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The Largest Medieval Manuscript of All

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, for the feast of St Isidore, we looked at his work known as the Etymologies, the widely used general encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. One of the indications of how important this work was to medieval culture is the fact that nearly 1000 manuscripts of it survive. Of these, one is a book also famous for being the single largest medieval manuscript in existence, known as the “Codex Gigas – the giant codex.”

The date and place of its production can be fixed by internal evidence between 1204 and 1230, in the Kingdom of Bohemia. There are a total of 310 folios (ten others have gone missing), measuring just shy of three feet in length (90cm), and over a foot and a half (50cm) in width. We may get a better sense of what this means by noting that almost the entire books of Psalms, the longest book of the Old Testament by word count, and the full text of a prologue by St Jerome, fit onto only 14 pages. By comparison, in the oldest complete Biblical codex that exists, the Psalms occupy a bit more than 80 pages (measuring 15 x 13.6 inches.)

Just under half of the book (folios 1-118 and 253-286) is taken up by the Old and New Testaments, but between them are included Latin translations of two works by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, the Antiquitates Iudaicae and De bello Iudaico, followed by St Isidore’s Etymologies, and a group of eight medical treatises. Of these, the first five are Latin translations of Greek and Arabic works, produced at the famous medieval school of medicine in the southern Italian city of Salerno, and collectively known as the Ars medicinae or Articella. The last three are works of a monk of Monte Cassino known as Constantine the African, who migrated there in the mid-11th century, after studying medicine at Salerno.

After the New Testament, there are two full-page illustrations which face each other, one of the Heavenly Jerusalem as described in the Apocalypse, the other of the devil. This latter has given rise to a rather silly nickname for the codex, “the devil’s Bible.” There follows a chronicle of the early history of Bohemia by one Cosmas of Prague (early 12th century); then, formerly, the rule of St Benedict on some folios that have gone missing, and on the last fourteen pages, a calendar.

(Folios 289v and 290 recto of the Codex Gigas, depicting the Heavenly City and the devil; public domain images from Wikimedia Commons, cropped and joined.)

The history of the codex after its creation is quite interesting, and ties in with something we wrote about two months ago. From the time of its creation, it was owned by four different Bohemian monasteries, until 1593, when the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Rudolf II (1552-1612; crowned 1575), who kept his court at Prague, “borrowed” it from its previous monastic owners, and never returned it. (Rudolf occupied himself with the study of the occult much more than he did with governance, and it has been speculated that the above-mentioned picture of the devil may have piqued his interest in the book.) During the Thirty Years’ War, the royal library in Prague was looted by the Swedish army, and most of its contents brought to the royal library in Stockholm. When Queen Christina of Sweden absconded with most of that library in 1654, the Codex Gigas was left behind, perhaps because it weighs almost 165 pounds.

The castle in Stockholm was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1697, and along with it, most of that portion of the library left behind by Christina, but the Codex Gigas was saved by being thrown out a window, supposedly injuring a bystander.

An excellent and much fuller account of the codex and its history can be read at this archived page of the website of the Royal Library in Stockholm:

https://web.archive.org/web/20071012082419/http://www.kb.se/codex-gigas/eng/Long/

Wikimedia Commons also has a high resolution scan of every single page of the manuscript on the dedicated pages, starting here:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Codex_Gigas

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