Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses
(Allanheld & Schram, 1983)
This book is a minor classic of medieval historiography, beloved (by those lucky enough to find a copy) for the genial manner in which it illuminates an interesting but little remarked aspect of medieval culture: the care and protection of books. We all know that books were handmade in the medieval period, and that they were both rare and valuable, but few of us, I would wager, know much about the scribes who copied books, nor about the measures they took to protect the work of their hands from damage. If you’ve ever wondered about such things, Drogin’s book is for you.
Book production in this period involved far more than just writing or copying the text. It was a laborious process from start to finish, from the preparation of the parchment from animal skins, to the writing, the illumination, and the binding. Happily for us, the making of books was considered a form of manual labour and was integrated, from an early date, into monastic life; books were therefore produced slowly, but steadily, throughout the medieval period, and of course we owe our current possession of many ancient writings to their labours.
When I have imagined a medieval scriptorium, I have tended to imagine a large room, well-lit, with monks seated at flat tables, much like a modern study hall, but according to Drogin this was not typical. Instead, copyists often sat on chairs in the monastery’s cloister, where they would have good light, and they leaned over tilted writing desks. If their testimony is anything to go on, this was a rather uncomfortable arrangement. One scribe, named Florencio, who copied a manuscript in about 945, added these remarks at the bottom of his last page:
He who knows not how to write thinks that writing is no labour, but be certain, and I assure you that it is true, it is a painful task. It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body. Therefore, O reader, turn ye the leaves with care, keep your fingers far from the text, for as a hail-storm devastates the fields, so does the careless reader destroy the script and the book. Know ye how sweet to the sailor is arrival at port? Even so for the copyist in tracing the last line.
His remarks were not atypical. A scribal tradition developed whereby a scribe, having completed his work, was able to append some personal thoughts to the text in a section that came to be called the explicit. In the beginning, the explicit simply recorded the work’s title (yes, at the end, oddly enough), the name of the place at which it had been copied, and the name of the scribe, but in time it became a kind of scribal graffiti zone wherein the scribe, having so long cloaked himself in the words of another, could finally step forward with a word or two of his own: perhaps a complaint, or a prayer, or even a joke.
It is hard today to assess, and maybe even harder to imagine, how valuable books were in medieval society. Part of the difficulty is due, naturally, to regional and temporal variations, but moreso to the bald scarcity of books at that time. We know nothing of such scarcity, especially when it comes to books. Last week I was at a second-hand book sale where tens of thousands of volumes were offered at a pittance. It is startling to learn that when St. Augustine of Canterbury came to England in 597 he brought with him just nine books, or that the library of Cambridge University had, in 1424, just 122 books. Records exist to indicate that, in some times and places, a single book could cost roughly the monthly income of a court official. We know that a Bible could be traded for a house, or for an entire farm. The borrowing of books was couched in a legal framework comparable to that governing property purchases today.
All of which is very interesting, I am sure. But the real draw of Drogin’s book is his account of the measures medieval men took to protect their precious books. When the law was unreliable, or just too complicated, they tried a variety of other tactics. At the benign end of the spectrum we find polite requests, or simple pleas, to the reader not to damage the book through carelessness.
Quisquis quem tetigerit
Sit illi lota manus.
Please wash your hands
Before touching this book
— Cat. Monte Cassino, II.299
Jeremiads have come down to us decrying the insolence of readers who insist on eating or drinking while reading, or readers who sneeze on their books, or who fall asleep with their faces in the pages, or who commit any number of other offenses against a book’s physical integrity and durability.
As the value of the books increased, so did the stakes. At its most extreme — hence the title of Drogin’s book — scribes tried to protect their books by calling down curses on anyone who would damage or steal them. This was rarely, so far as I can tell, done with legitimate ecclesiastical authority — and so was not a genuine anathema — but it still makes for eye-popping, and sometimes amusing, reading.
Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne,
Who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hot,
Who stealeth thisse boke
ye divel shall cooke.
Anathema! is filled with dozens of examples of the type, but I shall not spoil a future reader’s pleasure by recounting too many of them here. The bookmark appended to this post, which I made for the bad boys at Korrektiv, is perhaps my favourite example of a really hyperbolic curse. Do not mess with anyone who puts a bookmark like that into a book loaned to you.
Or maybe you don’t care. The truth is that book curses have lost most of their potency in these latter days. Books are less valuable than they used to be, of course, but book curses declined even before book prices did. Curses, of whatever stripe, just have not been very effective in the modern era. As if to prove the point, Drogin had a friend send him an envelope through the mail embalzoned with the following:
PLEASE DO NOT BEND
If anyone shall bend this, let him lie
under perpetual malediction.
Fiat fiat fiat.
I’ll not spoil things by revealing exactly what happened to this envelope en route, but I will say that no good evidence for the spiritual sensitivity of modern man was revealed.
(If anyone would like to conduct another experiment of this type with me, just say so. We can exchange addresses on a side channel.)