Author Archives: Horatia

About Horatia

Horatia is a writer and editor.

The bakings of Betsy

Paper was once precious. It is so ubiquitous today — newspapers, paper towels, wrapping paper, paper napkins, tissues — that we forget it was once a valuable commodity.

Nowadays, paper is produced in industrial quantities from wooden pulp. Before the nineteenth century, however, paper was difficult to make, took ages to make, cost a fortune, could only be made from rags, and rags were in constant short supply. So short, in fact, that in England the export of rags was forbidden and, in 1680, an Act of Parliament directed that people could only be buried in wool and not linen. The Act had the intention of “lessening the Importation of Linnen from beyond the Seas and the Encouragement of the Wollen and Paper Manufactures of this Kingdome”.

So he should have known better, John Warburton. Much better. It was only the middle of the eighteenth century, after all, and paper was still hard to come by.

He was a collector, John Warburton, as well as being the Somerset herald of arms, and what he collected were old manuscripts. Not just any old manuscripts but around 60 play manuscripts; manuscripts of plays performed in the sixteenth century by The King’s Men, the acting company to which William Shakespeare was attached for most of his literary career.

Some of the manuscripts were over one hundred years old, otherwise unpublished, and featured classics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses. The collection included such delights as Love Hath Found His Eyes by Thomas Jordan, The Maiden’s Holiday by Christopher Marlowe, and the alarmingly titled ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin by William Wager.

Where did John Warburton keep these 60 irreplaceable manuscripts? That’s right. In the kitchen.

When he went looking for them later, he found only a few remaining. His cook (sometimes referred to as Betsy Baker, although I suppose she could just have easily been Betsy the baker) had used most of them while baking. Betsy was probably delighted by the discovery of a paper collection, what with paper being so expensive, in her kitchen. Turns out, rare Elizabethan and Jacobean scripts are perfect for lighting fires or for lining the bottoms of baking dishes. Just three were left. (They’re now safely in the British Library, not still in the kitchen.)

Upon discovery of the loss, Mr Warburton lamented: “After I had been many years collecting these MSS. Playes, through my own carlesness and the ignorance of my ser… in whose hands I had lodged them, they was unluckely burnd or put under pye bottoms.”

One of the works Warburton lists as lost is “A Play by Will. Shakespear”, with no title mentioned. Could this be a completely unknown work by the genius dramatist? Probably not. Plays, by their very nature, usually require several copies. Also, John Warburton would likely have mentioned the fact.

Betsy was not alone in her arsonous activities. In 1835, another domestic servant burned Thomas Carlyle’s manuscript of The History of the French Revolution. In 1866, a proof for Riemann’s hypothesis may have blazed in a housekeeping bonfire.

Betsy the Baker, however, in pursuit of her pies, managed to deprive us of over 50 manuscripts that are now lost forever. Who knows how different the world might have been if ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin had survived? How changed might the landscape be if The Puritan Maid, the Modest Wife, and the Wanton Widow had not been baked in a pie? If The Lovers of Ludgate had not succumbed to the flames? We’ll never know.

Thanks, Betsy. (But I bet the pies were delicious.)


Fire and pie: an unbeatable combination


A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is a winding novel that follows the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, obese, misanthropic, sometime hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The book was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Ignatius, unusually for a fictional character, even has his own statue on Canal Street, New Orleans.

The author must have been pretty pleased with all the attention, surely. I mean: A statue. Well, he would have been, but John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in 1969, 21 years before the book was published. The failure to get Confederacy of Dunces and his earlier work, The Neon Bible, into print sent him into a spiral of paranoia and depression.

He killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning when he was 31. We can’t be entirely sure of his reasons as, although he left several letters, his mother destroyed them.

Toole had had high hopes for his Ignatius. He submitted the manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster, where it reached the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb.

Gottlieb saw potential in the work and encouraged Toole to revise the story. Toole did so but never made it gel to Gottlieb’s satisfaction. In December 1964, Gottlieb wrote to Toole:

“There is another problem: that with all its wonderfulness, the book … does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but … it isn’t really about anything.”

After her son’s death, Thelma Toole became mired in mournful thoughts herself. The manuscript that contained Ignatius remained on top of a cedar armoire in Toole’s former room. She then roused herself, and went on a mission to have the book published, to vindicate her son’s talent. She sent it out to publishers but met only rejection after rejection.

