|Its story is something akin to
the great fairy tale of Germanic lore, Rumpelstiltskin. A promise has
been made that cannot be kept, and desperate and woeful, the promiser's
prayers for assistance are met by a dark creature who wants nothing
more than a human life. But while the story of Rumpelstiltskin ends
with the fairy tale creature ripping himself in two, the story of the
Devil's Bible, known throughout the centuries as the Codex Gigas, is a
tale that has haunted its owners for centuries, the text bringing
death, madness and woe to its possessor.
The story of the Devil's Bible begins in the Benedictine Monastery of Podlazice. It is here that a monk will break his holy vows, and in desperation, create a book that has been marred in both legend and in myth since the final touch was put onto the work: a large illustration of the devil in the back of the book. The book was created at and in a time when people were more afraid of Satan than they were happy to please God, a time when plague was rampant, and when punishment for breaking your religious vows was not the confess all and recite twelve Hail Mary's Catholic Church of today, but the walling in of the breaker of their devotion in a stone tomb alive: forever.
And this was the punishment that awaited Herman the Recluse, whose fate could be avoided solely by the creation of a Bible so great that it would make the monastery one of the most important Christian landmarks in the land, a promise made by hundreds of other monks throughout Christendom to redeem themselves after breaking their holy orders. Except those monks would dedicate their lifetime to the work, the creation of their Bibles and Christian texts about saint's lives taking them generally twenty to twenty-five years. The Devil's Bible, the largest known medieval manuscript in existance, one so large that it was at one time decreed the eighth wonder of the world, was done within twenty-four hours. And the book moved from being the product of one failed Christian's attempt at redemption to mythology, a mythology that is further accentuated by the fates of those who possessed the book, as well as the half man, half serpent like being that stares at one from a walled in vault, a fate from which he seems to have no escape . . .
But what has made this text such an obsession? With the exception of Herman the Recluse's transcription of the Bible, there are very few things in the codex that would appear in the normal Sunday school tome. In fact, according to the European Library of Swedish Treasures, where the book is now, the extremely large codex also contains Isidore Seville's Etymologiae, Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, A Chronicle of Bohemia, magic formulae and a list of brothers in the monastery. But though the addition of such texts might raise the eyebrows of modern scholars, it's the addition of various exorcism spells that seems to draw the most attention. Was the monk trying, in his final hours working on the text, to remove God's fallen angel from his body? Or did he succeed in getting Satan out of his soul, the painting on the last page of the half man, half beast creature walled in, his claws, hooves and serpant's tongue useless against the monk he tried to help a symbol of his overpowering the beast . . .
While Herman the Recluse's story ends with the completion of his text, the list of people who owned the text, and the horrible fates that awaited them, is like a rogue's gallery of European failures. The monastery where Herman lived became poor and impoverished, even though the Codex Gigas attracted immediate attention and curiosity. Selling the text to another monastery in Bohemia, in Brevnov, a town outside of Prague, did nothing to change the fate of the book's possessors, the members of that monastery as well soon became impoverished and almost immediately wiped out by plague. Yet the book continued to attract national and international attention, visitors from all over Bohemia and Christendom signing their name to the text including Rudolf II, the head of the Holy Roman Empire. He was to 'borrow' the text, himself becoming so immediately fascinated with the book and its bountiful alchemist recipes that it was never returned to the religious order that loaned it. But just as with the other owners of the Devil's Bible, Rudolf II's pleasure with owning the legendary text would prove to be folly, Rudolf II being the last emporer of the Holy Roman Empire, he dying without heirs and having surrendered Christendom to hundreds of years of war and bloodshed . . .
The Devil's Bible now sits in Sweden, away from the Bohemia that created the one-time eighth wonder of the world. The codex moved north to Scandanavia as a spoil of the Thirty Year's War, one of the final actions of that war being the complete sacking of the Bohemian capital of Prague. And so the Codex left Central Europe to be presented to Empress Christina of Sweden, whose armies had conquored Catholic Prague and took most of her bounty . . .
And yet oddly, the queen could never spiritually adjust to her role as the leader of the Protestant armies that had conquored a large swath of Europe. She promptly converted to Catholicism and moved to Rome where she lived a monastic life of study and writing . . . was it the Codex that drove her to seek religious and spiritual healing elsewhere, or had the Codex Gigas come full circle . . . the book finding comfort and solace in pushing the queen towards scholarly pursuits . . .