Codex Argenteus: the mysterious Gothic Silver Bible

Codex Argenteus from Uppsala University Library

Behind a silver cover lies the purple pages of Codex Argenteus, an enigmatic bible from 6th century Germany.

The codex set the standard for future book formats that live in on modern times. Some are peculiar, like Codex Seraphinianus, but Codex Argenteus is the bible of Gothic Germany.

What is Codex Argenteus?

Codex Argenteus is a 6th-century book containing a Gothic translation of the Bible from the 4th century. To be clear, I’m not talking about the modern gothic subculture. The Goths were an East Germanic people who helped bring down the Western Roman Empire.

But back to the book. Codex Argenteus preserved the Gothic language in the best way possible – via a translation of the most famous text in human history. Its creation started in Ravenna, Italy. The city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time and King Theoderic the Great wanted to make it a metropolis. Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom after the Empire’s demise; a Bible translated into the kingdom’s language seemed fitting.

Who wrote it?

A bishop called Ulfilas (or Wulfila as he was known in Gothic) was originally attributed as the sole translator. But we now know Codex Argenteus was translated by multiple scholars supervised by the bishop. Ulfilas was a Goth and developed the Gothic alphabet, loosely based on an amalgamated Greco-Runic alphabet.

The empire fell in 476 and Theoderic died in 526. The Codex disappeared with him and stayed that way for centuries. It was then found in the 16th century on a library shelf in Werden, Germany. Occult-obsessed Rudolf II began collecting books for his court in Prague and select “Argenteus” as one of them.

The Silver Bible travels to Sweden

A page from Codex Argenteus
A page from Codex Argenteus

It stayed there for about 70 years before Sweden invaded Prague and took the Silver Bible with it. Codex Argenteus then became a part of Queen Christina’s library. But a few years later, Queen Christina converted to Catholicism and left for Rome after abdicating her throne. Her librarian went with her and she paid him in books as she didn’t have any money. The Gothic Bible changed hands once more.

Sweden’s new king, Charles X Gustav got his brother-in-law, Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, to speak to Christina’s librarian (a Dutch scholar called Isaac Vossius), and he bought the Silver Bible for 400 marks (about £12,300 in today’s money).

Codex Argenteus, stolen and returned

But did it stay in the possession of the Swedish royal family for good? Of course not. In 1995, it was stolen by two men in gas masks. Authorities recovered Codex Argenteus a month later but the thieves were never caught. It now resides in an annexe to Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala University’s main library. And a bulletproof glass box protects it this time.

Unfortunately, today only 56% of its original 336 pages remain. They were also dyed purple – talk about regal. It was expensive to do this in the 6th century, exclusively for emperors. Codex Argenteus is a well-travelled book and an enduring bastion of a lost language.

The Silver bible online?

Wulfila didn’t want the Gothic language to stay within the confines of Codex Argenteus. He wanted to spread the text and keep the language alive that way. And now anyone can read the book.

David Landau helped put the 1927 edition of the Codex online and you can read it via alvin-portal.org.

(Main image from Uppsala University Library)

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