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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 mentioned that this is a hoax written at the beginning of the twentieth century:[1]

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.

References

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