Sweden offers Czechs chance to view medieval manuscript

Czechs got the chance to examine the world's biggest medieval manuscript, the "Codex Gigas" or "Devil's Bible," for the first time in almost 359 years on Thursday when the precious work went on show as part of a four-month-long exhibition.

The 13th century masterpiece, considered at the time as the eighth wonder of the world, was carried off as booty by Swedish troops from Prague during the Thirty Years’ War but has returned at the end of painstaking negotiations and preparations between Prague and Stockholm.

The 624-page, 75-kilogramme (165-pound) work is on display in a specially designed safe-like room in a former Jesuit college in the centre of historic Prague with visitors limited to 10 at a time and rationed to a few minutes each.

The book is so valuable that its Swedish owners insisted on a state guarantee worth 300 million koruna ($15.1 million dollars) rather than a normal commercial insurance to cover any eventualities, director of the Czech National Library, Vlastimil Jezek, explained at the unveiling of the exhibition.

The return of the “Devil’s Bible,” which owes its name to a superb illustration of the devil found inside and the legend about its creator, demanded long-drawn out negotiations.

“During discussions, you could feel on the Swedish side the underlying question: ‘If we lend this to you Czechs, will you give it back to us?'” Jezek recounted with a wry smile.

The manuscript was the work of a monk working at the Pozlazice monastery located in the centre of the current Czech Republic. The monastery was destroyed during the 15th-century wars of religion.

Legend has it that the monk was condemned to be walled up alive for committing a grave crime. To escape from that slow death, he proposed to create the masterpiece in a night so that it would bring glory to the monastery and wipe out his sins.

To achieve that, however, he had to solicit help from the devil and, in recognition of that aid, slipped in the illustration of his “helper” in the final work.

Lodged among the Prague treasures of the celebrated arts collector Emperor Rudolph II, the rare book was carried off by troops of Swedish general Königsmark at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.