However, in 1976, she learned that novelist Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans. Thelma badgered Percy to get him to read the manuscript. And badgered. And badgered. Finally, he agreed, just so she would stop all the badgering. He admitted to hoping the manuscript, which looked ”physically shabby” when he received it, would be so bad, he could discard it after just a few pages. But he read on.

“And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

The badgering had paid off. Walker Percy helped to usher the book into print.

But is the version we see in print the original version, or the revised version after Gottlieb’s changes? No-one knows. No-one knows where the original manuscript is. The manuscript that Thelma fought so fiercely for, for so many years, has vanished. Does it even still exist?

Cory MacLauchlin, the author of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012) spent a long time looking for the manuscript and says:

“I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale.”

Copies of the manuscript certainly exist. In 2013, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Foundation purchased Lot 228 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The acquisition included a photocopy of the manuscript, with handwritten corrections. A snip at $25,000.

Imagine the auction price if the original did turn up in that attic or estate sale.

However, the lost manuscripts for me in this story are the ones that were never written. Imagine if someone had published the book deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize before its author ran a hose from his car’s exhaust. Imagine what we might be reading now.

Clearly, A Confederacy of Dunces continues to divide readers: some love it, some hate it.

But we’ll never know what might have come next.

Shirley Jackson: The magic box

“The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.”

That’s a line from one of the most unsettling stories from one of America’s most unsettling writers: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson specialised in the odd, the inexplicable, and the off-key. So perhaps it is not surprising that when it came to the matter of her manuscripts, something decidedly odd happened, also involving a mysterious box, and also unexplained.

Shirley Jackson died in her sleep, in 1965, at the saddeningly early age of 48. Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, donated around 50 boxes of Jackson’s manuscripts to the Library of Congress. And that was that.

The world would just have to live with what Shirley Jackson had already given it, including: the insane house in The Haunting of Hill House, the most unreliable narrator of them all in Mary Katherine Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the charms of Life Among the Savages*, and that story. “The Lottery”, when first published in The New Yorker in 1948, prompted more mail to that esteemed publication than it had ever received about a work of fiction. While some were outraged, most correspondents were merely baffled. What did it all mean?

We could discuss that for ever. So, that was that.

Well, that was almost that.

For years, it was that. Then there was a sudden flurry of interest in Shirley Jackson. A new biography has just come out (2016) and we are being treated to previously unknown stories and writings. Where did they come from?

According to her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart, it was “a carton of cobwebbed files discovered in a Vermont barn” that changed things. Cobwebbed cartons are not unknown on the planet of lost manuscripts, but a barn in Vermont is more of a rarity.

As Laurence Jackson Hyman explained to The New Yorker, the box arrived on his porch with no return address. “After hours of suspicious avoidance, I opened it to find the manuscript of one of my mother’s novels, lots of notes, and half a dozen of her unpublished stories.”

Who sent the box? No-one knows.

The arrival of the box prompted the “children” to consider publishing a new book containing the uncollected stories. They hunted down other Shirley Jackson pieces in library archives, chivvied relatives for copies of now out-of-print magazines which contained one of her stories, and opened the boxes in the Library of Congress. Just an Ordinary Day, published by Bantam, came out in 1997 and brought 54 stories back into the world. (It’s in the introduction to that book that the children describe the genesis of the collection.)

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which came out in 2015, mixes the eeriness of Jackson’s fiction with humorous bulletins from the front-line of family life. Thus we have “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again” bustling up against “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. (I’m waiting for my Kindle edition — 2017.)

All because of a mysterious box. Something out of a Shirley Jackson tale all by itself.


The blurb on the back cover of my copy of Life Among the Savages. Back in the 1950s, the expected answer was “no”

* Seems less likely you could get away with calling your children “savages” these days. Also, her follow-up collection of domestic despatches was entitled Raising Demons. Social services would be called.

The book “lost and found in time”

The Portuguese author José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The Swedish Academy praised his work “sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. So, a pretty important writer.

You’d think that if he sent a manuscript to a publisher, that manuscript would get noticed. Perhaps it was noticed. But it was certainly lost.

