other surviving medieval manuscripts, which does nothing to lessen its fascination and significance.