I didn’t get a lot of editing done early in January. I spent too much time constantly refreshing the home page of the Washington Post and checking my Facebook news feed – I have a lot of friends who are fellow news junkies. Given what was happening, it was hard to look away.
Which makes me think of The Big Book.
The Codex Gigas was written in the early 13th-century in a Benedictine monastery in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. It is 36 inches tall, 20 inches wide, and nearly 9 inches thick, containing 310 leaves of finely-written text – it’s been estimated that 160 donkeys died to provide the vellum used. Among other things, it contains the complete Vulgate Bible, Josephus’ History of the Jews and The Jewish War, Isadore of Seville’s encyclopedia, medical works by Constantine Africanus, a treatise on excommunication, and a chronicle of the history of Prague. Essentially everything a 13th-century Bohemian monk could want to know, all in one book.
The most remarkable thing about it is that an analysis of the handwriting shows it was the work of a single scribe. And while we can’t be sure, the chronicle of the monastery included in the book provides hints that the scribe was one Herman the Recluse. In medieval monasteries, recluses were monks who lived in voluntary isolation. They were often walled into their cells, with only a small opening left for food and so they could communicate to a small degree with the public – they were often sought out for spiritual advice. (The 10th-century nun Hrosvitha of Gandersheim also wrote a comedy play involving the question of waste disposal.) Given the Codex’s size and complexity, it would have taken about twenty years to complete. Between the need for apprenticeship and failing eyesight due to poor light, twenty years would have probably been Herman’s entire working life. [Read more…]