Sunday, July 23, 2017

Protective Book Curses

I've worked on SCA scrolls bent over my art table with my back or hands aching. And that is one page, not a quire or a book. My efforts are minimal compared to the manuscripts I emulate. Still, I wouldn't want my work stolen or harmed.

Medieval scribes, to protect their laboriously created books, penned powerful curses to prevent theft, damage or loss. These writings appear in Latin and vernacular languages, some in cultures other than Western European.

Using the vilest threats imaginable scribes heaped excommunication or painful death on possible perpetrators. For stealing a book you could lose your hands or eyes, then spend eternity in the "fires of hell and brimstone."

Marc Drogin compiled the largest book curses collection, publishing them in his 1983 book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. His collection included curses from ancient Greece, the Babylon library, and extended to the Renaissance. A pricey book I'd love to receive as a gift. Since I don't own it I searched for them online.

I discovered a book curse could be emphatic and short. 
Hanging will do for him who steals you.

It could pile excommunication's anathema upon the perpetrator. 
May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.

British Library, Harley MS 2798, f. 235v 
What does a book curse do? It is similar to the FBI popup warning on your DVD movie, included by the media’s maker to frighten the foolish. It works if you believe the words cause realistic results. In the Middle Ages the text were considered magic.


The creative scribe's writing might inflict a terrible, horrible, very bad death for stealing or harming a tome.

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever size him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen. 
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 Many were poetically written. Although I can't do that spacing here, read it that way for yourself. I find they're even more fun then.
The finished book before you lies;This humble scribe don’t criticize. Whoever takes away this book May he never on Christ look. Whoever to steal this volume durst May he be killed as one accursed. Whoever to steal this volume tries, out with his eyes, out with his eyes! 
~~~~~~
This book belongs to none but me For there’s my name inside to see.To steal this book, if you should try, It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ‘bout To find your eyes and pull them out. And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’ Remember, you deserved this woe.
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Whoever steals this Book of Prayer May he be ripped apart by swine, His heart be splintered, this I swear, And his body dragged along the Rhine.
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May no one believe that ever have I been taken, But that happily this place never have I forsaken. Yet may no one doubt that the wrath of God upon him will fall If he essays to take me from the confines of St. Gall.

A book curse could be determined and insistent.
Whoever steals this book will hang on a gallows in Paris, And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown, And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast, And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.

Some curses were banal but still got the point across.
The book of Saint Marie and Saint Liborius in Patherburnen. A curse upon the one who takes this book, a blessing upon the one who keeps it safe. If anyone removes or cuts a page, may he be accursed. 
~~~~~~ 

British Library Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r 
This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.
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This is the book of St. James of Wigmore. If anyone takes it away or maliciously destroys this notice in taking it away from the above-mentioned place, may he be tied by the chain of greater excommunication. Amen. So be it. So be it. So be it.
~~~~~~
For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.
~~~~~~
Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.
~~~~~~~
Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.

A few curses became popular and repeatedly used. 
May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.
~~~~~~ 
This book is one (thing), And God’s curse is another; They that take the one, God gives them the other.
Book curses seem at odds with the Medieval lifestyle. But a book's loss was a laboriously created material sacrifice that deprived essential written knowledge of a religious community. Book curses were an effective, basal method to preserve their book collections. 

Today these fiery, interesting missives seem quaint. Even so, they can be useful. They are perfect for calligraphy practice or using up odd pergamenata bits. Better yet they make creative bookplates as Nancy Hulan sells in her Arte of the Booke Etsy shop. I'm making some for Kingdom largess.


Sources: 
Anon. "Top 10 Medieval Book Curses" 9/20/2015, By Medievalists.Net. Accessed last 6/24/2017 

Dreishen, Clarck. "Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses" 5/23/2017. British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog Accessed last 6/24/2017 

Kwakkel, Erik "Chain, Chest, Curse: Combating Book Theft in Medieval Timesmedievalbooks blog. Accessed last  6/24/2017 


Laskow, Sarah "Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, With Horrifying Book Curses11/9/2016. Atlas Obscura. Accessed last 6/24/2017

Pydum, Carl "Medieval Copy Protection" 8/12/2010. Got Medieval. Accessed last 6/24/2017