You might know if you’ve read my bio, but I work as a tour guide at the Globe Theatre. There are many reasons why I love the Globe, not least of which is that I get to make a living from history – but also because you never know who you’re talking to.
In this case I was at the entrance telling getting people onto tours, when I started having a chat with one of the security guards. We talked about his travels in Eastern Europe and South America, touching on Voodou, Santeria, Brujha and Macamba (none of which I pronounced correctly, despite having studied them). It was inevitable that we eventually got onto the topic of The Devil.
We talked a little about the medieval fear of The Devil when he said, “You’ve heard of the Codex Gigas? The Codex Gigas? No? Look it up later.”
Here’s what I learned…
The Devil’s Bible
The Codec Gigas (literlly meaning ‘The Big Book’) is a Latin folio measuring twenty inches wide by thirty-six inches high. It was written in the thirteenth century, at the Benedictine Monastery of Podlazic in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), and it now resides in Sweden after Swedes conquered the city of Podazic in 1648.
The manuscript is huge, not only in size, but in scope. It contains the whole of the Lain Vulgate Bible, along with a translation of Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (a twenty volume encyclopedia), the whole of Cosimas of Prague’s Chronicle of Prague, plus other works (I haven’t seen it, but apparently it contains everything from astrological charts to magical circles and town records). It’s estimated that if it had been created at the usual medieval pace it would have taken five years of constant writing.
One of the reasons why it’s known as the Devil’s Bible is because it contained lurid images of the Devil and Hell. The Vulagate New Testament contained a very Hebraic idea of Hell: the prisoners of sin, like those who dwelt after death in Gehenna. Matthew’s Gospel describes Hell as “Everlasting Fire” and “Darkness”. It is a place full of demons, and the sounds of wailing and “gnashing of teeth.”
Scenes of Hell were popular in Medieval Christian art, with large-scale scenes of Hell being quite common in scenes of The Apocalypse or Last Judgement from the eleventh or twelfth century onwards.
In these scenes, the tortures of sinners in hell are often dramatically depicted: chewed and prodded by demons, suffering various tortures appropriate to their earthly vices. Hell’s mouth appears as a literal mouth: a terrible beast with a cauldron and flames within it, and the Devil either presiding over everything, or chained and suffering like the rest.
In addition to generally hellish imagery, the book is famous for a particularly unpleasant image of The Devil on fol. 290, where a garishly coloured Devil has horns, a forked tongue and clawed fingers (you can see it as the first picture in this post).
The ‘Codex might have Eastern Orthodox leanings, since it preserves a dialect of Latin similar to Lucifer of Cagliari, an eastern-leaning bishop who defended the staunchly orthodox St. Athanasius, who was in turn vilified by a succession of Roman Emperors.
The Myth of The Book
The legend of the Codex Gigas is that a Benedictine Monk had been sealed in his chambers for breaking his vows, and had been ordered to copy out the whole of the Bible in penance or face being confined permanently (some versions of the myth say he was threatened with being walled in).
In despair, the monk turned his thoughts to The Devil, who granted the monk’s wishes. The monk wrote the colossal book in just one night, the price being to draw a perfect image of Satan in the finished work.
The idea of monks and other clerics selling their souls to The Devil isn’t a new one: Caesarius of Heisterbach tells the story of a steward named Everach who makes a pact with The Devil (although he is saved from hell and becomes a monk afterwards), and it’s certainly true that such monks didn’t destroy their magical books after conversion: Canterbury’s St. Augustin library had over three hundred magical books.
In the fifteenth century Alphabet of Tales, a book of Sermon Exempla, we find a devil-summoning monk called Phillip. In this story a knight does not believe there are such things as devils and asks the monk to summon the creature for him. The monk does so, and while trying to prove his worth to the devil (not capitalised because we aren’t sure whether he’s just a devil or the Devil).
Regardless of the creature’s identity, it lists the services it has performed for the magician-monk Philip, saying, that it has “done much” for Philip, never hurting him, and coming when he called.
Necromantic Books in the Monasteries
Quite apart from the fact that the medieval university system churned out occult dabblers (since it trained them in Roman ritual and Latin), there was a significant trend for magical experimentation in medieval monasteries.
In fact, it’s quite possible that the monk involved in creating the Codex Gigas wasn’t an innocent man driven to desperate measures, but a black magician using his arts to escape punishment.
St. Augustine’s in Canterbury, also a Benedictine house, was a perfect place for monks to study Necromancy. It had a large collection of the latest textbooks on magic, astrology and alchemy, not to mention plenty of parchment and ink for drawing magical images.
An English monk who might well have ended up in the same position as our unnamed Czech is Michael Northgate, who probably came from a Canterbury family. He entered the abbey around 1296 and brought fairly significant collection of magical texts. His greatest interest seems to have been image magic (that is, magic using figures and images, very often to gain knowledge rather than early rewards). In this rather benign pursuit he seems to have copies of all the major books of the time: De Imaginibus, the Picatrix, and the Hermetic Liber Imaginum Lunae.
A darker monastic library is that of the Austin Friars at York, who have a collection of over six hundred books, many of them being books of Necromantic magic. Many of them were donated by the monk John of Erghome, the regent master of York in the second half of the fourteeth century (the part of the century where the Black Death raged across Europe).
In John’s sizeable donation there are over fifty books of Necromancy, including the Liber Iuritas, a book on summoning spirits, one general book on Necromancy called Liber Rubeus Qui Aliter Dicitur Sapiencia Nigromacnie, and a work dedicated to the demon Floron.
These were books, not just of dark magic, but containing very practical spells: the Liber Iuritas doesn’t just have spells for summoning demons, it tells you how to save your soul from purgatory, catch thieves and find treasure. With such a book, it’s hardly surprising that a resourceful cleric might be able to save himself from certain death…