The Devil is in the Details: Medieval Devil’s Bible Contains Portrait of Satan Himself

The Devil is in the Details: Medieval Devil’s Bible Contains Portrait of Satan Himself

Alexander Meddings - October 19, 2017

A great deal of time in the life of a medieval monk was spent in contemplation. Within the abbey and monastery walls of Holy Orders across Medieval Christendom, brothers passed their days contemplating the Trinity, contemplating the devil, contemplating heaven and—by extension—contemplating hell. One particular monk, however, went beyond merely contemplating the devil to create an enormous illustration of him in the world’s largest (and one of the world’s strangest) medieval manuscripts: the accordingly named Devil’s Bible.

The academic name for the manuscript is the codex gigas, or “giant book” in Latin. And giant it is. Measuring a staggering 36 inches in height, 20 inches in width, and 8.7 inches thick, it contains a remarkable 310 parchment leaves or 620 pages. Such dimensions mean that the combined leather binding, metal trim, and velum of 160 donkeys that make up the manuscript weighs in at a hefty total of 165 pounds—so heavy that at least two adults are needed to carry it.

More incredible than the tome’s physical dimensions is its authorship. Owing to the consistency of the handwriting and illustrations, it’s universally agreed that the Devil’s Bible was the work of a single man. A thirteenth-century signature reading hermanus monarchus inclusus may identify the author as one “Herman the reclusive monk”. And that the author was both reclusive (and for that matter single) is perfectly evident, given the extraordinary nature of his accomplishment.

The Devil is in the Details: Medieval Devil’s Bible Contains Portrait of Satan Himself

Researchers have calculated that it if someone today were to work on the manuscript 24/7, it would take them around five years to reproduce the writing alone. There’s no question that our medieval monk was incredibly committed, but no matter how much his commitment it’s safe to assume that over the years he needed some sleep. Assuming he worked full-time, therefore, it would have taken our monk at least 30 years to complete the manuscript, including all its illustrations.

The Legend of the Devil’s Bible

According to legend, the author was from Bohemia—the modern-day Czech Republic—and he began working on his manuscript early first part of the thirteenth century in a Benedictine Monastery in Podlažice, Bohemia (the modern-day Czech-Republic). History and legend make uncomfortable bedfellows here, however: while the names of famous contemporary figures more or less confirm the accuracy of the date, its place of origin is more contentious. In fact, the monastery in Podlažice was very poor, and no other surviving manuscripts have been identified that come from there.

Far more contentious than the date are the circumstances in which the Devil’s Bible was written, which are shrouded in sinister, satanic mystery. The legend of its genesis goes like this. After breaking one of his monastic vows, a Benedictine monk was sentenced to the horrendous capital punishment of being walled up alive. In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to avoid his terrible fate, the monk swore to write a manuscript in a single night that would extol the monastery and contain all human knowledge to date.

The Devil is in the Details: Medieval Devil’s Bible Contains Portrait of Satan Himself
Illustration of Satan in “The Devil’s Bible”. The Lineup

The brothers agreed and the monk set about his herculean task. It wasn’t long, however, before he realized its impossibility. With midnight approaching and the prospect of his horrendous execution looming ever nearer, the monk bowed his head and prayed for some divine assistance. But instead of addressing God, this lapsed monk called out to Satan, offering him his soul in exchange for the completion of the manuscript.

The Antichrist duly obliged. Snapping his clawed fingers, he instantaneously filled the manuscript with over 620 pages of excellent Vulgate Latin and ornate illustrations, saving the monk’s (mortal) life. According to one legend, the monk then inserted the portrait of his Lord and helper as a token of eternal gratitude. According to another, the portrait was the illustrative signature of the Devil himself.

The devil we see in the manuscript is portrayed completely naked apart from an ermine loincloth. While to us the loincloth may resemble a diaper, medieval audiences would have more easily understood its significance: ermine represented royalty, clearly identifying the figure as the prince of darkness. On the other side of the page from the Devil is an illustration of the Heavenly City.

Because it was practice for manuscripts to be left open, it would have been visible to anybody passing by. Scholars believe that even the illiterate would have been able to take something from the simplicity of this message: live a pious Christian life and the rewards of the Eternal City await you; stray from the righteous path and you’ll be with the Antichrist and his minions on the right. There’s something disconcerting about this interpretation though. As some people have pointed out over the ages, the Heavenly City is conspicuously empty.

