Category Archives: Stolen manuscripts

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


Hemingway’s lost suitcase

In December 1922, Ernest Hemingway was in Switzerland, on assignment as a correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, covering the Lausanne Peace Conference. The journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens, whom Hemingway had met in Genoa, was also there. Apparently, Steffens was impressed with Hemingway’s writing and asked to see more. Hemingway’s wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, always known as Hadley, was in Paris, where they were living at the time. She packed up all of Hemingway’s papers in a suitcase, to take them to him in Switzerland. She packed everything she could find.

While the train was still standing in the Gare de Lyon, Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian water for the trip. She left the suitcase unattended on the train while she did so. When she came back, it was gone.

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway

At that point, nothing of Hemingway’s fiction had been published. In Paris, there was nothing left. With touching thoroughness, Hadley had packed both the originals and their carbons. Only two short stories survived the disaster. “Up in Michigan”, which he had buried in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had said it was unpublishable, while “My Old Man” was out with an editor at a magazine.

In a letter to Ezra Pound, in January 1923, Hemingway wrote: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”

But maybe he did reach that mood. “The first and most important thing of all, for writers today,” Hemingway later said, “is to strip language clean, to lay it bare down to the bone.” Juvenilia (or Juvenalia in Hemingway’s misspelling) are often just that – rambling, unstructured, wayward pieces of adolescent hopes and dreams. Which of us would gladly publish our teenage love poetry?

Hemingway had his language stripped clean all right. Indeed, with the loss of the manuscripts, and with time pressing to replace those vanished words in his bid to become a respected writer, Hemingway may have adopted and adapted the lean prose style for which he became famous.

(It is often said that he used the style guide of the Kansas City Star, where he had been a cub reporter, as his rule-book: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.”)

Hemingway never bothered to run a newspaper advertisement seeking the return of the manuscripts. When he considered one, he thought of offering a reward of 150 francs. About ten dollars. Grace under pressure? Or a sign that the manuscripts were not so valuable?

They would be valuable today, of course. If they survived. If they ever turned up.

What did the thief do, on realising that the stolen suitcase contained paper, worthless paper with the juvenile scribblings of an unknown writer? No gold, no diamonds, no lucrative passports to be traded on the black market. Throw them in the Seine? Burn them? Bury them in an attic?

Of course, if they do turn up in an attic, these lost manuscripts of a Nobel prize-winning author, they will be worth more than their weight in gold.

The Seven Pillars of Reading Station

You play an outstandingly successful role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, a revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein of Mecca to secure independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and create a single unified Arab state. You serve with the forces of the Emir Feisal, one of the four sons of Sherif Hussein. You develop a strategy that prevents the Turkish forces at Medina from reaching the Palestine front. Working with local tribesmen and using your knowledge of the region, you secure the supply route at Akaba. You travel by camel across the Sinai peninsula to ask the British for supplies. After the war, you write a thousand-page book on the events that, if anything, understates your remarkable personal role in history.

And then you leave the manuscript in the refreshment room at Reading Station.

The 2004 one-volume edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The 2004 one-volume edition

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The great work of Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, seemed destined to have a difficult birth. The title, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, doesn’t really belong to the book. It was the title of an earlier work, in which Lawrence described his adventures in seven cities across Arabia. He burned this first step into the realms of authorship but, with an obvious fond memory, named the later work after it.

Lawrence wrote most of the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in France during the spring of 1919, while at the Paris Peace Conference. After the railway-related loss of that first manuscript, while changing trains at Reading around Christmas of the same year, Lawrence rewrote the book from memory. He had to. Like so many reckless authors, he had destroyed (burned, probably) most of his working notes, some written on army message pads while in Arabia, while some notes were also in the stolen briefcase. The rewrite took Lawrence three months. Unusually for a lost-manuscript author, he preferred his original work. “It was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version,” he wrote in a letter to Frederic Manning in 1930.

Lawrence sold the first three chapters of his second draft to Robert Graves, who published them in an American journal, The World’s Work between July and October 1921. Those three chapters are all that remain of the 400,000-word second draft. Lawrence wasn’t satisfied with it and, sticking with the proven successful method of dealing with poor quality prose by pyrotechnic means, burned it with a blow lamp in 1922. It was the third draft — although he still considered it “diffuse and unsatisfactory”, it escaped pyrotechnic attentions — that became the first edition of the book. The original manuscript of that draft is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

However, Lawrence published the first edition mainly to circulate to friends and literary critics, not the public. Just eight copies were typeset and printed at the works of the Oxford Times newspaper; it was cheaper, in those days, than getting copies typewritten. This is the version of the book the world now calls the “Oxford text”. Lawrence corrected six copies of the proofs and had them bound. Of the original eight copies printed, only those six copies remain at large in the world. Lawrence’s own bound copy, in which he made further amendments in response to the comments of his readers, was sold at auction at Christie’s, New York, in May 2001. The buyer paid nearly one million dollars.

An article in the press asking for the return of the manuscript

An article in the press asking for the return of the manuscript

What happened to the lost manuscript? Lawrence telephoned Reading Station from Oxford an hour after the discovery of the loss, but there was no sign of his briefcase. Despite articles, offers of a reward, and pleas in the press, no one came forward and nothing of the original manuscript was ever recovered. There are those who say that there was no thief at Reading, but that Lawrence, true to form when it came to manuscript destruction, burned the pages. Or lost the briefcase deliberately. It wouldn’t have been difficult. It was in a bank messenger’s bag — the kind, Lawrence said later, that usually holds gold. Tempting.

If that “more truthful” version of The Seven Pillars had ever been published, would it have become the enduring masterpiece we have today? Or did Lawrence, between 1919 and 1922, teach himself how to write? In 1919, he was a soldier. By 1922, after correspondence with E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw, he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to produce a book that would be “an English fourth” on an exclusive bookshelf that contained Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In The Sunday Times in August, 1920, Lawrence wrote about the country he called Mesopotamia — the one which we would later call Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows.”

I’d say T. E. didn’t need too many lessons on writing. But if that Reading manuscript ever turns up, we’ll know.