Saramago wrote ClarabóiaSkylight is the English translation — in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1953, he sent it to a publisher. He never heard back from them.

Not an acknowledgement of receipt.

Not even a “no thank you”.


This plunged him, his wife Pilar del Rio says in her introduction to the novel, “into a painful, indelible silence that lasted decades”. As he himself explains, in the biography he put together when he accepted the Nobel prize, he “started another one, but did not get past the first few pages… The matter was settled when I abandoned the project: it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say.”

He tinkered with poems, with newspaper articles, and then, in 1976, Saramago spent time in Alentejo, a rural Portuguese province where his family came from. His time there led to his 1980 novel Raised from the Ground. This tells a story over decades of the peasants who work on — but who do not own — that land, specifically through the years of the Salazar dictatorship. Saramago did have something to say after all.

And he had found the voice in which to say it. In this work, for the first time, we meet his distinctive narrative style. His prose takes on a rhythm unlike any other. Single sentences pour over pages, uninhibited by punctuation, shifting between the characters, their dialogue, his thoughts as narrator, and some useful agricultural apercus. You move in perspective from the ants on the ground who watch a political prisoner being beaten, to the red kites gliding in the air currents above. It is a beautiful, brutal book.


The wooded hillsides of southern Portugal. (I missed the red kite.)

Throughout the 1980s, Saramago published several other novels. Then, in 1989, the publishers to whom he had sent Skylight called him to say that — guess what? — they had found the manuscript when they were moving offices. They added that they would now, actually, be honoured to publish it.

Not surprising, Saramago was now a well known author.

We all know publishers can take ages to decide whether to publish a book, but Saramago  obviously felt that 36 years was just that bit too long. He declined their offer, went to their offices, and fetched his manuscript home. Pilar del Rio tells us that he never re-read it, and declined the beseechings of others who did, and who tried to persuade him to publish it. Skylight was finally published only in 2011, after his death.

Skylight‘s story takes place in an apartment block in 1940s Lisbon. The narrative weaves its way in and out of the apartments and in and out of the heads of the people who live in them “under the same roof, in the same light, breathing the same air”. They’re all poor, but variously happy, unhappy, frustrated, angry, uncertain, scheming or “dreaming a dream with no beginning or end”. Several ponder the meaning or meaninglessness of life but reach no firm conclusions about it.

It’s not a bad book, though not great, so why did the publishers not publish it? We’ll never know, but I am going to take a guess. It has passages of extraordinarily frank sexuality; the incestuous lesbian embrace by Isaura of her sister Adriana is as powerful and disturbing for the reader as it is for the sisters. The book does not paint a happy picture of family life: those closed apartment doors hide rape, abuse and prostitution.

All of these aspects would not have gone down well in Lisbon in 1953, in the conservative Catholic atmosphere, under the authoritarian regime of President Salazar. It would have been a risky choice to publish a book such as this by an unknown author.

Perhaps someone at the publishing house recognised the novel’s merits and, rather than disappointing the author with a rejection, put the manuscript away in a drawer and waited for the day repression would be replaced with democracy in the land. Surely that would be soon? Alas, it would be another twenty years. The Carnation Revolution took place in 1974. By then, the manuscript had been forgotten.

There are other unanswered questions. Would Saramago ever have developed his distinctive style if he hadn’t spent years in the literary wilderness? If Skylight had been commercially successful in 1953, would he have gone on to take such risks with his prose? If Skylight had been a commercial disaster in 1953, would he ever have written fiction again?

The questions are unanswered but also unanswerable. We’ll never know.

But if the price for this lost manuscript was decades of silence followed by the music of his later novels, Saramago might have thought it was a price worth paying.

I do.


Read Raised from the Ground.

Saramago himself called Skylight “the book lost and found in time”. You can read it here.

Dora Diamant’s letters

It’s an image that does not spring readily to mind. Franz Kafka — the tortured Czech-Jewish writer of our imaginations — once harboured an ambition to open a restaurant. In this culinary nirvana, his last lover, Dora Diamant, would be the cook. He would be the waiter. Obviously, this career move never happened, partly because Kafka had laryngeal tuberculosis, which made it difficult for him to eat, never mind take orders. Kafka died in June 1924, never adding waiting at tables to his CV.

