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Codex Gigas: Inside the Mysterious ‘Devil’s Bible

The enigmatic Codex Gigas is preserved at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm. It’s one of the largest single volume religious texts ever found, and certainly the largest from a 13th century Benedictine monk. Although the monk remains a mystery, it’s thought he belonged to the monastery at Podlažice in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), and the book passed into Swedish hands after the Thirty Years War.

It’s about three feet tall and a foot and a half wide when closed, weighs about 165 pounds, and it’s incredibly complete. The manuscript initially comprised of 320 bound pages made from around 160 animal skins. Some 10 pages are understood to be missing, though scholars believe these outlined the monastic rules of the Benedictines and their omission doesn’t affect the codex.

It’s estimated that it took that single monk about 30 years to create the epic manuscript, labouring each and every day to copy not only the text, but also the volume’s incredibly ornate illustrations. The fact that the Codex Gigas is thought to be the work of one man only serves to make it more impressive.

The manuscript is filled with bound pages of the same handwriting – the same exact handwriting. No bad handwriting days are discernible, no tremble as the scribe aged, no signs of any sort of literary stumbles, aches or pains, or any other slight variations. That’s no small feat by anyone’s standards.

Scholarly estimates of a 30-year completion time are, however, in complete opposition to the lore behind the book. One version of the story holds that the Codex Gigas was the labour of a single monk working on a single night – with a smattering of demonic assistance. Buried deep within the manuscript is the last thing you might expect to see in the pages of the New and Old Testament – a large, ornate illustration of the devil.

The monk was said to have made a deal with the devil to allow him to finish the book before he was walled up in a room and left to die for committing some unspecified sin; as repayment, he would include a portrait of the devil in the text. Hence the Codex Gigas became known as the Devil’s Bible.

Perhaps it’s the mysterious portrait that gave the codex its cursed reputation. Disease, misfortune and death are said to have haunted those who claimed ownership of the book over the years. That hasn’t scared the tourists away, though, as the manuscript remains one of the biggest attractions at the National Library of Sweden.

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