The Contents of the Devil’s Bible

So what was the “sum of human knowledge” that the monk (or indeed the devil) chose to enclose within the manuscript? Because this was the Middle Ages, it inevitably began with the Bible. The beginning of the manuscript starts with Latin translations of the entire Old and New Testament—admittedly strange choices, you must admit, if the tome was indeed composed by Satan. In addition to scripture, the Devil’s Bible also contains a number of Christian-friendly secular works.

Immediately following the New Testament are Flavius Josephus’s Jewish History and Jewish Wars: two first century AD texts that provide independent accounts of Jesus’s existence. After Josephus comes the encyclopedia of St. Isidor of Seville (560 – 636 AD), known to some as the patron saint of the Internet because of the extensive information he pooled together, and Cosmas’s work of local history, the “Chronicle of Bohemia” (1045 – 1125).

Alongside these major texts are a number of minor ones. These include medical treatise from Hippocrates (from whom medical professionals get the Hippocratic Oath) and Theophilus, as well as subjects ranging from “how to perform an exorcism” and “how to do penitence” to “how to perform a list of magic spells”. In fact, the manuscript even includes two eternally useful spells for how to identify and catch a thief.

The Devil is in the Details: Medieval Devil’s Bible Contains Portrait of Satan Himself
Broumov Monastery, home to the Devil’s Bible throughout much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Klášter-Broumov

The History of the Devil’s Bible

The manuscript has a long history worthy of its sinister beginnings. Soon after its completion sometime between 1224 and 1230, it was purchased by monks at the Monastery of Břevnov, home to the Benedictine order’s most important monastic library. There it stayed until shortly after the outbreak of the Hussite Wars in 1420 when, with pro-papal enemy troops rampaging the area, it was moved to safety within the Monastery of Broumov. Broumov was its home throughout much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, where it served as a kind of glorified guestbook for distinguished visitors to write their names in

The fact that the Devil’s Bible was still technically the property of Břevnov created some technical difficulties after it attracted the attention of the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. A renowned bibliophile, Rudolph first became interested in the manuscript when two of his emissaries passed by Broumov Monastery in 1590, on their way back from a diplomatic mission in Poland. Despite being one of the most powerful men in Europe, Rudolph was forced to ask permission for the manuscript to be loaned to him in Prague. It would turn out to be a distinctly royal type of loan, however, for the manuscript was never returned to its rightful owner.

On March 4, 1594, the Devil’s Bible was dispatched to Prague. Upon its arrival it became the subject of intense academic interest; listed in the inventory of the emperor’s Chamber of Treasures and Arts, and assiduously studied and recopied by his secretary and court historian. For just over 50 years the Devil’s Bible would remain in Bohemia’s capital. But in the final days of the Thirty Years’ War, one of Europe’s bloodiest religious conflicts (1618 – 1648), it fell into enemy hands when Swedish forces sacked Prague.

The Devil’s Bible has been in the Swedish capital of Stockholm ever since. Its time has been anything but uneventful. Troops returning from the Thirty Years’ War brought it to the royal castle of Queen Christina. Yet the manuscript failed to capture her imagination as it had Rudolph’s, failing to feature among the great books and artworks she took with her to Rome upon her abdication. Fortunately for the manuscript’s survival, however, those who stayed behind in Stockholm took more interest.

On May 7, 1697, a fire ravaged Stockholm castle, gutting the royal library and incinerating many items in its collection. The leather cover of the Devil’s Bible was badly damaged and several of its pages burnt out. Ultimately it was only saved because someone threw it out of the library window, apparently (and indeed understandably) seriously injuring an unfortunate passer-by below. Since the late eighteenth century, the manuscript has been the subject of non-stop academic interest, with scholars researching it from all angles: its content, its composition, and, of course, its history.

According to legend, whoever possesses the codex gigas is cursed to experience disaster and misfortune. But considering that the entirety of medieval history was written either by religious clerics or heavily pious aristocrats, it’s little wonder they spread this message. After all, a large manuscript with an illustration of the devil that failed to bring about harmful consequences wouldn’t fit well with their Christian message. Having said that, so far history has not been kind to those in possession of the Devil’s Bible. Let’s just hope that the vaults of Stockholm’s National Library, the current resting place of the Devil’s Bible, prove to be the exception to its exceptional bad luck.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Devil’s Bible Darkest Secrets Explained. David Max Braun. National Geographic. December 17, 2008

What You Should Know About the Codex Gigas. Alicia. Ancient Origins. APRIL 5, 2019