Unchain my heart

A chained book from the parish library of Sélestat. The manuscript is from 1434 and contains the Vocabularium modernum de expositione nominum by Jakob Twinger von Königshofen.

To paraphrase (and abuse) Rousseau, books are born free but everywhere are in chains. Books are born in sheets of sheets but they are immediately bound together in a codex. Bound. Covered up with covers. Protected, but also immobilised. With clipped wings, they can survive.

In many medieval libraries, books were chained to desks to protect them against theft. A stolen book was not set free, but alienated. Stolen books go undocumented. They are ultimately lost. Lost track of, which for a book is the antechamber of death. Prevented from circulating and made copies of, its lights go out, its potential killed in the bud.

But here’s the paradox. The more protected a manuscript book was, the less it contributed to the general flow of ideas and knowledge. Unprotected, however, it risked death by oblivion.

More useful than the chain (and ball) was the metaphysical prophylactic: the book curse. Don’t steal this book, dear reader, and more importantly don’t alienate its soul lest you attract the wrath of the Almighty.

The curious thing about book curses against theft is that they were always entered towards the end of the book, on the last pages. As if book thieves or unscrupulous users were also the most tenacious readers. Only after reading the last page would a reader come upon the idea of pilfering the volume. After all, not every text is worth looting.

Books are chained by nature. Words are etched on the skin like permanent tattoos. Leaves are folded and sewn together. Quires of leaves are bound together. Covers approach from the top and from below. Shelves shelter as well as distance. Knowledge floats between protection and circulation.

One thought on “Unchain my heart

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  1. While in grad school for library science (pre computer, more in some ways to learn), all of us found the most bombastic book curse – well, not ever, but pretty much. It was a fake, but a beauty. Wish I still had it.


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