Codex Gigas: “The Devil’s Bible” and other Illuminated Manuscripts of the Medieval World

At ThinkingWest we often discuss books that have stood the test of time. These “classics” arose from the tremendous impact of their ideas, masterful command of the language, and storytelling power – not from their physical appearance. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we often hear, but today we are going to do just that by highlighting ancient books that have become famous mostly due to their outward beauty. Several books of the medieval world have survived that captivate onlookers by their exquisite binding, skilled calligraphy, and vivid illustrations. The detail contained by these books reveals a care and craftsmanship that has been lost for hundreds of years. 

The majority of the books discussed are illuminated manuscripts. An illuminated manuscript is a hand-written, painted document that contains decorative borders and illustrations in addition to text. Most illuminated manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum (calf-skin) and were often ornamented with precious metals or gilding. Illuminated manuscripts were a form of art as well as a way to pass on knowledge. The first illuminated manuscripts appeared near the end of the Roman era around 400 to 600 AD and developed in complexity and artistic style throughout the middle ages. Finally, with the development of the printing press in the 15th century, their popularity declined in favor of cheaper production methods but remained a novelty for the ultra-wealthy into the 16th century.

Below is a list of the most awe-inspiring of these medieval manuscripts.

Codex Gigas

One of the most famous illuminated manuscripts is the codex gigas, literally translating to “giant book”. The codex measures 36 inches long and 20 inches wide, making it the world’s largest preserved medieval manuscript. The complete book weighs a whopping 165 pounds. The manuscript was completed in the 13th century by a Benedictine monk in Bohemia and  contains the complete Latin Vulgate Bible and Josephus’s famous Antiquities of the Jews, as well as other popular works. 

Commonly referred to as the “Devil’s Bible,” many assume that its nickname comes from its large, page-sized illustration of Satan; however, the folk-tale behind the nickname is more sinister. According to legend, the monk Herman the Recluse was sentenced to be walled-up alive for breaking his monastic vows. To avoid this punishment, Herman promised to create a book containing all human knowledge that would glorify the monastery. As midnight of the execution day approached, the monk turned to prayer for aid in this endeavor. Instead of praying to God, the monk turned to Satan to help him complete his tome. The monk finished by morning, and as a special thanks to his helper, he added the famous image of Satan to one of the pages. Textual analysis of the codex indicates that the book was indeed completed by one writer in a short period of time; however, due to the sheer volume of writing, the task is estimated to have taken 20 years to be completed.

Front Cover of the Codex Gigas, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Satan Depiction in the Codex Gigas, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Morgan Crusader Bible

The Crusader Bible was written sometime in the 1240’s for the French King Louis IX. Depicting events from the Hebrew Bible set in the scenery and attire of 13th century France, this picture book put a medieval twist on Old Testament stories. Not a complete Bible, the manuscript largely focuses on the stories surrounding King David. Each illustration is accompanied by text written in either Latin, Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Persian or Hebrew. The vivid colors and attention to detail make it popular among onlookers and scholars alike.

Page from The Morgan Crusader Bible, Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum
Page from The Morgan Crusader Bible, Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum

Codex Argenteus

The Codex Argenteus (Latin for “Silver Book”) is a 6th century manuscript containing parts of the Gothic Bible, including the four canonical gospels. The book is considered one of the world’s foremost sources for the now-extinct Gothic language. Attributed to the Arian bishop Wulfila, the document was likely written for the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great. After Theodoric’s death in the early 500’s, the book was lost for a millennium. Parts of the book were preserved by monks at the Benedictine Abbey of Werden, where it finally appeared again in the 16th century. It now rests at Uppsala University, Sweden after it was taken as loot in the Thirty Years War. The work is particularly striking due to its purple-stained vellum pages and silver and gold ink.  

The Codex Argenteus, Image courtesy of The University of Edinburgh, Coimbra Group

Book of Kells

Among the most iconic medieval manuscripts is the Book of Kells, housed at Trinity College Library in Dublin. Created circa 800 AD in a Columban monastery in the British Isles, the book contains the four Gospels along with a few prefatory works. The text is considered to be the pinnacle of western calligraphy in its time, while the illustrations are a beautiful blend of Insular Art (the post-Roman era style of art popular in Irish monasteries) and traditional Christian iconography. Plants, animals, Celtic knots, and biblical figures decorate the 680 page volume to tell the story of Jesus’ life in vivid detail. The complexity and detail of the illustrations in the Book of Kells go far beyond any of its contemporaries thus creating a masterwork that has inspired the faithful for 1200 years and counting.

Symbols of the Four Evangelists in the Book of Kells
Symbols of the Four Evangelists in the Book of Kells

Ambrosian Iliad

The earliest of the illuminated manuscripts listed, the Ambrosian Iliad was written in the 4th-5th century AD. Though not technically in the medieval era, I decided to include it since it offers a break from Biblical literature, as it depicts the Iliad from the ancient Roman perspective and is the earliest set of illustrations to portray this particular work of Homer. Thought to have been completed in Alexandria, the manuscript contains 52 miniature scenes labelled numerically, each scene being only about 7.5 x 9 inches. The illustrations and structure of the piece are remarkably similar to today’s popular comic book series. 

Miniatures #16 and 17 from the Ambrosian Iliad, Image courtesy of The Ambrosiana Biblioteca

Medieval Bestiaries

Our last entry is a category of book rather than a particular book, since I found multiple bestiaries that were of interest, but had no real justification for placing one over the others. For some background, a bestiary is an encyclopedia-like compilation of animals or mythical beasts.
Each page of a bestiary contains an illustration of the beast along with a description and sometimes a moral lesson pertaining to the beast. Bestiaries gained popularity throughout the middle ages as readers could learn about exotic animals they could never hope to see in person or mythical creatures like griffins or wyverns that stretched their imaginations. The Aberdeen Bestiary, the Westminster Abbey Bestiary, and the Oxford Bestiary were a few of the fascinating works that I ran across from this genre.

Various Animals from the Aberdeen Bestiary, Source
A satyr from the Aberdeen Bestiary, Source

Endless More to Discover

The list above barely scrapes the surface of the vast amount of awe-inspiring ancient literature that has survived the centuries, and it could hardly be thought of as a “best of” list since it’s impossible to rank the value or the beauty of these works with so many options available. Ultimately, illuminated manuscripts and other ancient literature provide windows into the lives, traditions, and myths of ancient people, allowing us to see what was valued most in past societies.

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