Book Curses from the Dark Ages

There’s a lot of things in life that we just can’t control–like if the friend who borrows your favorite book will actually read it in a reasonable amount of time and return it. But if you’re really worried about book thieves, you can take a leaf out of the medieval scribe’s book (only figuratively though or…ahem…curses). Nothing takes the fun out of book mayhem like a little curse.

I really enjoyed reading about these in my history of the book class and thought you might enjoy them as well.

This one comes from a great post about cats in medieval monasteries. Apparently they got up to all kinds of hijinks, including walking and even peeing on unfinished manuscripts. Every book took hours and hours of work and would be extremely valuable–certainly not a disposable item. I also like that the reader, while cursing the cat, also advises not to leave valuable manuscripts in the way of those pesky felines.

Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

from the Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

Here’s another curse, this time from the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona. It’s a bit more graphic about what fate awaits potential thieves who try to steal (or forget to return) precious books:

“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 this agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

Does a book curse seem like a legitimate way to keep book shenanigans at bay? Or is that going a bit too far? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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