You’ve been warned

“Let he who should remove this book be anathema!’, a book curse from 1449 in a 12th-century manuscript, British Library, Add MS 14784

There’s a big difference between an admonition and an imprecation. The former shows its teeth while the latter bites.

When it came to medieval books, warnings were usually rejected in favour of a well-suited curse. Book curses were essential in a society where law inforcement was limited and weak. And there was no written law against stealing books from libraries.

Book curses, or curses against the stealing, damaging or simply tampering with a book, were extremely common-place in medieval culture. So common place that the field is. currently experiencing a scholastic boom.

It is a simple concept. Who else but God can save a book from desecration? Don’t ever think about removing it, or even a leaf, without wrath of the Almighty descending on you.

It takes words to protect words.

Here’s an example, spotted by my friend Clarck Drieshen:

If anyone steals [this book]: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.

I’m not sure about the breaking wheel, I’d rather think it’s a spit. May he be barbecued, to be modern.

There’s nothing like the death of a book thief. If there are any gaps left to imagination, scribes quickly filled them with creative curses.

What I don’t really understand is why these curses were virtually always added at the end of the book – in what is often called a ‘colophon’, a short text immediately following the,main text. It’s as though the scribes deploying the ruthless power of imprecation only worried about readers turned book thieves.

Burn after reading. Burn in Hell if you dare.

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