On Book Curses

Here is something I wrote several years ago at Library7 – one of my old blogs about books and reading. I am resurrecting some posts written from that particular blog. To introduce a personal project of mine Sonido Biblioteca. I am loanng out books to those who want to read at no cost at all. If you want more information about this and be part of project you can email me at baratillocubao(_at_)gmail.com

When I was starting blogging one of the topics that caught my interest were book curses. The use of book curses, threat of excommunication and anathema were used extensively during the Middle Ages as a way of controlling book theft, the other method was to chain the book to the table or to the shelf.


A brief definition of the terms may be needed to fully understand the design and intent of each curse. A curse is an appeal or prayer for harm to come to a person or a thing. An excommunication is the exclusion of an individual from a community. And anathema is a person or thing denounced, cursed and excommunicated. Generally, a curse involves bodily or physical harm while both excommunication and anathema involves religious and social seperation from the community. What is involved in a curse is the physical well-being, while the excommunication and anathema will deal not only with the physical, but also the spiritual and social aspect of a person or a thing. An excommunication can be lifted by absolution or forgiveness, while the anathema is almost permenant, it nearly cannot be lifted.

Most of the curses can be found in the articles written by Mike Cox and Sandra Anderson’s article entitled,”Bibliomania and the Medieval Book Curse”. And most of the curses and anathemas they cited can be found in Marc Drogin’s book “Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.”. The book was published in 1983 and is said to be out-of-print, but a quick check at Amazon.com showed that you can still get some copies if you want to.

Interesting if you can put this in one’s library or on one’s book plate.


The first curse comes from Assyrian King Assurbanipal:

The palace of Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of Assyria, who putteth his trust in the gods Ashur and Belit . . . I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who had gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Naub insofar as it existeth {in writing}. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land (Drogin,1983)

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(Drogin,1983)

Drogin(1983) from a 16th century missal in France:

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

A Medievel book curse allegedly from the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona. Not only for the book thief but for the delinquent borrower.

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.(Basbanes,1995)


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(Drogin,1983)


This comes from 13th century England -

This is the book of St. James of Wigmore. If anyone take it away or maliciously destroys this notice in taking it away from the above-mentioned place, may he be tied by the change of greater excommunication. Amen. So it be. So it be. So it be.(Drogin,1983)


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


May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away(Drogin,1983)


This is probably not a curse but might be useful for people who will be reading your book.

Quisquis quem tetigerit
Sit illi lota manus.(Drogin,1983)


Please wash your hands
Before touching this book.(Drogin,1983)


Anderson, Sandra.Bibliomania and the Medieval Book Curse. Written for the LIS 586 – History of the Book course at the University of Alberta. (Posted to the web in March 2003 as part of a capping exercise for the completion of my Master of Library and Information Studies degree.)


Basbanes, Nicholas A. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1995

Cox, Mike. “Books often included poetic warnings, curses to alert borrowers”.Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.Copyright 1997.


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