The Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil's Bible, is the biggest book in the world. Made at the start of the 13th century in a Bohemian monastery, it was one of the country's most prized works of art. In medieval times, its uniqueness was even put on a par with the wonders of the world. But at the end of the Thirty Years' War, it was taken by the Swedes and has been Swedish property since then. The National Library in Prague has now been allowed to borrow it for an exhibition that opens later this year.
Historians believe that the gigantic book, which has to be carried by two people, was most probably made in 1229 in a small Benedictine monastery in the town of Podlazice. Although the first mention of the book dates to 1295, the writing is thought to be about 65 years older. Its format - font and script - are uniform and it is believed to be the life work of one person, for whom it must have taken some 20 years to write. Zdenek Uhlir is from the National Library in Prague:
"It's a parchment book and very huge. It is about 92cm high and about 51cm wide. That means that it's the biggest book in the world. It weighs about 75 kilograms. It's a very typical late-Roman book illumination and the typical colours are red, blue, green and yellow. It's very difficult to read from the pages of this book because the script is very small - in some cases just seven millimetres big."
Why, how and by whom the Devil's Bible was made has remained a mystery until this day. But legend has it that the book was written by a monk, who faced being walled up alive for breaching a monastic code, and promised to create the biggest manuscript in the world in just one night in return for being spared from punishment. But when he realised that he would not be able to deliver on his promise, he asked the devil for help and his prayer was answered. The devil, to which the monk sold his soul, is depicted in the Penitential - a chapter that takes the form of a handbook for priests, listing various sins and the corresponding forms of repentance.
"The book contains the Old Testament, the New Testament, a necrology of the Podlazice monastery, a list of Podlazice fraternity members, a script on natural history, the oldest Czech Latin chronicle - there are eleven content items in all."
It is estimated that skin from some 160 donkeys had to be used to provide sufficient writing material for the book. Written in Latin, it also includes mystical medical formulae to treat epilepsy and fever but also solve unusual problems like finding a thief, for example. One of the most valuable chapters is the Chronica Bohemorum - a copy of the Bohemian Chronicle, drawn up from 1045 to 1125, that is considered one of the oldest and best transcripts of the Chronicle. The very end of the codex includes a list of the days on which Easter falls in the coming years.
The Devil's Bible will be exhibited at Prague's Klementinum Gallery from September 20th to January 6th next year. Besides the book, the exhibition will also have detailed descriptions of some of its chapters and a travelogue of the bible's journey from the little monastery in east Bohemia to Sweden's National Library.