Once men were wicked. They cared only for wealth and status. With their hearts darkened by sin, they fell to a great plague that swallowed all the lands like a flood.
Or so the story goes.
Half the population of Europe fell to the Black Death. For a period of seven years, from 1346 to 1353, one out of every two humans on the continent lost their lives—not to mention countless animals and livestock. In their desperation to find a cure, an escape from the slaughter that took king and peasant alike, every nobleman from Moscow to Lisbon ordered their physicians to scour every text, every manuscript, every scroll in existence.
But you have to understand, this was a time, not just before printing, but indexing as well. Books were copied by hand and space was used as available, even where the copied texts had nothing to do with each other. The 12th century Codex Gigas, for example, contains a Vulgate Bible and several works by the Jewish historian Josephus along with a number of ancient Greek medical treatises by Hippocrates, Theophilus, and others. What’s worse, those texts weren’t appended to the end but were actually stuck between the Old and New Testaments.
Libraries were full of hodgepodge books like that, on top of innumerable scrolls and loose-leaf parchment—a cobbled mess. And to top it off, monks often added commentaries in the margins—or erased texts outright. Since both vellum and parchment were rare and expensive, manuscripts of marginal value were sometimes bleached and copied over, creating what’s known as a palimpsest.
That’s how its existence, long a rumor, was first confirmed. During the Black Death, a sorcerer, who was court physician to a nobleman in the Kingdom of Hungary, was examining every written document in his lord’s possession for any facts or theories that might help combat the contagion that threatened to erase civilization, when he came across a tenth-century copy of several ancient Greek works of geography—including one by Theophrastus, who was successor to Aristotle. At the bottom of each page, the unknown copyist—known only “the meister of Zakynthos”—kept a diary whereby he described how long it took to complete both the lettering and the geographical illuminations and under what conditions. It’s here that he makes casual reference to a completely different manuscript he had meticulously scraped clean in order to find enough vellum to appease his Abbott—his order having already slaughtered the last of the donkeys for food that winter. It was, he described, “a work of gibberish,” whose symbols “conformed to no alphabet known to the learned ancients nor to any man of high order in all of Christendom.” His only knowledge of it came from the accompanying illuminations, which were “abominable,” and full of “the surest marks of Satan upon the earth.”
He should’ve burned it. But the simple man from a tiny island in the Ionian wanted his daily ration, which required continual copying and preserving to appease the master of his order. And so it was men the world over began searching for the missing “Zakynthite Atlas.”
The quest was complicated because the book in question was a known palimpsest. There was nothing to say the geographical work hadn’t been copied over in its time, as the work it replaced. Visual inspection was irrelevant. Special equipment was needed, which is why the Atlas wasn’t found for many centuries. Scholars at the University of Leipzig, using the newly developed technique of photography, were preserving vellum pages taken from a crumbling castle in Bavaria when, with the help of magnifying equipment, they noticed trace evidence of earlier markings. They put the pages under “differential illumination,” and living men once again laid eyes on the ancient and arcane “gibberish,” shining through the overlaid ink in a dark glow.
It was called lots of things in its life. The Necronomicon. The Book of Shadows. The Devil’s Bible. All we know for certain is that discovery started a war—and ended it too, when the only known copy was destroyed. And everyone rejoiced. Without their fabled tome, it was assumed the seekers of the dark, now scattered and ruined, would simply ease to be—eradicated, like the plague.
But it was not so. It turns out, the war never ends. Not in our lifetimes anyway.
For near the turn of the millennium, when many people expected an end to come, a new book was penned . . .