Thursday, 22 February 2018

Medieval Book Curses By Catherine T Wilson #Medieval #History @LionsandLilies1 @LionsandLilies2

Medieval Book Curses
 By Catherine T Wilson
Life in a medieval society could be both simple and contrary. As quoted by author Barbara Tuchman1 ‘any statement of fact about the Middle Ages may (and probably will) be met by a statement of the opposite or a different version.’ We know their lifestyle was based upon an explicit hierarchy and failure to comply could result in serious consequences. There was feudal law, civil law and when that failed to keep order, religious law often intervened to overrule or frighten a subject into compliance for the church could hold your very soul to ransom. When practical measures failed, fear of damnation could hold sway and this gave the monks who laboured long hours in the scriptoriums a unique way to protect their work from thieves.

--> Fig 1. Monks in scriptorium – Photo by Cathy T © - Mont St Michel

The law of copyright would not exist until the 18th century. In order to protect their precious books from thieves, religious houses used a practical method of chaining their volumes to fixtures. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will have recently seen Sam Tarly working around the chained books in the Citadel’s library in Oldtown. This was not merely fiction – an example of such a library exists at Hereford in the UK.

--> Fig. 2. Chained Library at Hereford - Christopher Furlong/Gerry Images Europe
  Fig. 3. Chained Library at Hereford - Christopher Furlong/Gerry Images Europe

Fig 4 – A chained book -  University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84)  
(This book is a bound manuscript dated circa 1370. The text is Sermones de sanctis, writings of Frater Soccus, a monk from the Cistercian order.)

Fig 5. Sam Tarly in the Oldtown Library)

If chaining books wasn’t enough to deter would-be thieves then there was one other path open to them – the insertion of a curse, usually on the first page or as part of the colophon, there to forever reside within the volume like a sentinelled demon. If punishment to the body via common law wasn’t enough to dissuade a criminal, perhaps the idea of chastisement to the eternal soul could.

Book and parchment curses date back to ancient times, one of the earliest coming from a 7th century Assyrian king who placed them on his clay tablets which were discovered in 1849 in a library at Ninevah.2
One of these curses states:
‘He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognise it [and] cannot make it to be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Ninevah, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of Heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth.3

Be it in Latin or vernacular, the good brothers of the Middle Ages were not afraid to apply such curses to their parchments either, calling down horrible punishments on miscreants.  
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.4

In a digitised manuscript at the British Library, a Middle Dutch botanical and bestiary compilation Der naturen bloeme’ (The Flower of Nature) commissioned by Nicolaas van Cats and written by Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant, included a curse written beside a cross which states that ‘its borrower swears that he/she will return the manuscript or die.’ The oath is signed by a woman, in a 14th- or 15th-century hand, who identifies herself as 'abstetrix heifmoeder (obstetrix: midwife).5 

The 14th century was filled with such curses calling upon the wrath of God for sinners. In William of Nottingham’s Commentary of the Harmony of the Gospels,6 the colophon first praises the scribe and rewards him with a high-quality wine then condemns any offender with death.

Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur.’ (Death from evil things: may the thief of this book die.)

Other curses call for the perpetrator to be ‘hauled up by the neck.’

‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck.’7

Another from the The Arnstein Bible8 promises to afflict the thief with torture and sickness. 

‘Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein: 
(The holy books of St Mary and St Nicholas)
Quem si quis abstulerit                         
Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur
caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur

Which translates along the lines of ‘whomsoever shall steal it or take it away, let him be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness (epilepsy) and fever attack him. May he be rotated (on a breaking wheel) and hanged. Amen.’
And a curse from a monastery in Rochester for anyone who dares to steal the Book of Distinctiones9 will mean his own name shall be deleted from the Book of Life, a tome in which the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement are recorded. That is definitely a one-way ticket ‘down’ after death! 

And if that wasn’t enough, then there were plenty of illuminations to reinforce the idea of eternal damnation (a very popular medieval concept) like early Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico’s ‘Last Judgement,’ the right-hand side clearly showing the horrors that awaited sinners in hell.

