With modern-day print and the internet, the thought that anything could be inaccessible feels insane. Billions of pieces of information are at our fingertips every day, yet there are still works of literature we cannot touch. The oldest books in the world, often hand-written and hand-painted by authors centuries before, cost millions of dollars to possess. These fragile tombs are so guarded, even paperback copies of them will cost hundreds if not thousands. These are just 6 rare books out of the rarest books in the world.
The Codex Gigas or the “Devil’s Bible”
The Codex Gigas is the largest illustrated medieval manuscript in the world. The manuscript earned its nickname “the Devil’s Bible” due to an unusually large portrait of the Devil on one of its pages. When attempted to be recreated, historians found it would take almost 30 years to write each word by hand and illustrate.
The Codex Gigas contains two Hebrew alphabets, the entire Latin bible, prayers, conjurations, charms and more and was made entirely out of vellum, the skin of donkeys. The manuscript now resides in the National Library of Sweden and even getting physical copy of the work costs $2,000.
The Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci
The entire collection of Da Vinci’s scientific writings, the Codex Leicester holds the record of the fifth most expensive book in the world at over 30 million dollars, bought by Bill Gates in 1994. Inside, there are multiple speculations including early plate tectonics, erosion, luminosity of the moon and more. The main theme of the collections seems to be focused on water and its properties.
You can purchase a facsimile of the work on Amazon for a relatively cheap price, however, it is translated and includes extra information and commentary.
Otia Imperiala by Gervase of Tilbury
Otia Imperialia is the origin of all fairies written in literature. The text contains not only folktales and descriptions of mythological creatures but also history, geography and physics. Written by judge and cleric Gervase of Tilbury, the book is dedicated to Emperor Otto IV for entertainment. Multiple legends, such as the ones popularized by Homer, come from the last section of the book on mythology.
Copies of Otia Imperialia are scattered around the world and sold for varying prices. Even for a paperback-translated copy from Amazon, the book will cost you $445 plus shipping.
Another strange manuscript of myth, the Northumberland Bestiary contains depictions and descriptions of both fictional and real animals. The current belief is that the book’s unknown author intended the text to be a moral lesson regarding divine creation. For example, the association of Satan with a dragon first appears here.
After purchasing the original copy for 20 million dollars, the Getty Museum very graciously digitized the content for free viewing around the world. You can also purchase a translated physical copy from Amazon.
Birds of America by John James Audubon
Despite its more recent creation in the early 1800s, this hand-painted text is one of the rarest in the world. Birds of America contains stunning watercolor images of over 400 different birds. Approximately 5 or 6 birds in the book have since gone extinct and this is the only remains of their existence.
Similar to the Northumberland Bestiary, Birds of America received digitization for free viewing of every painting on the Audubon website. Due to its earlier age, the physical photocopies in paperback are only $20 on Amazon, but “may contain missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc.”
It saddens the bookish person in me that I will never be able to feel the pages of these fascinating books, but hopefully more will post the content online for everyone to enjoy. To read more about recent news regarding rare books, see our article Valuable Rare Books Stolen from Historic Bookstore.