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.
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
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]
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.