Codex Gigas, the Devil’s Bible

Just in case you were thinking that old books are dusty things collected by boring people with their heads buried in parchment, let me introduce you to the Devil’s Bible.

The Devil’s Bible – sounds like something Satanists would use, doesn’t it? Or maybe a tome written by the Prince of Darkness in a darkly humorous mood. But it’s a genuine Christian manuscript, although it has an odd quirk that gave it its infernal branding.

The book in question has two claims to fame.

It’s the world’s largest preserved medieval manuscript, measuring a whopping 36 inches tall, 20 inches wide and 8.7 inches thick. It weighs 165 lbs, and has 310 vellum pages, which were made of specially-prepared animal skin. (Apparently the hides of 160 donkeys were used.)

Codex Gigas. Source: By Kungl. biblioteket, Attribution,

And, it has a full-page portrait of the Devil.

The Codex Gigas (“giant book”), using its official name, is not actually a Bible per se. It’s a historical hodgepodge – a compilation of the Christian Bible, an encyclopedia, two Jewish historical articles and one about Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic), and several short treatises on medicine, penitence, and exorcism (of course).

The portrait of the Devil faces an image of the Heavenly City on the opposite page, a piece of propaganda to illustrate the benefits of having a God-fearing life instead of a sinful one. Messaging like this was common in the Middle Ages; why waste a perfectly good page when you could bang home a service announcement?

Portraits of the Devil were used often during the Middle Ages, along with ‘Doom paintings’ depicting damned souls facing the Last Judgement, sometimes as large as a ceiling fresco. Imagine having such enormous and frightening imagery glaring down at you. The paintings invariably showed the horrifying consequences of not listening to the priest, with all kinds of creepy creatures, like toads and lizards, demons and Satan himself, eating sinners alive.

A classic ‘Doom’ painting by Stefan Lochner, Last Judgement, circa 1435. Source: By Stefan Lochner – Postcard, Public Domain,

Like the Codex, Doom paintings were accompanied by glowing, beautiful depictions of Heaven, always on the left (as in, on Christ’s right hand). Jesus Christ would be seated at the top, along with the Virgin Mary and John the Apostle, as angels blew trumpets to raise the dead for judgement. Archangel Michael would be waiting with the scales to weigh one’s soul.

So the Devil making an appearance in a work like the Codex wasn’t unusual, although in this tome’s case he was rather large (19 inches tall) and intimidating, crouching on clawed feet with clawed hands raised upward threateningly, with a green face, huge red horns, and red smoke emanating from his nostrils.

Illustration of the devil, Folio 290 recto. Source: By Herman the Recluse (Medieval scribe) – Own work, CC0,

It’s not known definitively who created the Devil’s Bible, but scholars think it was likely the work of a single person, a monk named Herman the Recluse from Bohemia, some time during the early 13th century. In the Middle Ages, monks produced the most valuable manuscripts, toiling by lamp light in the scriptorium of their monastery for months on end, until the invention of the printing press by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg somewhere around 1436.

What is known, thanks to a notation on the first page, is that Podlažice Monastery was the first known owner of the Codex Gigas. However, it’s unlikely that the manuscript was produced there because it was a small, poor monastery without the resources to undertake such an expensive project. After some journeying, the Codex was eventually brought to Prague in 1594. Emperor Rudolph II had asked to borrow The Devil’s Bible, promising to return it to the monastery when he was finished with it (but of course he never did).

Based on the amount of text inscribed on the vellum, and the beautiful illuminations, it’s been estimated that it would have taken up to thirty years to finish the book.

The gorgeously illustrated Opening of the Gospel of Matthew. Source: By Benedictine monastery of Podlažice –, Public Domain,

However, there is a legend that the scribe skipped the decades of potential work ahead of him by – dum, dum, dum – MAKING A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL to speed things up into a single night of labour. (Perhaps the scribe drew the Devil’s portrait from personal experience 😊)

The manuscript stayed in Prague until the Swedish army took it as booty during the Thirty Years’ War. It was then brought to Stockholm, where it ended up in Queen Christina’s collections in the library at Stockholm Palace. On New Year’s Day in 1878, the manuscript was transferred to the newly-built National Library in Stockholm, which is the keeper of the Codex to this day, should you wish to see it in person.

There are many unusual versions of the Bible around, and many unusual books in general throughout history – one of the reasons the protagonist of my Chaos Roads novels, Romy Ussher, became an archivist, with such a fascination for ancient manuscripts. If you’d like to learn more about her, and her adventures, you can purchase a copy of the first book of the trilogy, Through the Monster-glass, on Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Kobo and GooglePlay.

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