A Medieval Practice I Intend to Revive: The Curse on Book Thieves

scribeIn the Middle Ages, creating a book could take years. A scribe would bend over his copy table, illuminated only by natural light—candles were too big a risk to the books—and spend hours each day forming letters, by hand, careful never to make an error. To be a copyist, wrote one scribe, was painful: “It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”

Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures.

They did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew—excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death. Steal a book, and you might be cleft by a demon sword, forced to sacrifice your hands, have your eyes gouged out, or end in the “fires of hell and brimstone.”

And more!  Thanks, Jeff Carter.  Now, to go utter a few of them!

2 thoughts on “A Medieval Practice I Intend to Revive: The Curse on Book Thieves

  1. rechtsgeschiedenis 10 Nov 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Dear Jim, you might enjoy an article by Ian Jackson about the curses created by book dealer Bernard Rosenthal, http://www.olschki.it/media/3510e66e.pdf.

    Best wishes,



    • Jim 10 Nov 2016 at 5:01 pm

      thank you!


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