Fig. 9 – Fra Angelico, Last Judgment, 1431-1435, tempera on wood.  Museo di San Marco, Florence )

Fig. 11 – Fra Angelico, Last Judgment, 1431-1435, tempera on wood.  Museo di San Marco, Florence – the hell side – bottom half)
Or this in the New Minster Liber Vitae 10 in Winchester showing 11th century drawings of the Last Judgement, where angels lead souls to St Peter, two saints watch on as St Peter and a demon fight over a soul and the Archangel Michael locking the door as a demon drops the damned into the mouth of a beast in hell.
Fig 12 -   New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff.)
And last but by no means least, a manuscript11 depicting what horrors were waiting – torture, being eaten, hot oil poured onto genitals or boiled alive in a huge cauldron. Take your pick! (Is that book worth all of this later?)
 Fig 13 – Hours, chiefly in Latin, containing Calendar. Fr. f. 1.  Hours of the Virgin, f. 20. Penitential Psalms and Litany,f 89. ‘Les heures de la …’

There are many more depictions, most condemning the perpetrators of crime directly to hell, such was the feeling of abhorrence to thievery of God’s work. I am sure today’s authors might feel the same.
Having discovered such a wonderful medieval custom, I could not resist inserting our own curse into The Traitor’s Noose, the fourth book in our Lions and Lilies series. This curse is no kinder than its Middle Age predecessors and the warning comes in the book’s ‘own words.’

From my spine to yours, a word of warning,
If you think to harm me, be it night, noon or morning,
I feel I should tell you if you have evil intent,
That I am protected by a potent enchantment.
Terrible things will happen until they cannot be worse,
This is the power of a medieval book curse.

When my authors learned of this, like cocks on a midden,
They crowed with delight and a curse was hidden,
Within these pages, from quill to sword,
Double-edged and sharp, to any lady or lord,
Who thinks to plunder is honourable – it’s not!
So, if you are tempted, I beg you to stop.

Like witches around a cauldron, my authors chanted and weaved,
A conjuration so shocking, it’s hard to believe,
Such words could pass the lips of these gentile dames,
But I swear on my binding, they were not playing games.
They called down a plague, a scourge, damnation,
Condemnation and castration to ensure ruination.

Should you mark me, or rip me, or steal my contents,
You will find yourself in the devil’s presence.
This invocation is no jest, it’s proven fact,
The 14th Century protected my relatives like that.
From my first page to my last and every parchment betwixt,
Is steeped in sorcery, on my oath, this is no trick.

My innards are sacred, my humour sublime,
But do me an injury and given time,
You will begin to notice that all is not well,
As you slide down the path which leads straight into Hell.
May your eyes fall out and hair, teeth and nails
As the prettier elements of this incantation prevails.

So, read me and love me, but don’t tamper with my text,
Or you will find yourself bewitched by a terrible hex,
And it’s not only me but my siblings too,
Books One, Two and Three, I tell you true.
Lions and Lilies is protected by a divine light,
And a tiny curse safeguarding medieval copyright.

Blog by Catherine T Wilson (Co-author of Lions and Lilies series)
1.     A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century – (forward xvii)
3.     Libraries in the ancient world. Casson, L. (2001). New Haven: Yale University Press., 2001, pp. 13-14
4.     Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses - Marc Drogin, Page 78.
5.     The British Library – digitised manuscripts division (Add MS 11390)
6.     William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r 
7.     From the church of St Aldate in Gloucester (Add MS 30506) f. 170r
8.     The Arnstein Bible - Harley MS 2798
9.     The Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r 
10.   New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff. 6v–7r

Catherine T Wilson

‘My first lasting love? Hmm, I was fourteen when a friend handed me a book about a heroine in France during the 15th Century, and I fell in love with everything medieval. But maybe it didn’t start there. Come to think of it, when I was younger I devoured Alan Garner’s tales of sleeping knights in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, progressing to King Arthur and Ivanhoe, but somehow that French heroine always stayed with me.’

