In the shadow of the book curse

In 1819 the Harvard Professor Edward Everett (d. 1865) was rummaging through monastic libraries in Greece for ancient manuscripts – as many professors were doing at the time, anyway. At Meteora he found the treasure he sought:

“I saw a few MSS in this library, among which was a fine parchment Chrysostom, in several vols. folio.—I asked if [the monks] could read the manuscripts. They said no: that the one who could read them was dead. I asked if they would sell them, and they said no, as those who had bequeathed them to the convent had left a malediction on anyone who should take them away” [unpublished travel journal, reported here].

The fear of losing their books drove medieval librarians to protect their volumes by writing curses in the manuscripts, usually on the first or last leaves. The curses were meant to act as deterrents, just as in Everett’s case, against alienation, spoliation or destruction: against stealing the book, but also against changing its titles, removing the leaves or adding to them. Shall we call these curses kleptapotropaic?

It is unclear whether the Meteora curse was in the book itself or pronounced by the donor when the manuscript was brought to Meteora. At any rate, Everett acquired other Greek manuscripts that year, but he heeded the curse and forever renounced the idea of  grabbing the precious, yet cursed, volumes. The curse was still doing its job.

Here are some examples of book curses from manuscripts I have recently worked with at the British Library. There is slight variation to the basic style of the curse which casts an anathema on whoever steals, carries away, hides or makes changes to the book.

Harley MS 3941 : 9th century, curse added in the 13th century: ‘Liber Sancti Petri Gemeticensis qui eum furatus fuerit vel celaverit anathema sit amen.’ This book belonging to St. Peter’s [Abbey] of Jumièges: who[ever] will have stolen or hidden it, may they be anathema. Amen.
Egerton MS 654 : 12th century: Hic est liber sancti Albani quem qui ei abstulerit aut titulum deleverit anathema sit. Amen. This book belongs to [the church of] St Alban’s; who[ever] takes it away or destroys the title, may they be anathema. Amen.
Add MS 14784 : 2nd quarter of the 12th century, curse added in the 15th century: ‘Iste liber pertinet ecclesie Sancti Lamberti Lessiencis [The Benedictine abbey of St Lambert, Liessies] si quis abstulerit anathema sit. Anno domini 1449 in festo Sancti Iohannis Baptiste’. This book  belongs to the church of St Lambert of Liessies. If someone carries it away, let they be anathema. In the year of the Lord 1449 on the feast of St John the Baptist.
In the example above, the curse was written twice by the same hand – suggesting that perhaps quantity was understood to add to the strength of the curse.

Finally, there is even some evidence that medieval curses are back in fashion and packing punches. The modern poster below was recently published by the BBC as a justice story – the bike was returned to the owner. The other image is a 10th-century curse against plunderers of the cathedral of Noyon in northern France. It says that ‘we will excommunicate those [who plunder our church] and pierce them with the sword of the Holy Spirit from the top of the head until the sole of their feet.’ They are to burn in the eternal fire of hell with the biblical figures Dathan and Abiram, Ananias and Sapphira, and with Judas Iscariot.

Imago de Manuscriptorium.

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