According to legend, a monk who broke his vows was sentenced to be walled up alive. He begged for clemency and promised to write a book that included all human knowledge — in just one night. At midnight, he realized he would never succeed in his task, so he prayed to the fallen angel Lucifer to help him. The devil delivered, so the monk drew the devil’s portrait on page 577 of his manuscript in gratitude. In reality, one monk did write the entire book, but it took him approximately 25 to 30 years to complete it. The over sized book was initially kept at a monastery in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), but was stolen by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War and taken to Stockholm as war booty in 1649. Now the book is housed at the National Library of Sweden. The white leather volume adorned with fancy gewgaws is about three feet tall and weighs a staggering 165 pounds. To protect this 800-year-old book from the damages of air and light, it’s kept in a climate-controlled case.The book is bound in wooden boards covered with leather. The inside is composed of 310 leaves of vellum that were reportedly made from the skins of 160 donkeys, although they may also be calfskin. Mystery alert: The book originally held 320 sheets, and no one is sure who removed the 10 extra pages or why.
The contents of the book include the complete text of the Old and New Testaments in Latin, as well as incantations, exorcism spells, the Ars medicinae (a 12th-century medical textbook), the Chronicle of the Bohemians, a calendar, and Hebrew, Greek, and Slavic alphabets. Toward the end of the book, there’s a drawing of the kingdom of Heaven with the infamous illustration of the devil on the facing page. The red, comma-shaped dashes on the devil’s loincloth are thought to be the tails of ermine furs, which were a common symbol of sovereignty at the time. The two long, red tongues poking out of his mouth evoke serpents, i.e., forked tongues, representing dishonesty. The image of Heavenly Jerusalem comes after the monk’s admission of his own sinfulness. He confesses to his battle against depravity, pride, envy, gluttony, lust, and more. The image of the city is based on an account in the Revelation of John and is meant to show that man has a clear choice between the realm of God or that of Satan. That’s why the devil appears on the very next page. In the text, the monk says that the devil has been ‘captured frozen in the utmost depravity and sin. This commingling of the religious and the secular may seem strange to modern eyes, but it was quite normal until about the 1700s, when the biblical canon became more finalized.
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