The history of Codex Gigas

1v, detail

The provenance of the Codex Gigas

Codex Gigas originated in medieval Bohemia. There are Bohemian saints in the manuscript’s calendar, and its necrology includes many Czech names of both historically known and unknown persons. The inclusion of Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemians among the texts in the manuscript further corroborates its Bohemian origin.

The manuscript has been dated to between 1204 and 1230 on the strength of the following circumstantial evidence. The Bohemian Saint Procopius, canonized in 1204, occurs on 4th July in the calendar, which tells us that the manuscript cannot have been written earlier than that year.

At the same time, the manuscript must have been written after 1223, because Bishop Andreas of Prague (1214-23) is mentioned on 30th July in the necrology. He died in 1223 and he is the last in a succession of historically identifiable personages between the late tenth and early thirteenth centuries whose names are mentioned in the necrology. On the other hand, the name of the Bohemian King Ottokar I of the Přemysl dynasty, is not listed. As he died in 1230, Codex Gigas must have been completed some time between 1224 and 1230.

A note on the first leaf of Codex Gigas establishes the Bohemian Benedictine monastery at Podlažice, near Chrudim, as the manuscript’s first known owner. The Benedictines of Podlažice, finding themselves in serious financial straits, pawned the manuscript to the Cistercians of Sedlec. The note further records that in 1295 Codex Gigas had been redeemed for the Benedictines by Bavor, abbot of the Břevnov monastery (1289-1332), at the instance of Bishop Gregory of Prague (1296-1301). The manuscript, even then, was considered as one of the wonders of the world. It is unclear whether this purchase took place in 1295 since Gregory was elected Bishop of Prague only in 1296. It is possible that the scribe mistakenly entered 1296 instead of 1295.

It is unlikely that this huge book had been written at Podlažice. The monastery was too small and too poor to undertake such an advanced enterprise, that required enormous human and material resources. To our knowledge, no other medieval manuscript is extant from the monastery.

The name of the scribe of Codex Gigas is not known, but it has been conjectured that he was the monk Herman, whose name, with the cognomen inclusus, confined (Hermanus monachus inclusus), appears on 10th November in the necrology. The epithet inclusus was linked with the legend of the walled-up, sinful monk having scribed Codex Gigas in its entirety during one single night (see below), with the assistance of the Devil. But the term inclusus(-a) or reclusus(-a) really denotes a recluse, i.e. a person, mostly affiliated to a monastery, living in isolation in a cell for religious or ascetic reasons or, more rarely, as a form of penitence. After a trial period of at least one year, they could be locked in a cell by a bishop, who would affix his seal to the cell door. Sometimes the cell would be walled up and a requiem mass sung for the reclusus, symbolising a funeral. This way of life was not uncommon among Benedictines and Cistercians. The designation reclusus is not uncommon in medieval necrologies.

Sobisslaus has also been suggested as the name of the scribe. This name occurs in a prayer to the Virgin Mary, added in the margin on f. 273r. But this prayer is in a different hand from the rest of the manuscript and was added later in the 13th century.

Codex Gigas in the 15th century

Subsequently the manuscript encountered a number of changes. At the outbreak of the Hussite War in 1420 the monks of Břevnov were evacuated to their daughter community of Broumov, where the manuscript was seen by a certain M. Johannes Frauenberg of Görlitz. He attended a meeting of the Silesian princes and estates of Upper and Lower Lausitz at Broumow in 1477. From there he wrote a letter briefly describing the manuscript. (Dobrowsky, p. 44-5).

Codex Gigas in the 16th century

During the sixteenth century Codex Gigas served as a kind album amicorum. Various churchmen from Prague and neighbouring Silesia, as well as secular persons, entered their names in the manuscript when visiting the Broumov monastery. One of them, Christopher Schlichtig, an adherent of the Swiss mystic, alchemist and physician Paracelsus (recte Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541), stayed at the monastery on 26th September 1590. The entry refers to him as a doctor of iatrochemical philosophy and medicine and counsellor and physician-in-ordinary to Prince William V of Bavaria.

