The History Of The Codex Gigas, The Massive Medieval Manuscript Known As The ‘Devil’s Bible’

Published August 18, 2023
Updated September 29, 2023

The 620-page Codex Gigas stands nearly 36 inches high and may have taken 25 years for a single monk to write.

Codex Gigas Pages

CTK / Alamy Stock PhotoThe Devil’s Bible contains the Old and New Testaments in pre-Vulgate Latin translations.

The Codex Gigas is the largest extant Medieval manuscript in the world — a massive volume comprising both the Old and New Testament, alongside an assortment of other texts, now held at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm.

But while its massive size is indeed impressive, it is perhaps better known for the striking, full-page depiction of the Devil that appears on its 577th page.

Nicknamed the “Devil’s Bible” as a result, the story behind the creation of the Codex Gigas is both intriguing and mysterious. There are several versions of the legend behind its creation, each dating back to the 13th century and a Benedictine monk named Herman the Recluse.

The Legend Behind The Codex Gigas

The legend of the Codex begins in the 13th century, with a Benedictine monk by the name of Herman the Recluse, who resided at a monastery near the town of Chrudim, Bohemia (modern day Czechia).

In all versions of the story, Herman broke his monastic vows, but it was the method of punishment that varies from account to account. Some say that he was sentenced to immurement, locked away behind a wall and sealed in until he could complete a book that contained all earthly knowledge. The process of live entombment wasn’t exactly unusual for monks or nuns who broke their vows — though it didn’t normally come with such a lofty stipulation.

Codex Gigas Devil

CTK / Alamy Stock PhotoThe Codex Gigas manuscript was written in the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia.

According to Heritage Daily, another version of the legend says that Herman was originally going to be immured and left to die of dehydration and starvation, but pleaded with the Abbot, asking for one year to complete the expansive text and earn his freedom.

Thus, Herman began to work on the compendium that would eventually become the Codex Gigas. However, in another twist on the legend, it is said that as midnight approached on the last night of the year, Herman knew he could not finish the Codex. At that moment, the Devil himself appeared to Herman, and the two made a deal: Herman’s soul in exchange for the ability to complete the Codex.

There are those who say the large, full-page illustration of the Devil on page 577 of the manuscript may in fact have been drawn as a way of thanking the unholy spirit for his help in completing the Codex.

However, much about the legend is speculative. The only thing historians know for sure is that the book was indeed handwritten by a single monk — though whether he really was Herman the Recluse is still up for debate.

What’s Inside The Devil’s Bible?

While the validity of Herman’s plight to create the Codex may be nothing more than legend, it doesn’t make the Codex Gigas itself any less impressive.

As The National Library of Sweden highlights, creating the Devil’s Bible was no small feat. For example, even if the scribe worked for six hours a day, six days a week, it would still have taken him at least five years to complete. If they were a monk, as many have suggested, they would likely have only been able to work on it for about three hours a day — meaning it would take about 10 years to write the Codex.

This doesn’t even factor in the multitude of illustrations, or the possibility that the scribe may have ruled the lines to guide his writing first. All things considered, it may very well have taken 20 or 30 years to complete the Codex Gigas.

Codex Gigas

CTK / Alamy Stock PhotoThe Codex Gigas, also known as the Bible of the Devil, is the largest medieval manuscript in the world.

No matter how you look at it, the Codex Gigas is impressive, and that’s not to mention the book’s actual content.

Inside its massive pages you will find the entirety of the Old and New Testaments, as well as other medieval reference texts including Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, the chronicle of Cosmas of Progue, a calendar, and a collection of shorter texts on topics such as grammar, medicine, and exorcism.

For years, the Codex Gigas was held at a Bohemian monastery, until the 16th century when it fell into the hands of Habsburg ruler Rudolph II. It sat among Rudolph’s collection until the Swedish siege of PRague at the end of the Thirt Years’ War in 1648, whereupon the text was taken as booty and shipped off to Stockholm, where it remains to this very day.

Now, it sits at the National Library of Sweden in a glass box, illuminated for the world to see.

Enjoy this look at the Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil’s Bible? Next, learn about the Jersey Devil and its connection to Ben Franklin. Then read about how Aleister Crowley inspired Led Zeppelin and terrified most everyone else.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.