Trying to keep your books from being stolen in the Middle Ages? If all else fails, include a curse against thieves!
Books were important and expensive items in the Middle Ages, which could take years to write, and those who owned them wanted to make sure they would be kept safe. However, security options were limited, and it could be very easy for a book to get taken from a monastery’s library. Medieval scribes had one form of protection that we don’t use anymore – curses.
In his book, Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, Marc Drogin explains how a few lines would often be added to a manuscript, warning those who stole or intentionally damaged a book that they would be punished by God. If caught, a thief risked a range of punishments from excommunication to execution. Hundreds of these medieval book curses have survived, and here our top 10 favourites:
1. At the end of a Bible, written around the year 1172, the scribe added this statement:
If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.
Here is how it looks:
2. From a 13th century manuscript kept at the Vatican Library:
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, our with his eyes!
3. A scribe used Latin and German to write this curse:
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 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.
4. You will find this curse in a 13th century manuscript from England:
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.
5. Simon Vostre of Paris added this to a Book of Hours that he wrote in 1502:
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.
6. From a manuscript kept at the Monastery of St Gall in 880:
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.
7. From a book written in the year 1178:
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.
8. A 15th century manuscript owned by Count Jean d’Orleans had this:
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.
9. The 13th-century manuscript MS Bodleian 132 includes this statement:
This book belongs to St Mary of Robertsbridge; whosoever shall steal it, or sell it, or in any way alienate it from this House, or mutilate it, let him be anathema-marantha. Amen.
Below it is a note from Bishop Grandisson of Exeter, who lived a century later:
I John, Bishop of Exeter, know not where the aforesaid House is, nor did I steal this book, but acquired it in a lawful way.
10. Finally, a medieval book curse could be short and sweet, like this one written in 1461:
Hanging will do
for him who steals you.
Marc Drogin’s book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, was published in 1983.
You can learn about medieval book curses from Got Medieval’s article Medieval Copy Protection and in Curses, and a blessing, found in the Dean’s Corner from Winthrop University. You can also learn other ways medieval monks kept their manuscripts safe in Erik Kwakkel’s post Chain, Chest, Curse: Combating Book Theft in Medieval Times. Finally, one of the most popular book curses, which was thought to be from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, is actually a fake, written in the early 20th century, according to this post in Times Higher Education.