New Publication Examines the History of Book Curses

Medieval book curses warned potential thieves of dire consequences for their crimes
Courtesy Eleanor Baker

Eleanor Baker was inspired by her research into book curses to create woodcut-style linocuts evoking the folklore of the medieval world.

Chaining your books to the shelf to protect them from light-fingered readers has fallen out of fashion, but maybe it’s time to fall back on another popular medieval solution to thievery: the book curse.

Book Curses is a forthcoming publication from Bodleian Publishing by Eleanor Baker, who is the English subject lead for the University of Oxford’s Astrophoria Foundation Year. Ranging in time from thousands of years ago until the modern day, it offers plenty to choose from, although there are several common themes.

“The threat of hanging appears many times,” explained Baker, who specializes in the late medieval period, “that of burning is not infrequent, and shame is often invoked. What is lasting over time is people’s desire to imagine harm upon one another in creative ways that are both amusing and unnerving. Many of the curses are representative of the time in which they were penned and make reference to contemporary forms of capital punishment or kinds of illness that were particularly prevalent. For some people, these were threats that promised real harm, but for others, they were more playful.”

Many book curses from the early medieval period were written in a standard Latin formula along the lines of this example in an Italian manuscript now held in Yale’s Beinecke Library, casually threatening excommunication from the Catholic faith:

The book of St Mary of the Dove. 
Whoever steals or removes [this book]: 
let him be anathema. Amen. 

“In the late medieval period, the structure of these curses becomes a little freer, and we begin to see some more idiosyncratic constructions,” Baker said, sharing this example translated from Middle English from a fifteenth-century manuscript held by Durham University Library:

This is John Hancok’s book and whoever says nay, 
The devil of hell bare Thomas Carter away!
Know before you knit, and then you may loosen it, 
If you knit before you know, then it is too late. 

“The riddle-like quality of the last two lines appears to advise that people should know, perhaps in the biblical sense, the person they will marry before they wed them,” Baker added.

A curse in a recipe book
Courtesy Eleanor Baker

A curse in a recipe book dating between 1660 and 1700 held by the New York Academy of Medicine was the basis for this linocut: “Jean Gembel her book, / I wish that she who steals it from her / May be drowned.” The print depicts Gembel boiling jam; the oranges on the border reference the citrus ingredients in several of the book’s recipes.

Courtesy Eleanor Baker

Baker started creating the linocuts during the COVID-19 lockdowns and has continued to experiment with references to different aspects of medieval art.

Courtesy Eleanor Baker

This linocut by Eleanor Baker was inspired by a Middle English book curse: “He that steals this book, / May Our Lady give him ill health. / Either with rope, sword or knife; / He shall have a short life. / Therefore, for the love of Our Lady, / I pray you let this book lie. / Said William Bentley.”

A rather more direct curse is the only one included in Book Curses without a named manuscript reference. The last known sighting of it was at a 1962 Sotheby’s auction, where its sale description recorded a Middle English book curse:

He who steals this book, 
Shall be hanged upon a hook, 
Behind the kitchen door. 

The title Book Curses is actually a little misleading, said Baker, as some of the curses are inscribed on stone tablets from the ancient Near East, while others are on documents. “The vast majority of the curses that appear in books are handwritten, but they appear later in the form of bookplates, which could be easily reproduced and pasted into the flyleaves of a book. They also still prove popular today—artists on crafting websites sell bookplates with curses preprinted for you to stick into your own books.”

Baker has her own crafting take on the subject, teaching herself linocutting during the COVID-19 lockdowns and using book curses as inspiration. 

“Having spent a lot of time with late medieval manuscripts and incunabula, I was particularly drawn to imitating the qualities of illustration of wood-block prints,” she said. “I find it fun to try and imagine the individuals who were motivated to inscribe the curses, from Assyrian rulers to early modern cooks and naughty Victorian schoolchildren.”