Introduction Button Assurbanipal Button Blumberg Button Book Curse Button Damnation in the Curses Button Excommunication in the Curses Button Anathema in the Curses Button Negative Impacts Button Conclusion Button Works Cited Button

The Medieval Book Curse

In the medieval period, the most effective method of deterring a bibliomaniac from acquiring manuscripts from their proper owners was the book curse. The book curse was not a technological security system but a security system of social context. A book curse reminded would-be book thieves that books were valued and that there were repercussions for taking them without permission. As indicated previously, book curses were not unique to the medieval period or to the Catholic Church, they came out of a literary tradition that pre-dates Christianity. The book curse followed an established basic structure of promising severe consequences, most often religious, to anyone who would take or alter a book. In the older societies, the wrath of gods such as Thoth, Ashur, and Belit was promised but in medieval Europe, it was removal from the sight of God that drove the most fear into the hearts of bibliomaniacs. Lawrence Thompson notes that in the medieval period "…the curse gained in popularity as an effective measure against book thieves and continued to be used until the introduction of the printed book" (105).

There was no individual standard curse that was used in all books, rather scribes were free to design curses for the books they had copied. The colophon was the usual location of these curses and it was the only space in a manuscript that the medieval scribe had freedom to write as he or she chose. Book curses used threats of several different types of punishment to invoke fear among those who would take or damage a book: bodily injury, damnation, excommunication, or anathema. The bodily injuries included hanging, illness, and painful death and usually called for more than one physical torment to befall the thief. James Thompson records one such curse: "Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged" (608). Another example of multiple punishments comes from the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona and called for punishment not just for a book thief but also for a delinquent borrower.

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails [. . .] when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever. [sic] (Basbanes, 35)

This curse equates stealing with not returning a borrowed book and calls for the same punishment for both actions and so the scribe reveals a worldview that sees both of the bibliomaniacal behaviours as equally vile. It should be noted that the scribe did not call only for physical torments but included metaphysical punishment as well. This mixing of the planes of punishment was common in many book curses.




Created by Sandra Anderson, March 2003.