In the middle ages, creating a book wasn’t easy, and could take years: a scribe would bend over his copy table, illuminated only by natural light, because candles were too big a risk for the books, and spend hours each day writing letters, by hand, careful never to make not even 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.”
Due the extreme effort for creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. So, they used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or at the end of each books, scribes and book owners would write terrible curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage their treasures. They used the worst punishments they knew, like excommunication from the church and the death, but obviously a death horrible and painful. 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”!
“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of “Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses”, now untraceable, and sold on amazon with a price over 3.000 euros: “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”
Drogin’s book, published in 1983, is the most thorough dictionary of curses for books ever wrote. Drogin was a cartoonist and business card designer, who had taken an adult-education class in Gothic letters and became entranced with medieval calligraphy. While studiyng his first book, he came across a short book curse, and later he found more and more, hidden in footnotes of history books written in the 19th century. His collection grew to include curses from ancient Greece and the library of Babylon, up to the Renaissance.
To historians of these time, the curses were only curiosities, but to Drogin they were evidence of just how valuable books were for 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 might threaten “anathema-maranatha”, and 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, as Drogin wrote: “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”. A scribe might imagine 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 even more detailed:
“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 aloud for mercy, and 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, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”
In Drogin’s book there were dozens of curses, and he had collected at least a dozen more to include in the second edition, which was never published. Inside his copy of the book, he still has an antique file cards, full of book curses. While Drogin collected curses, he started to find repeats. Not all scribes were creative enough to write their own curses. If you’re looking for a good, solid book curse, one that will serve in all sorts of situations, this is probably the most popular one. Probably it’s not quite as threatening as bookworms gnawing at entrails, but makes any sense!
“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.”