How does one gauge the value of a soul? Faust learned this lesson the hard way, by selling his soul and then regretting it. American musician Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul in order to become the best guitar player the blues had ever seen.
To the Bohemian monk who created the Codex Gigas, otherwise known as the Devil’s Bible, legend has it the price of his soul was worth the one night it took to create the biggest medieval book in the world.
The Devil’s Bible was taken as war booty from a small monastery in Podlažice, near Chrudim, by the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years’ War. For the past 359 years, it’s been on display in the National Library of Sweden. And now it’s coming back — albeit only temporarily, in a special exhibit at the National Library in Prague that opens Sept. 20 and runs through Jan. 6.
The air of mystery surrounding this amazing artifact has been deepened by the National Library’s refusal to say a single word about the exhibit prior to a press conference Sept. 18. But the basic facts about the book are well-known.
Made of the skins of about 160 animals — some say donkeys, others say calves — the manuscript measures a king-size 90 x 50 x 22 centimeters (roughly 36 x 20 x 9 inches) and weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds), requiring two people to lift it.
According to the National Library’s Web site (www.nkp.cz), legend holds that a monk was sentenced to be buried alive for a breach in Benedictine conduct. In order to forgo his punishment, he agreed to make the most magnificent book the world had ever seen in honor of his brotherhood. The catch was that he was given just one night to complete this Herculean task.
Around midnight, the monk realized he would not be able to finish by daylight, so he invoked the devil to help him, selling his soul in the process. As a tribute to his helper, the monk included a quirky image of the devil within the manuscript, thus giving the book its nickname.
The real story of the Codex Gigas is not fully known, but no less intriguing. Although there are no records of the origins of the book or its author, the first mention of the Codex Gigas appeared in the year 1295. However, the National Library Web site notes it is very likely that the Devil’s Bible dates to as early as 1229. Scholars believe the book was most likely the life’s work of one scribe, who is estimated to have spent 20 years or more creating it. The unity of the writing, as well as the synchronization of the overall composition and minute details, supports the idea that it was the work of a single person.
The leather parchment pages contain both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible in pre-Vulgate Latin and much more: a Penitential (a priest’s manual of sins and suitable penance); Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, a 20-volume encyclopedia from the seventh century; Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews; a necrology of the Podlažice monastery as well as a list of all the living monks in Podlažice; and numerous texts of mystical incantations for everything from curing illnesses to catching thieves.
In terms of local history, perhaps the most significant entry is the Chronicle of Bohemia (Chronica Bohemorum), written by Cosmas of Prague, which details major points of Bohemian history and genealogy.
While the secrecy surrounding the return of the Devil’s Bible is intriguing and curious, it’s not entirely inappropriate. Years ago, the Codex Gigas was attacked while on display in the National Library of Sweden; details of that event are still sketchy. Access to the book’s various incantations has always been restricted. And the fact that a primarily religious work includes codified pagan and mystical beliefs makes the book an extremely rare and even more bizarre artifact.
Whatever else lies hidden in its pages and the arrangements for the exhibition will presumably be unveiled when the Codex Gigas goes on display Sept. 20. It will be in a special vault, with a complementary exhibition on the book’s “dramatic journey” from its original home in Podlažice to its current resting place in Sweden.
As hush-hush as the advance preparation has been, this unique exhibit is already a must-see.