Over the years the manuscript has been given a variety of names alluding to its size and to the portrait of the Devil. Apart from the Devil’s Bible and Codex Gigas it has also been called Codex Giganteus (the Giant Book), Gigas librorum (the Book Giant), Fans Bibel (the Devil’s Bible), Hin Håles Bibel (‘Old Nick’s Bible’) and Svartboken (the Black Book).
It has stirred people’s imaginations and given rise to all manner of legends. A legend concerning a monk of Podlažice walled up alive for his sins had already appeared in medieval times. He attempted to expiate his guilt by writing the world’s biggest book in a single night. Realizing the task to be beyond his powers, he invoked the aid of the Devil. The Devil aided him, had his portrait painted in the book and demanded the monk’s soul as payment. The monk was rescued but lost his peace of mind, until finally he turned to the Holy Virgin, beseeching her to save him. She agreed to help but the penitent died on the very point of being absolved from his pact with the Devil.
This legend is a variant of the very popular medieval tale of Theophilus the Penitent, which has the same ingredients as the legend of the Devil’s Bible: a pact with the Devil to achieve the impossible, remorse afterwards, the Virgin’s compassion and the rapid death of the penitent. The same elements recur in the story of Faust, known since the sixteenth century.
The legend also underscores the medieval belief that it was possible to atone for one’s sins by copying the texts. In his Historia ecclesiastica, Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142) relates a tale told by Abbot Thierry about a monk with a proclivity to sin who was an accomplished and devoted scribe. After his death, the work which he copied was used as evidence to save him from eternal damnation. When each and every letter in his text was weighed against his sins, it turned out that he had formed one letter more than the number of his sins. His soul was permitted to reunite with its body and atone for his sinful ways.
The Devil’s Bible still retained its magical aura after the Middle Ages, when new legends still arise.
In Tokroliga anekdoter, published in 1858, we read how a KB porter was locked inside the library’s main reading room after falling asleep. Upon awakening, he had a vision of the books, moving of their own accords from the shelves and hovering about in a whirling ring dance. A large clock, normally out of order, began striking the hours. Books surrounding the Devil’s Bible began falling over in all directions when the Giant Book itself joined in the dance. The following morning, the porter, literally terrified out of his wits, was found underneath the table; ‘… from that time forth he was and remained insane and had to be taken to the madhouse.’
The author Eugène Fahlstedt (1851-1935), interviewed in 1911, described how, some time during the 1870s, his friend August Strindberg (1849-1912) had taken his friends to the library to read the Devil’s Bible. It was late at night, but Strindberg, who worked at the Royal Library, had a key. He got out the Bible and ‘… struck a light with matches, and there by the light of sulphurous flames, thus … thus … (gesture of their leaning forward) … thus they read from the Devil’s Bible.’
And in Elof Tegnér’s Minnen och silhouetter we read how on New Year’s Day 1878 the Senior Librarian Gustaf Klemming (1823-93) walked from the Royal Palace to Humlegården, ‘preceded by a porter pulling the huge Devil’s Bible on a sled.’ Klemming, who was not without a sense of mystery and drama, chose this way of marking the completion of the Royal Library’s transfer to its new premises in Humlegården.
Strindberg´s portrait of G. Klemming