Update on the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible Book Project

Bookend of the Devil from the Devil’s Bible, purchased at the National Library in Sweden. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

On this day, July 15, in 2015, I published a post on Book Riot that would take my life in a new direction. The post was titled 10 Things You Should Know about the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible. I chose the Devil’s Bible and the listicle format because I had problems coming up with an idea for a post, so I used to a simple format to write about something I already knew and that fascinated me.

Three years later, in 2018, my listicle about the Codex Gigas was one of the evergreen Book Riot posts that drew traffic to the site. If I remember correctly, that post alone drove about 90,00 views to the site during the year of 2018. When I left Book Riot in June 2019, the post had already racked up more than 50,000 views during the first six months of that year.

In the late summer of 2018, I received a cold email from one of the producers of the TV-series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. They had read my post on Book Riot and wondered if I would be interested in filming a segment about the manuscript. I of course accepted and spent an amazing 24 hrs in the Czech Republic. We filmed the segment about the Devil’s Bible at the Broumov Monastery using a life-sized replica of this fantastic manuscript as our prop. The segment would later become part of the first episode of the third season of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and aired on the National Geographic Channel in March 2019.

All of these things put together made me realize that there is a bigger interest in the Devil’s Bible than I had thought. I also realized that there was no book about the Devil’s Bible available in English.

So I decided to write one.

I have been working on this book about the Devil’s Bible since the spring of 2019. During this time, I have researched the manuscript’s history and the medieval history of the Czech Republic. I have learned about medieval book production, the history of monasticism, the history of evil, the history of Heaven and Hell, and the history of the Devil. I have gone through the digitized copy of the Codex Gigas and taken notes on every single page of the manuscript to get to know it and its creator better. This task alone took me almost nine months. I have written a first draft, which made clear to me that there were parts of my book project that needed additional research. This additional research took me another six months to complete.

Finally, this week, I started writing the second draft of my book, a draft I thought I would have started a year ago.

My book about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible is currently a work in progress. I expect to finish the second draft sometime early next year. I would be surprised if I finish sooner, considering that the university fall semester starts again in August.

When I finish the book, there is still no guarantee that it will be published. The journey towards publication is a different type of journey from writing with other forces at work. It could very well be that no agent or publisher is interested in picking up my book. It is a reality I must be ready to face.

But even if the book never gets published, researching and writing about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible has already been fulfilling and rewarding because I have learned so much in the process. Not only that, I have created a university course about the history of Central Europe based on what this project has taught me. If that turns out to be the only outcome of this project then that is a good one.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Catch Me on the Season Premiere of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman

Catch Me on The Story of God with Morgan Freeman | Erika Harlitz-Kern | The Boomerang

In October last year I flew to the Czech Republic and worked on an episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. I spent a day at the Broumov Monastery, just south of the Czech-Polish border, filming an episode on the amazing medieval manuscript Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil’s Bible.

The episode I filmed has been chosen as the premiere episode of the third season of The Story of God by Morgan Freeman and will air on the NatGeo Channel on Tuesday March 5 9/8c. Check out the trailer for Season 3 and then set your DVR for Tuesday night (or be a little crazy, and do it old school, and actually sit down to watch the episode as it airs).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Franz Kafka. A German-Speaking Jew from Prague

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is arguably one of Europe’s most fascinating authors. Kafka is rightfully associated with the city of Prague, today the capital city of the Czech Republic. But was Kafka Czech? No, Kafka was a German-speaking Jew from Prague.

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Franz Kafka
Source: Anonymous

To understand this statement, we must first understand the city of Prague and its history, as well as the region where it is located, Bohemia.

Prague was founded during the second half of the 9th century. During the High Middle Ages, the city flourished as a political and economic center for its surrounding region, Bohemia, or Čechy in Czech and Böhmen in German.

Prague played an important role in Bohemia and Central Europe from the Middle Ages until the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In fact, the Thirty Years’ War is considered to have begun in Prague with what is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a method of execution where the intended victim is thrown out of a window. The name of the this method comes from the Latin word for “window”: fenestra.

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Prague Castle (2006)
Source: Wizzard

The Second Defenestration of Prague was the execution of the governors of Bohemia, installed on their posts by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty to subdue Protestantism in Bohemia. The citizens of Prague responded to this policy by defenestrating the Habsburg officials from the windows of the Hradčany, or Prague Castle.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the European continent and Prague’s political and economic success waned. However, new life was breathed into the city during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. When Kafka lived in Prague it was a bustling and modern city at the heart of Europe.

When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague and Bohemia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in 1867 when a constitutional compromise between the Austrian Empire and Hungary was reached. This compromise meant that Hungary would continue to acknowledge the rule of the Austrian emperor, but was autonomous in all political issues except war and foreign relations.

Outside of Hungary, the empire consisted of a not-clearly defined agglomeration of regions called “the kingdoms and lands represented in the [Austrian] Reichrat” or simply “the other Imperial half.” What these different regions had in common was the dynastic claim of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty to which the Austrian royal family belonged. Bohemia and Prague belonged to this other half.

Austria-Hungary1899
Austria-Hungary in 1899. Prague is located at the map coordinates 14:50.

Throughout history, Bohemia had three major population groups: Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Czechs lived in Bohemia because of it being a region within the Slavic cultural and ethnical sphere. Germans lived in Bohemia because of its proximity to German regions such as Bavaria. Jews lived in Bohemia because of the Diaspora, which after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. spread the Jewish population across the world. Jews are known to have lived in Prague since the 970s, with a permanent community established there in the 11th century.

Reading articles, texts, and private correspondence contemporary to Kafka, it becomes evident that these three groups defined themselves as separate from one another. In fact, tensions were at times rife between Germans and Czech nationalists with Jews trying to find a place in the middle while avoiding anti-Semitism from both sides.

During Kafka’s lifetime, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Prague, most of them spoke German and mainly identified with the German-speaking culture. They lived a secularized, mostly bourgeois lifestyle and distanced themselves from Jews living in rural areas further east. Yiddish, the language most often connected to eastern European Jews, was unknown to them. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Prague’s Jewish population consisted of 92,000 people, one of the largest in Europe. 60% of them are estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Prague.

Franz Kafka was born into a wealthy merchant family, where everything centered around the family business. Kafka himself worked as an official at an insurance company and dedicated his spare time to writing, which lead to conflict with other family members. A relentless self-critic, only a handful of his stories were published during his lifetime. Most of Kafka’s works that we know and admire today, were published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s wish to burn all the manuscripts after his death. All of Kafka’s stories were written in German.

Although secularized through his upbringing, Kafka identified himself as a Jew. He became engaged in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Prague and that movement’s discussions on Jewish identity and culture interested him a great deal. He frequented the Yiddish theater whenever such plays were available in Prague and made friends within the theater companies.

Reading Kafka’s works, Jewish folklore and Talmudic discussion techniques jump out off the page. The Jewish sense of humor and the twists and turns of Talmudic discourse lay the foundation of an absurd and unpredictable reading experience. Believe it or not, but the step from Kafka to Mel Brooks is not a big one.

Throughout his life, Kafka lived in Prague, the main city of Bohemia but only a regional capital in the other half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to and identifying with one of the three main ethnic and cultural groups. When he died in Vienna at the age of 40, Prague had been the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, created after the collapse of the empire brought on by World War I, for only six years.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Britannica.com Czechoslovakia
Britannica.com Bohemia
Britannica.com Prague
Jewish Virtual Library Prague
Franz Kafka The Trial (Der Prozess) (New York, 1998)
Reiner Stach Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton & Oxford, 2005)

Note:
The images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.