YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED: Book Curses (And Cursed Books)
Christ’s curse upon the crook
Who takes away this book.*
Until relatively recently in human history, books and documents were valued both for their contents and for the prodigious effort involved in their creation. Book production in a pre-computer age required a high level of literacy, as well as many hours of monotonous labor, whether that of a stoneworker, metal engraver, scribe or printer’s devil.
It was the custom in some cultures to protect precious works by whatever means available: many medieval libraries chained books their shelves to prevent theft,** private collectors might keep their most valued books in locked chests. Especially rare, illustrated tomes might be bound with their own locking clasps to prevent sticky fingers from helping themselves to a page or two.
An additional layer of protection was afforded by the book curse. There are examples of book curses appended to written records from ancient times. They flourished in medieval Europe where scribes, typically monks, were eager to protect the product of their labor. And they can still be found today!
We all know about the curses of Ancient Egypt. Most good mummy movies (and all of the bad ones) feature dire epigraphs warning against the desecration of temple and tomb. The same principle was applied to valuable documents. A Babylonian king placed a curse on a set of clay tablets back in the 7th century B.C.:
Whosover shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe hisname on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.***
The above is taken from the definitive work on book curses: Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Allanheld & Schram, 1983), by Marc Drogin. Drogin finds additional examples from classical Greece, written on parchment. But he devotes the bulk of his study to medieval book curses.
On this subject, Drogin goes to some length to explain how books were made in the era of monastic scribes, illuminated manuscripts, and parchment. With all the resources required to create a single volume, it is no wonder the scribes and their masters were inclined to take drastic measures to protect them. Book curses appeared frequently, generally on the first or last page of a volume as part of the colophon.
Being of a religious bent, these men (and some women) tended to call down the wrath of God on miscreants.
This book is one,
And God’s curse is another;
They that take the one
God give them the other.+
Excommunication from the (Catholic) Church, with the implication of eternal damnation, was an especially popular threat. However, the good brothers were not beyond calling for more earthly torments for those who might undermine their work:
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ‘bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.++
Whether in good Church Latin or in the vernacular of the land, medieval scribes did not hesitate to execrate!
Once Gutenberg’s printing press and its descendants got rolling, books and copies of books became more readily available. Still, the work of setting up type, incising illustrations into metal plates, and manually “pulling” sheet after sheet of paper off a wooden press was no mean feat. Book collectors still sought to protect their acquisitions; by no coincidence, about this time hand-written book curses evolved into printed bookplates.
Bookplates, typically pasted into the front cover of a volume and always incorporating the name of the owner, have remained popular to this day due to their limitless design possibilities. A bookplate may be a simple black and white rectangle proclaiming
Ex-libris John Smith.
Or it may be a more original and ornate design incorporating heraldry, block prints, whimsy, and printed or hand-tinted color.
The central purpose of the bookplate remains the same as that of the book curse: protect the book from theft or unauthorized borrowing! To this end, many folks have designed their bookplates to include a warning to malefactors – with words, images, or both. The warning may be subtle, or more direct:+++
A Word about Cursed Books
Note that the second book plate above subtly references the Necronomican, H.P. Lovecraft’s “dreaded volume.” The Necronomicon is a cursed book in the sense that anyone who messes with it is pretty much guaranteed to get into trouble. While a book curse offers protection against theft, a cursed book brings calamity to anyone who dares open it.
While we cannot attest to any real cursed books, they abound in literature. Harry Potter and his friends encounter one in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – a diary containing the malevolent spirit of a young you-know-who. An unsuspecting Harry is warned by the worldly wise Ron of the possibilities inherent in a strange book:
“Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing. “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed.”
When it comes to book curses or cursed books, the lesson is “Borrower Beware!”
* Quoted in Drogin, p. 71.
** Image courtesy of “Reading in Restraint: The Last Chained Libraries” by Allison Meier, May 8, 2014, on Atlas Oscura, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chained-libraries-of-the-world, accessed October 5, 2016
*** Quoted in Drogin, p. 53.
+ Quoted in Drogin, p. 72.
++ Quoted in Drogin, p. 78.
+++ Images courtesy of Blog:” Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie,” http://bookplatejunkie.blogspot.com/2012/09/threats-and-warnings-on-bookplates-part.html, accessed October 2, 2016
ABM Guest Blogger Eleanor Boba is a public historian who blogs about historic places off the beaten path and other curious matters. She lives in Seattle.