Two days ago, thieves broke into a chapel in my local parish. They left with a chalice, two candlesticks, and a Bible. When I heard about it, I wondered if the Bible’s publishers still followed the Medieval tradition of protecting books with curses. Which makes perfect sense: as Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura points out, creating a book could take years; decades, even. Scribes would bend over copy tables illuminated only by natural light—candles being too big a risk to the books—and spend hours each day forming letters, by hand, careful never to make an error. To be a copyist, wrote one scribe, was painful: “It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”
Given all that effort, it is no surprise that scribes and book owners would begin or end their books with colorful curses directed at anyone who dared steal or damage these treasures.
True, the worst punishment they could think of would hardly matter to most thieves nowadays: excommunication from the church. Indeed, it probably didn’t matter even back then: thieves are not the most church-going of folks unless it is to case the place. Which is why scribes came up with additional threats: steal a book, and you might be cleft by a demon sword, forced to sacrifice your hands, have your eyes gouged out, or end in the fires of hell and brimstone. A library fine sounds pretty tame by comparison.
Marc Drogin is the author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses; the most complete compendium of book curses ever compiled. A cartoonist and business card designer, Drogin had taken an adult-education class in Gothic letters and became entranced with medieval calligraphy. While researching his first book, he came across a short book curse; as he found more and more, his collection grew to include curses from ancient Greece and the library of Babylon, up to the Renaissance. To Drogin, these were evidence of just how valuable books were to medieval scribes and scholars, at a time when even the most elite institutions might have libraries of only a few dozen books.
The curse of excommunication—anathema—could be simple. Drogin found many examples of short curses that made quick work of this ultimate threat. For example:
Si quis furetur,
Anathematis ense necetur.
May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.
If a scribe really wanted to get serious, he would roll up his sleeves and threaten “anathema-maranatha”—maranatha indicating “Our Lord has Come” and serving as an intensifier to the basic threat of excommunication. But the curses could also be much, much more elaborate. “The best threat is one that really lets you know, in specific detail, what physical anguish is all about. The more creative the scribe, the more delicate the detail,” Drogin wrote. A scribe might describe a terrible death for the thief:
“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.”
Or an even more detailed one:
“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.”
Some creative scribes liked to, literally, illustrate their point, as this 12-century hell demonstrates:
Interestingly enough, as Drogin collected curses, he started to find repeats. Turns out that not all scribes were creative enough to write their own curses. So, if you’re looking for a good, solid book curse, you’re welcome to continue this fine tradition by devising your own. Just think of all the books you have lent people never to see them again (the books, not the people) and you should find all the inspiration you need!