Valuable Czech manuscripts stolen in Thirty Years War on show at Swedish Royal Library

Swedish Royal Library, photo: Author

In this edition of the Arts we get to see two remarkable manuscripts stolen from the Czech Lands by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War. The first is the intriguingly named Devil's Bible. The second is a religious text in the hand of the great Czech reformer Jan Hus (in Latin but with anti-German jibes written in Czech in the margins). We also learn about the circumstances under which the manuscripts and other artworks were stolen by the Swedish Army in the mid-17th century, and whether there is any chance it might some day be returned.

Swedish Royal Library, photo: Author
During the Thirty Years War - which ravaged Europe and ended in 1648 - the marauding Swedish Army plundered priceless artworks, manuscripts and even statues in the Czech lands.

"There are three main places. They are Olomouc, Mikulov and the Castle of Prague. Olomouc was taken in June, 1642, by the Swedish Army. And the Jesuit library was totally plundered and taken away."

Goran Baarnhielm is an expert on manuscripts at the Swedish Royal Library, a short walk from the centre of Stockholm. I asked him if it was true that the reason the Swedes had invaded Prague at the end of the Thirty Years War was to get their hands on the huge art collection amassed by Rudolf II?

Swedes besiege Prague in 1648
"I wouldn't say so, but it is part of the mythology that the queen, who was not very old at that time, was interested in getting art and books. So I think there were some political manoeuvres just before the peace was concluded, to get time to get there."

Well, get there the Swedish Army certainly did, carrying off huge amounts of booty from Prague, as well as elsewhere in the Czech Lands. Three and a half centuries later, how much of the plundered art remains in Sweden?

"Most of it is gone, in fact, because Queen Christina went to Rome when she became Catholic and brought most of it with her. As for books, some of it is still here, but some of it was burned when our royal palace burned down in 1697. But still some volumes are here. For example the most famous object I would say is the big manuscript that is mainly called the Devil's Bible."

When you say the Devil's Bible, is it a satanic 'version' of the Bible?

Devil's Bible
"No, it is just a popular denomination...but some people believe exactly that, so we have had, years ago, visits by young black-dressed people, who wanted to see this book. And in fact it has been attacked also; the showcase was destroyed at one time."

Luckily the Devil's Bible survived that attack. It is still in rather impressive condition, considering it was written at the beginning of the 13th century by Benedictine monks in a monastery in Bohemia. It was quite an experience being able to turn the pages of such a valuable manuscript.

The Devil is, I don't know how to describe it, he's kind of squatting, with his arms in the air, and two horns of course...

"He has kind of a small...something which looks like underwear."

It looks like some kind of a nappy, like a baby might wear.

"Yes, yes, very much so. He has a very frightful face. You might well be scared to see him."

This part for example looks like the print has gone. Has it been wet or something?

"Only part of the page is written on. But in all cases you have all these enormous pergament leaves, of donkey-skin."

How many donkeys' skins?

"One hundred and sixty donkeys, they say, had to...give their skin to this book."

Well they died in a good cause.

"Oh yes, yes...the text is early 13th century, pretty easy to read."

Before we looked at another extremely interesting Czech manuscript, I asked Goran Baarnhielm whether there had ever been any suggestion of the Czech treasures in Swedish museums and castles being returned.

"This question has been raised now and then. When President Havel was here those things were mentioned, but not really seriously I would say. But I think it has been discussed in the parliament in Prague, and also it has been discussed in the Swedish Parliament. But no real demands have been put forward in fact."

Do you think that the Czech art, manuscripts and statues that are here in Stockholm and around Sweden will ever be returned to the Czech Republic?

"I don't believe it no, because it has become part of our cultural heritage also, in a way."

Was there ever any suggestion of some kind of financial compensation for everything that you stole from the Czechs?

"At the time war booty was a kind of legal way of requisition. At that time also there was a kind of international law. There were rules about these matters. In a way it might be a kind of legal requisition, but morality is another matter."

When I went to the Royal Library in Stockholm I was very much looking forward to being able to handle the famous Devil's Bible. But to my great surprise - and pleasure - Mr Baarnhielm asked me if I'd like to see another extremely interesting manuscript: a book written in 1398 by the famous Czech religious reformer Jan Hus.

Jan Hus
"It is about 150 pages and is some texts by John Wycliffe, who was an English radical reformer. And Jan Hus has written it in his own hand, in Latin but with also some comments which denigrate the Germans - 'ha, ha, Germans get away!' - are written in Czech in the margins of this book by Jan Hus personally, it seems."

So in this book Jan Hus makes fun of the Germans?

"Yes in some places, yeah."

"It is bound in vellum with specific binding at the back, with some iron buttons and some stitching."

Is it possible to say what a manuscript like this is actually worth in terms of money? Is that possible to calculate or estimate?

"Well, by such a historical person, the value would be enormous I would say."