The Codex Gigas may be one of the most interesting surviving medieval European Latin manuscripts. In any case, it is likely the largest at 890 mm tall and 490 mm wide (approximately 35” tall, 19” wide). The massive book contains 310 parchment leaves and is bound between two board covers. The name Codex Gigas is Latin for Giant Book. The sheer size of the book should be enough to make us all grateful that we can now instantly download e-books to read on a pocket-sized smartphone.
The manuscript dates back to at least the 13th century, and passed through Bohemian monasteries before being moved to Prague in the late 16th century, and then again to Stockholm where it was placed in the royal library. In 1877 the manuscript was moved to the National Library of Sweden.
The “Codex Gigas” is also known as the “Devil’s Bible.” No, this is not because it is a satanic text, but rather for a large image of the devil that is included in the book.
The decorated manuscript includes two full-page images, two images in the margins, and more than 50 decorative initials. The full-page images are on facing pages. One depicts the heavenly city while the other depicts the devil. The theory is that these images were positioned opposite each other to create a vivid contrast for the reader.
The two images in the manuscript margins are both found in the section that contains historical works by Flavius Josephus. One is a portrait that is assumed to be Josephus, while the other depicts heaven and earth to illustrate the Genesis creation story.
The “Codex Gigas” is actually a collection of works all contained in one giant book. Sort of like a hand-written religious encyclopedia for medieval monks.
The book contains the complete Christian Old and New Testaments, two histories of the Jews by Josephus, Etymologies by Isidore of Seville, Ars medicinae (The Art of Medicine – the standard medieval medical text), Chronicle of the Bohemians, and a calendar. In other words, this is not a book you are going to read in one sitting with a bowl of popcorn and a beer.
It is thought that one scribe is responsible for creating the entire “Codex Gigas.” Estimates provided by the National Library of Sweden suggest this book could have taken as long as 20 or 30 years to complete! This makes writing lines in grade school pale by comparison.
If you want to know more about the “Codex Gigas/Giant Book/Devil’s Bible,” the National Library of Sweden maintains a detailed web page along with photos. You can even browse the manuscript online.