It’s a lovely image, though. Imagine strolling out and having the author of The Trial drift by to advise you on the soup of the day. Which might turn out to be some burned cous-cous.

Kafka and Diamant met in July 1923, in the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz. She was working there, supervising a summer camp. He was having tuberculosis. He spent a lot of time in those wicker beach chairs which are an enviable feature of the Baltic coast. They fell in love. When the summer was over, they moved into a small series of lodgings in Berlin. Diamant taught Kafka Hebrew and this is when they rhapsodised over opening a restaurant.[1]

In April 1924, Diamant accompanied Kafka to the sanatorium in Kierling where doctors made a last-ditch attempt at restoring him to health. She was with him he died.


The Baltic coast (with swan)

Although Kafka had told Diamant, as he had Max Brod, to burn all his writings, she didn’t. She held onto around 20 notebooks and 35 letters that Kafka had written to her, which we only know about because she had to come clean to Max Brod when they vanished. How did they vanish? Like many other manuscripts do: bureaucracy.

After Kafka’s death, Diamant studied acting and joined a theatre company where she met Berta Lask, a communist playwright. Diamant threw herself somewhat into the spirit of the times: joining the Communist Party, changing her surname to Dymant, and marrying Bertha’s son, Ludwig (also called Lutz) Lask in June 1932. Happy though the newlyweds might have been, other forces in Germany at the time were not quite so well disposed to either Jews or communists — and the newly-minted Dymant-Lask was both.

In April 1933, the Gestapo raided the apartment where the Dymant-Lasks lived.They took away “every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on,” according to Kafka’s biographer Ernst Pawel.[2] Off went the notebooks and the letters. The disconsolate Dora confessed to Max Brod what had happened. Brod mobilised the Czech writer Camill Hoffmann, then working as a cultural attaché in the Berlin diplomatic corps, to see if he could help. However, the Gestapo told Hoffmann that they already had mountains and mountains of paper and the chances of finding a few notebooks were vanishingly small.

In the 1950s, Brod had another go. He asked a Kafka scholar, Klaus Wagenbach,  to just go to the police in Berlin and ask for the documents back. Simple.

According to Wagenbach, the helpful chief of police told them that the army had probably taken the papers east for safekeeping during the bombardment of Berlin.


Silesia? Warsaw? Moscow? Where?

Those papers have not been found.

People are still looking. San Diego State University operates a Kafka Project which conducts the international search for Kafka’s writings. While his letters to Diamant are officially the property of the Kafka estate, the idea that they may unofficially end up in the hands of someone else cannot be discounted.

The letters to Dora Diamant are not the only letters Franz Kafka wrote to a young lady. Felice Bauer — to whom he was engaged, twice — kept the 500 or so letters he had written to her. In 1955, needing the money, Bauer sold the letters to Schocken Books. At auction at Sotheby’s in 1987, Shocken Books sold the letters again for $605,000. They went to a “European private collector” and disappeared from public view.

Dora Diamant went on to live an interesting life. She fled with her daughter from the Nazis first to Russia, then to England, an upright nation which promptly deported them both to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens.

She never wanted to or could forget Kafka

She named her daughter, after all, Franziska Marianne.

1 Back up JP Hodin: “Memories of Franz Kafka”; Horizon, January 1948 pp26 – 45. Accessible at:

2 Back up Ernst Pawel (1984): The Nightmare of Reason, Farrar Straus & Giroux.

A kilo of Kafka

This week, on 7 August 2016, the supreme court of Israel brought to an end the trial of the Kafka manuscripts. Decades after the author’s death, they will no longer be lost to the world.

During Franz Kafka’s lifetime, a tiny fraction of what he had written was published. Metamorphosis came out in 1915 and, later, a few other stories, too.

The Czech writer left his manuscripts to his friend Max Brod. Like Kafka, Brod was part of the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague. Kafka left explicit instructions as to what Brod should do with the stuff. “Dearest Max,” he wrote. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

Kafka’s death came disappointingly early. Suffering from tuberculosis, Kafka died in June 1924, a month short of his forty-first birthday.

Max Brod did not abide by his friend’s wishes. Kafka also left around 20 notebooks and 35 letters in the possession of his last lover, Dora Diamant. She didn’t abide by his wishes, either.

