Being a scribe in the Middle Ages would have been slow, detailed, tedious work.
Working every day but the sabbath, they sat silently in scriptoriums copying works in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. And beyond copying the books, they had to precisely cut parchment, make the ink, bind the pages, and construct a cover.
Hunched over their desks during the hours of daylight, avoiding the danger and expense of candles, and writing in calligraphy with richly colored illustrations, they’d produce two to three pages per day, spending months and months on a single book. Making a copy of the Bible could take over a year.
These monks had patience, fortitude, writing tools to keep lines even, and excellent penmanship.
What they did not have, was any assurance that these painstakingly-created wonders would be treated well once they were finished.
So they used the only safeguarding weapons they had: words.
At the beginning or end of a book, scribes would pen dramatic, diabolical curses against any who would harm their books.
Marc Drogin, author of “Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses,” curated a list of these curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them,” Drogin says. “If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”
These medieval monks all dressed the same, ate together, lived together, and copied works written by other people without altering it, to the best of their ability. But when they added their own, personal curses to these books, I think we can get a glimpse into the different personalities of these monks.
For instance, the terse monk who has no problem with a vow of silence, the one who would have been a man of few words wherever he lived, would pen a curse like this one, going straight for the jugular of medieval religion—excommunication.
May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.
Sweet. To the point. And it even rhymes.
That’s the kind of threat that comes from a man who really means it.
But not all monks could have been so pithy. What about the chatty monk? The one who talked out loud to others, to God, and to himself? A man like that, after slaving away (in enforced silence) for months on a book might pen a curse with more creativity and feeling.
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.
Not just satisfied with “let him die,” this curse has the thief die somewhere between four and six times, depending on whether the falling sickness and fever would kill separately or together, and whether breaking on the wheel would kill the thief on its own, or if it required the addition of a hanging to be fatal.
All finalized with a succinct “Amen”, adding divine weight to the curse.
What of a monk who fancied himself a germanic poet? How would such a man protect the book he’d worked so fervently on?
Whoever steals this Book of Prayer
May he be ripped apart by swine,
His heart be splintered, this I swear,
And his body dragged along the Rhine.
The “heart be splintered” part really stands out. It says a lot about the state of a human heart if it’s in a condition to splinter. Obviously, book thievery was only practiced by those souls whose hearts had withered and dried like old wood.
Many of the curses focus on thievery, but like many book lovers today, these medieval monks did not forget to declare curses on even the mistreatment of books.
Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne,
Who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hot,
Who stealeth thisse boke
ye divel shall cooke.
Plenty of book owners today feel just as passionately about this sort of thing. You know who you are. The ones who stare appalled at a folded corner, physically flinch at the breaking of a spine, feel faint at a marked up page.
I’m not sure you Pristine Book Keepers of today would call on the devil to “toastsomeonebrown” for dog-earing a page, but you might curse them to step barefoot on Legos. Which, honestly, is almost as bad.
Granted, if I’d spent a whole day copying and painting a page and someone left a marke or blotte, I’d be ready to roaste them hot too.
My very favorite curse, though, comes from a monk who had obviously had it up to here with book thieves. The fervor and creativity written here speak of a curse that was planned, plotted, and perfected.
“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & 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, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”
That was written by a man who felt strongly about book thieving. I’d venture to say it might have been written by a man who’d had a book of his stolen already.
My favorite part is the bookworms gnawing his entrails, because, while I’m reasonably sure the monk is talking about real bookworms, there’s a chance he’s saying he and his fellow monks might join in on the entrail gnawing.
So, next time you lend a book to a friend, consider jotting a quick curse at the front to make sure they walk the straight and narrow.
That way, if you don’t get your book back, for the rest of their lives, every time something goes wrong, you’ll be able to look at them meaningfully and whisper, “It’s the curse.”