Iatrochemistry was a mixture of alchemy, medicine and chemistry practised by Paracelsians in the 16th and 17th centuries. Schlichtig’s entry ends, in true Paracelsian spirit: Azoth virescit (Azoth burgeons).

Abbot Johannes III Chotovsky de Chotov of Broumov (1553-75) recorded an entry in the manuscript that Ferdinand I (1503-64), King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, had stayed the night at the monastery in 1527. Ferdinand was on his way to Prague from Wroclaw (Breslau), where homage had been paid to him as the newly elected king. Before reaching Broumov he had stayed at Schweidnitz (Swidnica) where, the entry also records, he had ‘a rebellious preacher hanged … in a noose in a pear tree outside the town’. The ‘rebellious preacher’ was the priest Johann Reichel from Striegau (Strzegom) in Silesia. Known as Eilffinger, he was an adherent of the radical Silesian reformist Kaspar von Schwenckfeld (1489-1561) and, accordingly, a religious opponent of the Catholic Emperor. We know from other sources that he suffered the particularly degrading penalty of being hung upside down.

Rudolph II (1576-1612), King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, became interested in the Devil’s Bible and wanted to borrow it to Prague. Two of his councillors, Daniel Printz and Paulus Hanniwald, together with Paulus’ brother Adam Hanniwald, signed their names in the manuscript. They were part of an embassy returning from Poland in 1590. Rudolph, one the greatest bibliophiles of his time, was known for his interest in the occult. With the manuscript still being regarded as the property of the Břevnov, one of the entries records that permission for the loan had to be obtained from Abbot Martin (1575-1602). Albertus Wnesconius, Prior of the Broumov monastery, attended to the actual transfer, engaging Chief Constable Mathias of Dorndoff and Biskupov for the task.

The Chief Constable was already acquainted with the manuscript having, according to another entry, seen it in 1587. It was dispatched to Prague on 4th March 1594. A note records that it spent the night of 6th March at Nachod, in the home of a town official there, Hanuš Buchlovecký from Křižkovic, and that on 16th March it reached Nymburk. There several people signed their names in it. Nymburk is only 50 km from Prague, so the manuscript must have reached its final destination soon afterwards.

Once in Prague, Codex Gigas was assiduously utilised. Jan Huberus Pontanus, Rudolph’s secretary, noted in 1597 that he ‘… most eagerly examined this huge book and transcribed much of it for His Imperial Majesty …’
It was also used by Marquard Freher (1565-1614), a German historian and editor of historical sources, for his second complete edition of the Chronicle of Cosmas in 1607.

The Devil’s Bible never made it back to Broumov. This, apparently, was not the only monastic property that Rudolph borrowed and never returned.

Codex Gigas in the 17th century

The manuscript was registered in several catalogues of Rudolph’s Chamber of Treasures and Art, most often with allusions to the legend associated with its creation. A 1635 inventory tells us that the Devil assisted with the procurement of the parchment and necessary writing equipment for a monk imprisoned in ‘Branau’. Another inventory, compiled by the Treasurer Dionysio Miseroni in 1647, describes Codex Gigas as a great book written by a monk walled up at ‘Prauna’.

In yet another list compiled by the same Miseroni, soon after Prague had been captured by the Swedes, the manuscript is referred to as a great book brought by the Devil to a walled-up monk.

In Stockholm, 1649

Codex Gigas arrived in Stockholm in 1649, together with other books and manuscripts captured in Prague. It is the first item listed in the catalogue of the manuscripts compiled by Isaak Vossius in about 1650 (KB, shelf mark U 202:1). This was only natural, since the manuscripts were catalogued according to format. But did Codex Gigas fail to interest Queen Christina sufficiently? It was not included in the great number of books and manuscripts she took with her to Rome after her abdication, but was left behind at the royal castle.

