Monday, September 10, 2007

The Devil's Bible Returns to Prague

One of Sweden’s most famous booktreasures is Codex gigas, also known as “The Devil’s Bible.” As implied of its Latin name, this book is one of the largest surviving medieval books (89,5 x 49 cm, weighs 75 kg), and it contains the Old and New Testaments in pre-Vulgate Latin translations, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, Josephus’ History of the Jews in a Latin translation, the Chronicle of Bohemia, written by Cosmas of Prague, etc.

The manuscript is written on vellum, prepared from calf skin. It was produced in the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlazice in Bohemia. The name, the “Devil’s Bible,” derives from the impressive picture of that potentate on fol. 290r, see here. According to a legend, the monk who copied the manuscript had been confined to his cell by way of some penance, and apparently he finished the copying in one single night with the aid of the Devil, whom he had summoned for help.

In 1594 the manuscript was acquired by the Imperial Treasury in Prague, and then brought as a war treasure to Sweden in 1648 when the Swedish army conquered the city. It was presented to the Royal Library (Kungliga Biblioteket) in Stockholm the following year. Now, after more than 350 years, it will be temporarily returned to Prague for an exhibition which opens on September 19 and runs til Januari 2008. The “Devil’s Bible” is part of the Czech cultural heritage and the planned exhibition has aroused a lot of attention. The Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek, and the Minister of Culture, Václav Jehlička, will be present at the grand opening, as will some representatives from Sweden.

Prior to the exhibition a large digitization project in Stockholm has been completed, and the codex now has its own web-site here, where the manuscript is presented (in Swedish, English and Czech), and where anyone can browse images of the manuscript. In a way, the manuscript has been “returned” permanently to the Czech Republic in the form of high quality images.

The exhibition at the National Library of the Czech Republic has a homepage, here.

For a recent detailed scholarly commentary on the history and contents of the manuscript, see here.

For those interested in the actual photographic process, a special photo studio was built in the underground of the Royal Library, and there are some detailed pages here (unfortunately only in Swedish, but with interesting images).

Old and new announcements in the press here and here (the latter wrongly says that the MS will be digitized in Prague).

Update: Peter Head notices in the comments that the linked scholarly article suggests that the MS was made from calf-skin, whereas I first wrote “ass skins.” Apparently, the new analysis of the MS has shown that it is indeed calf-skin, and not, as previously thought, ass-skin. I have made the change in the original text above.


  1. Thanks Tommy,
    That is a very interesting post and good links. The article you link to (ån%20Biblis38.pdf) has some interesting observations on the order of material in the manuscript (the OT and the NT are separated by Josephus and Isidore and some medical texts). It also says that the skins used were calf skins (p8), but you said 'ass' skins. Any thoughts? DNA test?

    On another subject the article says that the scribe would have written 100 lines per day (p5). Although he asserts this quite dogmatically ('A medieval scribe could write about 100 lines per day.') it seems a gross underestimate to me.

  2. Peter,

    Thanks for the observation. My original information, "ass skins" reflected the older opinion. The renewed analysis has shown that the MS was made from calf skin. I have changed the original post accordingly.