Brod pretty smartish brought out print editions of the novels that were now in his possession. The Trial came out in 1925. This book tells the tale of Joseph K, who is accused of a crime which is never explained and tries to defend himself in a system that is nothing but nightmare. In 1926, Brod published The Castle, which introduces us to another faceless, incomprehensible, dominating bureaucracy. As the twentieth century began introducing the world at large to various incomprehensible, dominating, bureaucratic nightmares, Kafka’s writing resonated with readers. We knew this world. We knew it made no sense. We knew it was cruel. We knew it was pointless to complain. Without Max Brod, we perhaps would not have the perfect word to describe this world: Kafkaesque. (The adjective continues to be useful: it was recently conscripted as an episode title in Breaking Bad.)


“For the proceedings were not only kept secret from the general public, but from the accused as well.” My own undergraduate highlighting of one of the most puzzling puzzles of the process.

So, some of Kafka’s work was published but some of his manuscripts got “lost”. Not lost in the traditional sense of being stolen, eaten, or burned. Lost in the sense that people knew roughly where they were — in an apartment in Tel Aviv surrounded by hundreds of cats, in a Swiss bank vault, or in the hands of the Gestapo, for example — they just couldn’t get their hands on them.

Because the story is so complicated, I’m splitting it into two parts. This is the tale of Max Brod’s suitcase. In another entry, you can read about Dora’s purloined letters.

In an episode worthy of its own television drama, Brod fled Prague the night before the Nazis invaded the city in 1939. He stuffed a suitcase with Kafka’s papers, snuck through the Czech border just before it was closed, and eventually settled in what became Israel.

When Brod died in 1968, he left the Kafka manuscripts to Ilse Esther Hoffe, his secretary and, some say, mistress. When she died in 2007, a legal battle began. Esther Hoffe had sold some of the papers but left the rest to her daughters, Eva and Ruth. Eva and Ruth claimed the papers were therefore their personal property. The National Library of Israel counter-claimed that the papers were the property of the state. Along the way, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which had paid $1.98 million for the original handwritten manuscript of The Trial in 1988, demanded the right to purchase all the other manuscripts, too, claiming Israel did not have the proper facilities to look after them. (Although Kafka was born in Prague, German was his first language and the one in which he wrote.) The German proposal raised unease in Israel not only because Brod was a Holocaust survivor but also because Kafka’s three sisters were not Holocaust survivors. Elli and Valli died in the Łódź Ghetto; Ottla in Auschwitz.

In 2010, a Tel Aviv court ruled that the Hoffe sisters must release the papers for cataloguing. Eva and Ruth were actually proposing to sell them by weight, according to one of their attorneys, Uri Zfat: “If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight. They’ll say: ‘There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.'” Some wondered whether selling Kafka by the kilo was an ideal idea.

Some were also wondering whether Eva’s cat-infested Tel Aviv apartment was really the best place to store potentially priceless unknown works by one of the most iconic authors of the twentieth century. Some papers were there, but nobody knew which, as Eva wouldn’t let anyone inside. Some were in safety-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv banks, others in four more boxes in Zurich’s UBS bank. During the Suez crisis in 1956, Brod had transferred the most valuable manuscripts to Switzerland for safekeeping. The boxes were finally prised open after the ruling in 2010. Inside were manuscripts, including a previously unknown story, it was said, but nobody really knew what, as Eva and Ruti had filed an injunction to keep their contents secret.

The legal battle continued.

And continued.

In 2015, the Tel Aviv District Court awarded custody of the estate of Max Brod to the National Library in Jerusalem. At the heart of the decision was Brod’s own will. He left the manuscripts to Esther Hoffe for her lifetime with instructions that she donate the Kafka papers to a public institution on or before her death. Israel’s National Library was at the top of his list of suggested such institutions.

There was, naturally, an appeal but finally, the supreme court of Israel ruled that Franz Kafka’s manuscripts must go to the National Library. At last, in 2016, the door to the law was closed.

Courts, secrets, cats, safety-deposit boxes, legal proceedings that go on for years and years and years: quite… well, you know the adjective.

What was in those boxes? We still don’t know. I’ll update when we do.