In the castle fire of 1697 Codex Gigas was saved by having been thrown out of the window. One person standing beneath the window is said to have been injured in the process. This is probably just a tall tale, but the volume was greatly damaged. In a catalogue compiled soon after the fire by the librarian Johan Jacob Jaches (c. 1650-1709), the manuscript is listed among printed books of regal format: ‘das grosse, sogenante Schwartzbuch, bei nahe sieben quarter lang, ist ein msc’, large, so-called Black Book, seven kvarter long (about 90 cm), is a manuscript. (Note number 49 in the illustration Jaches Catalogue).

The fame of the manuscript showed no signs of diminishing and more names were inscribed in it. In his history of the Royal Library (Swedish National Library), published in 1751, Magnus von Celse (1709-84) observed that ‘… the foreigners who have devoted a few hasty glances to the Royal Library and mention it in their travelogues and descriptions record hardly anything of note apart from a copy of the Bible showing traces of Luther’s own hands, and this volume from Prague.’ For the record, it has since been made clear that the so-called Luther Bible never belonged to Martin Luther at all.

The first detailed description of the manuscript was penned by Joseph Dobrowský (1753-1829), a member of the Royal Society of Sciences (Königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften) in Prague and the founder of  Czech linguistics. He was dispatched to Sweden in the summer of 1792 to examine material of interest from the viewpoint of Czech history and literature. In his report, published in 1796, he observed that Codex Gigas incorporated considerable Czech elements. The Czech author and translator Josef Pečirka (1818-70) made a similar visit fifty years later, publishing a description of his journey in 1851. His report also included a lengthy description of Codex Gigas.

In 1811 Lorenzo Hammarsköld (1785-1827), an assistant librarian at the Royal Library, published the first exhaustive description of the manuscript in Swedish. A vital contribution was then made by the Benedictine father Beda Dudik (1819-90), Professor of General History at the University of Brno and Moravian Landeshistoriograph. He arrived in Sweden in June 1851 and stayed till September that year to study the manuscripts that have a bearing on Moravian history. He published his findings in 1852, in Forschungen in Schweden für Mährens Geschichte, a ground-breaking study which covers manuscripts from Bohemia and a number of printed books and includes a thorough examination of the Devil’s Bible.

Johannes Belsheim (1829-1909), a Norwegian theologian and Bible scholar, worked on Codex Gigas in the winter of 1877-78. Earlier he had occupied himself with another famous manuscript from the National Library, Codex Aureus. In December 1877 the magazine Ny illustrerad tidning carried, under the heading ‘Vanishing Stockholm’, a short feature article and a picture from the reading room of the ‘Royal Public’ library, which at that time was still located at the Royal Palace. The magazine described how, among the library’s officials and scholars, ‘a Norwegian scholar lies poring over the Devil’s Bible itself; he occupies a great deal of the tiny room, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and none of those studying less corpulent writings lay claim to parity of status with respect to accommodation.’ One may ask whether it was really Belsheim – thin and lanky of stature – who took up so much space or whether it was the object of his study.

In his memoirs, entitled Minnen och silhouetter: Anteckningar nedskrifna under sommarvistelser vid Arild på 1890-talet, Elof Tegnér augments the picture as follows: ‘But nothing – not even the Devil’s Bible and its interpreter – impeded the conversations in its immediate vicinity between the library staff and visitors or between the visitors themselves. It was a kind of club room, of Spartan simplicity by comparison with other clubs, a literary cabman’s shelter, as it were, rather than a place of study.’

In spite of these difficult working conditions, Belsheim arrived at some interesting conclusions, establishing that both Acts and Revelation were older versions than those of the Vulgate. He published both texts in 1879.

More recently the manuscript has been treated from a variety of angles by such scholars as Josef Plaček, Antonín Friedl, Maria Wojciechowska, Carl Nordenfalk, Sten. G. Lindberg, Jaroslav Kolár and Ivan Hlaváček (see bibliography).