As many a gizmodian* and slashdotist has had occasion to point out recently, the title of my post on medieval book curses–”Medieval Copy Protection“–was a bit misleading, for book curses were not meant to dissuade anyone from copying the book that bore them or to protect the authors of the texts within from having their intellectual property “pirated”. They were instead meant to protect the owner of the physical copy of the book from losing it to a thoughtless biblioklept.
But to say that the curses were meant primarily to protect the book’s owner is still a little misleading, so allow me to clarify further. Most medieval books don’t have curses in them, and most of the curses in medieval books don’t seem to have been requested by the person who commissioned the book they’re found in.** Instead, these curses usually are found in the book’s colophon, the optional notes added to the end of a manuscript by the scribe who copied it. It’s in the colophon where you find things that today might be included in the mostly blank pages at the front of book–the when, where and by whom of its production. Here’s a (boring) example from British Library MS Burney 310:
Here ends the second book of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. It was written by the hand of the scribe William of Stiphel of Brittany for the wise and pious man of God and holy doctor of theology, Uthred, monk of Durham. In the year of our Lord 1381, the 26th day of the month of August. In Fincal.
I chose this colophon because I have a good picture of the page it’s found on:
Look at all that blank space waiting to be written in. As I mentioned in my recent post on medieval book production, manuscripts were composed of gatherings of folded sheets of vellum. Since the manuscripts were written by hand,*** it was a good idea to plan to have a little extra vellum at the end in case the text ran over a little. That blank space wasn’t quite a part of the text before it and wasn’t quite part of the original commission, so it more or less fell to the scribes by default. The more upbeat scribe might use the spare inches of vellum to ask for a few prayers in return for having worked so hard on the manuscript. The more choleric might instead warn those who might ruin all that work with a blistering curse. But either way, the scribe was demanding that readers of the book treat the book properly in return for all the work they put into copying it. Or else.
So if I’d been trying to be more precise, I should have titled my post “Medieval Copyist Protection.” And thus, if you want a modern analogue, book curses are actually a lot more like the little notices that filesharers and pirates include with the movies and games they seed to places like The Pirate Bay. You know: “This torrent of The Muppets Take Manhattan was ripped by 1337MuPpEtFaNzor and downloaded from Demonoid.com. Don’t use the Ultimuppet71 torrent from Megashares–that has a trojan that will nuke your computer and they stole it from us anyway. Plz seed!!!! If you don’t seed we won’t keep doing this. peace.”
Though that won’t work, either, as the major difference between purveyors of intellectual property now and in the Middle Ages is that medieval artists and authors knew that they lived and died by the copies made of their work. If nobody copied it, it wouldn’t survive. Indeed, they personally seeded their own works by dispatching the proof copies to scriptoria. They were far more worried that someone might miscopy it, adulterate it with inferior product, or destroy the good copies before others had a chance to copy it.
*Worry not that my own intellectual property was pirated by Gizmodo. I agreed to let them “syndicate” the original post at their blog. The new title and editorial text added are all theirs, though, and add substantially to the bait and switch. Sorry about that.
**The pretty illuminated one from Beinecke MS 214 is the exception, not the rule.
***Now there’s a tautology. Manuscripts–from Latin “manus” and “scriptus”, or “hand” and “written”–were written by hand. What other great truths do I have to share?