Herman and his codex

The largest medieval manuscript in the world was created in the early thirteenth century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice (then in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic). This enormous work had just a single scribe — one Herman the Recluse. Handwriting experts confirm one hand was involved and a signature in the text (“Hermanus monachus inclusus”) also indicates that just one man — Herman — was responsible.

Why did Herman spend his days so painstakingly scribing? One version of the story says that Herman had committed such outrageous sins (not specified) that he was walled up alive and forced to inscribe holy texts to atone for those sins. It would take you about thirty years to write the entirety of the manuscript, so perhaps that’s true. If so, Herman did a lot of atoning.

Another version of the story says that yes, Herman had committed outrageous sins (again not specified) and yes, he was walled up, but this time the punishment was simply that he starve to death. However, Herman persuaded the abbot to keep him alive for a year and promised that in that time he would create a book that would glorify the monastery for ever. If Herman did so, said the abbot, he could live.

Herman the Recluse wrote day after day, night after night. As midnight of the last night of the year approached, he realised he was nowhere near the end of the book. Death at dawn awaited. So the enterprising monk blazed a trail others would later follow (Faust, Robert Leroy Johnson, etc) and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a finished book.

It’s the second of these stories that gives the manuscript the name it is commonly known by. For while its official name is the Codex Gigas (in English: the Big Book; codex just means it’s a hand-written book), many more people know it as The Devil’s Bible. Partly because of the story surrounding its creation, partly because there is a large illustration of the devil within its pages. Put there, some say, by Herman as a thank-you to his satanic saviour. Put there, some say, as a selfie by Lucifer himself.


That’s not a diaper, that’s an ermine loin cloth. Ermine is the clothing of royalty and this is the Prince of Darkness. Unusually, he is depicted alone, on an entire page

So why is The Devil’s Bible turning up on Planet Lost Manuscripts when it is plainly not lost? Because some of it is lost. The Big Book is made up of 310 leaves of vellum, but initially it contained 320 sheets. Who took out the ten other leaves? And what was on them?

At one point in its history, the codex was appropriated by the Swedes (responsible for other crimes in the annals of Lost Manuscripts) and housed in the Royal Library in Stockholm. In 1697, when a fierce fire broke out at the castle, someone strong and quick-thinking (more probably two of them; the thing weighs around 75 kilograms) thoughtfully rescued the codex from the flames by chucking it out of a window. Did some of the vellum flutter away in the fall? Probably not, as the National Library of Sweden states that the pages have been cut out, rather than blown away.

The rest of the book contains (in Latin, with rather lovely illuminated letters) the old testament and the new, a list of brothers living in the monastery, a calendar of saints, a short history of Bohemia, and some instructions on the exorcism of evil spirits. So the possibilities of what could have been on those missing pages are multiple.

You don’t have to trawl the web for long to discover various conspiracy theories about the lost content: secrets too explosive for mere mortals to know; magic spells; instructions for the apocalypse. Yet I suspect that the legend surrounding the creation of the codex is colouring people’s imaginations. The Swedish Library suggests that the missing pages contain the Rule of St Benedict, the founding father’s guidance on monastery life. Why? Because when the Benedictines of Podlažice fell into financial difficulties, they borrowed some money from the Cistercians in exchange for the codex. The note in the codex that records this loan also states that the Rule of St Benedict is inscribed in the book. So the Rule was there once, and now it isn’t.

There could have been other text, too (the Rule is quite short) but it’s likely to be a transcription of sacred words rather than a diabolic diatribe. We don’t know who excised the leaves, or why, or where they now are.

(In a recent fictional outing, on the podcast The Black Tapes, the missing pages of the codex are ripped out by Soběslav, Herman’s imaginary apprentice, who blamed the Benedictines for forcing Herman to sell his soul to the devil.)

In a way, Herman kept his promise — if ever he made one. The “inclusus” that follows his name in the text may indicate merely that he was a recluse who preferred a solitary life, rather than being forcibly constrained within brick walls. However, the legend tells that Herman promised to write a book that would glorify the monastery of Podlažice for ever more. Almost a thousand years later, we’re still talking about Podlažice, about his book, and wondering what was on its missing pages.

You can view the entire — and fascinating — digitised text of the codex at the website of the National Library of Sweden.

Codex Gigas digital images by Per B. Adolphson from the National Library of Sweden used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


A rather fancy illuminated L