A legendary work returns to Prague
More than 350 years after it was looted from Prague by the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years’ War, a famous medieval text will return to its native land, though only temporarily.
The Codex Gigas often referred to by its sexier name, the Devil’s Bible — should be on display to the public in the National Library by early 2007, according to library director Vlastimil Jezek. The text is aptly, if uncreatively, named Codex Gigas (Giant Book) for its sheer immensity in size. “The manuscript is enormous — the biggest medieval book known,” says Miroslava Hejnová, director of the department of historical and music resources at the National Library. “It is called the eighth wonder of the world.”
While eighth wonder may be a bit of an overstatement, the text was not conveniently designed for the modern reader on the go. The Codex Gigas is roughly 90 by 50 by 22 centimeters in size (a whopping 36 by 20 by 9 inches). Moreover, it was written on donkey hides — 160, to be exact — so it weighs in at 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds). The text is said to take two men to lift — not what you would call a light read.
The text earned the Devil’s Bible nickname for its large drawing depicting the devil within. And legend has it that the author of the text, a monk repenting his sins in a cell, finished it in a single night with the help of the devil.
Perhaps just the act of displaying a freakishly mammoth manuscript with a scintillating backstory would be reason enough to lure many viewers out to see it. But Hejnová says there are more important reasons for its display.
“It is a medieval library all in one text,” she says. The Codex Gigas contains the entire Latin Bible; Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, a 20-volume encyclopedia from the seventh century; and a Latin translation of Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews,” among other works. Particularly noteworthy for Czechs, the manuscript contains the oldest version of Cosmas of Prague’s “Chronicle of Bohemia,” a history of the region.
Written around the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlazice, the Codex Gigas found its way into the Imperial Treasury in 1594. It stayed in Prague for more than a half century, until it was taken by the Swedish Army to Stockholm. It has remained in the Royal Library of Sweden for more than three and a half centuries, leaving only twice for display.
The exhibition plans for the Codex Gigas raise an interesting question: Just how many texts have been looted from this country through the centuries?
“This is a complicated question,” Hejnová says. “I don’t know how many were looted because it wasn’t only books — it was whole collections [that were] taken from Bohemia and Moravia.” While it’s impossible to know an exact number, the National Library estimates that “several tens of thousands” of historical documents were removed as loot during various wars and conflicts, she says.
However, Hejnová says that the National Library would not seek the return of the Codex Gigas, now or ever. “Return is impossible,” she says. “To see libraries return looted works is unimaginable.”
Centuries of strife have scattered texts all over the Continent, Hejnová explains, adding that even the Czech National Library has several looted works, including two manuscripts from the Renaissance Library in Budapest. Thus, virtually no library has the moral standing to ask for its looted works back. “It is a normal situation to see libraries with looted works,” Hejnová says. “The whole of Europe would have to return books.”
With the permanent return of historical documents to their native lands unlikely at best, national libraries have come up with the next best thing. “It is no longer so important to have a book physically,” Hejnová says. “It is important to digitalize it to the world for viewing.”
Indeed, the Czech National Library has been digitalizing parts of its catalog since 1996. In September the library was given a UNESCO “Memory of the World” prize for its efforts.
The Swedes are currently in the process of digitalizing Codex Gigas. The process should take around six months.
Tentative plans have the text arriving in the Czech Republic in early 2007, but that could change as the logistics of moving it are worked out. The National Library is in the process of renovating a large hall to show the work, which will be on display with other historical manuscripts. Since Codex Gigas is so big, the library will also need to build a showcase specially designed to hold it. And Hejnová says she is planning on a large turnout when the text is finally available for viewing.
“I think people will come and see [Codex Gigas] because it is of Czech origin,” she says. “This is of importance to the Czech people.”
Hejnová says the text will be on display in Prague for around six weeks. Then the devil returns to Sweden.
The Devil’s Bible – By the numbers:
- 13th century: text was created
- 22 centimeters thick (approx.)
- 50 centimeters in width (approx.)
- 90 centimeters in length (approx.)
- 75 kilograms in weight
- 160 number of donkey hides it took to create
- 357 years since it was last seen in Prague