Catherine was born in Burnley, England, but moved to Australia when she was eleven months old. She grew up in Elizabeth, South Australia, relocating to Queensland when she was fourteen. She worked in communications, before finally deciding to fulfil her dream as a writer. The raw draft of her first novel, a Viking romance, won an encouragement award of $1,000 from six hundred entries, in a popular women’s magazine competition. She visited Europe in 2006 to witness the annual re-enactment of ʻThe Battle of Agincourt,ʼ and then travelled extensively throughout Britain and France, researching material for Lions and Lilies. In 2016, she returned to Europe for further research in Morocco, Spain, Portugal and France. Her visit to Chartres cathedral to ‘walk the labyrinth’ and then stroll through the medieval old town during its summer light show was an experience she’ll never forget. And the second visit to Bellegarde remains among her most treasured memories.
Catherine T lives on a small bushland property, on a mountain range west of Brisbane and yes, you need only walk into her house to see her first love. Pictures of maidens on horseback grace the walls, and every corner and mantel is filled with knights and battle axes, the bookshelves overflowing with tales of chivalry.
You can contact Catherine on: Website Facebook Twitter  Blog

Catherine A Wilson     
‘My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller and I count myself fortunate to have been able to spend time with her and my great uncles and aunts, who loved nothing more than a good pot of tea with added lashings of gossip. It is their legacy that fuelled my genealogical addiction as I strove to identify fact from fiction and then record the information for posterity. From this sprouted my love of history, the urge to research and write and, eventually, to develop my own stories.
‘At the suggestion of Anna Jacobs, another highly successful and talented Australian novelist, I joined Romance Writers Australia. One keystroke error placed me on a chat loop where I met my namesake, Cathy T. After making a crass remark concerning my rather plain name, our friendship was born. We began to regularly email one another, offering words of encouragement (the publishing world is a tough place for the uninitiated – believe me), when Cathy T came upon the idea to create a novel along the lines of our real-time friendship. Hence, Lions and Lilies was born.’

Catherine was born in London, England, and immigrated to Australia in 1972 to reside in and around the leafy suburbs of Eastwood, Epping and Dundas. Without a particular path in mind she simply took the first job she was offered, which happened to be the position of Layout Artist for a well-known map publisher, but changed course and selected a career in nursing. She later enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, before resigning to a quiet life at home.

She lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, with her husband and two beautiful children, several Jack Russells, a large flock of flighty chickens, goldfish and budgies. When not writing (which is not often) she likes to garden, read books, shop, read books, drink copious cups of strong coffee with friends and read plenty of books.
You can contact Catherine on: Website  Facebook Twitter

Lions and Lilies

In the war between England and France a medieval adventure begins with a letter. Two sisters, Cécile and Catherine, enter a world of passion and intrigue, separated as infants, rediscovered by chance. Can they unravel a mystery and be re-united? (The Lily and the Lion – Book One)

A tale of powerful alliances, deadly plots and royal secrets. In an age when women held no power, Cécile and Catherine must rely on the courage of the knights who are assigned to protect them. (The Order of the Lily – Book Two)

A dangerous power play between kingdoms, each must risk their life to foil a plot that could end the reign of one king and send another to war. In the darkest of hours, courage must be found. (The Gilded Crown – Book Three)

What is worse than an unexpected betrayal? Discovering your darkest enemy lies within. When honour demands the ultimate sacrifice – loyalty, trust, love but you know, in the end, justice will be a traitor’s noose. (The Traitor’s Noose – Book Four)

Books are currently available through E-Bay for Australian readers.
Second Edition in print and Ebook versions, will be available internationally by February 2018. (Ebook for The Traitor’s Noose is available now via Amazon, Apple and all good Ebook outlets)

*The Authors listings on EBay Australia are dispatched from East Kurrajong, Australia – beware of paying a higher price dispatched from elsewhere!


  1. Such a fascinating post. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Book curses are amazing. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. So far this rates amongst my favourite posts here. I am off to put the books on my wish list before I forget them. What wonderful curses.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx