Friday, July 17, 2009

Manic Monday - curse



Mo gave us the word CURSE for this Manic Monday.

Since I've been a librarian, I've always had great interest in books and book curses in particular.

BOOK CURSES

In the Middle Ages, books were protected by curses, not electronic security systems. Long before the printing press, books were all hand-written manuscripts using specially treated sheepskin, called velum. In those days, monks would obviously have to hand-copy books. Often one manuscript would take several weeks, with a monk hand copying the manuscript and working nine hours per day. Having spent so much effort, some monks would write a personal comment to protect their work. For example, Brother Leot of Navara wrote in the 10th century:

"Reader, turn the leaves gently,
wash your hands,
and if you must hold the book,
cover it with your tunic."


Steal not this Book for
fear of shame for there
doth stand the owners
name for when you die
the Lord will say were [sic]
is that Book you stole
Away.

Feb. 11th, 1878


from Francis Henry Wood's Echoes of the Night (London: 1873)

A book curse was the most widely-employed and effective method of discouraging the thievery of manuscripts during the medieval period. The use of book curses dates back much further, to pre-Christian times, when the wrath of gods was invoked to protect books and scrolls. In their medieval usage, many of these curses vowed that harsh repercussions would be inflicted on anyone who appropriated the work from its proper owner. The punishments usually included excommunication, damnation, or anathema. Excommunication was the lightest of the curses because, in the Medieval Catholic Church, it was a reversible state. Anathema was the most severe of the curses as it involved a permanent removal from the Church and from the sight of God. Both excommunication and anathema required identification of the guilty party as well as action on the part of the Church. Damnation had the benefit of not requiring human intervention as it was a state that the Creator, not the Church, visited instantly upon the soul of the perpetrator. All three types of curses were considered to be effective deterrents against the book thief.

At the time, these curses provided a significant social and religious penalty for those who would steal or deface books, which were all considered to be precious works before the advent of the printing press.

One example of a book curse in the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona reads as follows:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails ... when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

About this precise case, it should however be mentionned that this is a hoax written at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Most curses were written in the book's colophon by the medieval scribe. This was the one place in a medieval manuscript where a scribe was free to write what he wished so book curses tend to be unique to each book.


A CURSE AGAINST STEALERS OF BOOKS

For him that stealeth a book from this library, 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 sink to
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 forever & aye.

Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona


Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne
who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hotte
who stealeth thisse booke
ye divel shall cooke.

from the bookplate of one C. J. Peacock


Some curses were short poems, as in:

May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.

Or, in the same vein, a curse in verse:

If anyone steal it, let him be anathema!
Whoever finds fault with it, let him be accursed.
Amen.

Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn't hung, he'll drown.
And, if he doesn't drown, he'll roast,
And, if he doesn't roast, a worse end will befall him.

from Marc Drogin's Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (1983).


By him who bought me for his own,
I'm lent for reading leaf by leaf;
If honest, you'll return the loan,
If you retain me, you're a thief.

Neither blemish this book, nor the leaves double down,
Nor lend it to each idle friend in town;
Return it when read, or, if lost, please supply
Another as good to the mind and the eye.

from William J. Hardy's Bookplates (1972).



"For him that steals, borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be not surcease to his agony 'till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever."


When people realized that the curses weren't doing the job and books were disappearing by the dozens they decided to charge 5 cents per book per day and boy did people bring those books back ASAP!


4 comments:

JennyMac said...

Love the challenge and you have some great picks here. Very insightful words to share.

SandyCarlson said...

This was really interesting. I was feeling some anathema toward whoever took my North to the Orient without returning it. Perhaps before the day is out, I will move down the curse ladder....

Travis said...

I find it fascinating that some cultures could evolve from using curses to preserve books and keep people from stealing them, to burning books.

We're really very silly as a people, aren't we?

DaviMack said...

Awesome stuff! It strikes me as funny, though, that BookCrossing will let you print out a bookplate to uniquely identify your book ... so that you may "set it free" to wander the world, never being owned, not kept but sharing. The world has changed, indeed.