Life as a Medieval scribe was grueling, copying endless texts by hand. How would they protect their work once finished? By placing a curse on it, of course.
Until the invention of the printing press, the only way to make a copy of a book was by hand. Medieval scribes would work long hours in solitude, working on a slanted platform in contorted positions that would both strain your back and eyes while you toiled over the text. Often in the margins of their manuscripts, they would complain about their work.
Thank God, it will soon be dark.
As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.
St Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.
Whoever translated these Gospels did a very poor job!
After the many hours of painstaking writing and hand-cramping, naturally the scribe would want to protect their work once it was finished, and make sure it ended up in the right hands.
A simple solution to protect their work was to simply lock them up. Books in Medieval libraries were most commonly chained their shelves to make sure they stayed put.
However, another method was also common. Known as the “manuscript curse,” scribes penned powerful “curses” within the margins of their works to prevent theft, damage, or loss.
Threats of excommunication were hurled, the loss of one’s hands and eyes, and even spending eternity in the “fires of hell and brimstone.” Read below some of the unique curses of Medieval scribes:
Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.
If anyone should steal this, let him know that on the Day of Judgement the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May the sword of anathema slay if anyone steals this book away.
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.
The finished book before you lies; this humble scribe don’t criticize. Whoever takes away this book May he never on Christ look. Whoever to steal this volume durst May he be killed as one accursed. Whoever to steal this volume tries, out with his eyes, out with his eyes!
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.
May no one believe that ever have I been taken, But that happily this place never have I forsaken. Yet may no one doubt that the wrath of God upon him will fall If he essays to take me from the confines of St. Gall.
The book of Saint Marie and Saint Liborius in Patherburnen. A curse upon the one who takes this book, a blessing upon the one who keeps it safe. If anyone removes or cuts a page, may he be accursed.
This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.
This is the book of St. James of Wigmore. If anyone takes it away or maliciously destroys this notice in taking it away from the above-mentioned place, may he be tied by the chain of greater excommunication. Amen. So be it. So be it. So be it.
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.
Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.
May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.
This book is one, And God’s curse is another; They that take the one, God gives them the other.