Medieval Copy Protection

Sometimes people come to me and ask, “How did medieval filmmakers protect their DVDs from piracy?” And I tell them that since so few households had DVD players during the thousand or so years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance that it really never became much of an issue.

But this is not to say that the medievals didn’t face problems safeguarding their intellectual property. Indeed, book owners were so worried about theft and damage to their property that they often included what is known as a “book curse” on the inside cover or on the last leaf of their manuscripts, warning away anyone who might do the book some harm. And in this, I submit, they were a lot like modern day Hollywood. For a book curse is essentially the same as that little FBI warning that pops up whenever you try to watch a movie: a toothless text charm included by the media’s maker meant to frighten the foolish. The charm only works if you believe that words are special, potent magic.

As you can see in the image above [if you replace ‘DVD’ with ‘book’] the medieval scribes responsible for these book curses were a touch more creative than the boilerplate-spewing lawyerbots of today.  As for what they actually looked like, here’s a particularly pretty one from Yale’s Beinecke MS 214:

It reads:

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.  In the one thousand two hundred twenty-ninth year from the incarnation of our Lord, Peter, of all monks the least significant, gave this book to the [Benedictine monastery of the] most blessed martyr, St. Quentin.  If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The main book on the subject is Marc Drogin’s 1983 Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.  Chances are, if you see a book curse quoted on the Internet, it was originally culled from Drogin.  A few of the more popular include:

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.

–attributed to a 16th-century French missal belonging to a man named Robert

Thys boke is one
And Godes kors ys anoder;
They take the ton,
God gefe them the toder.

[This book is one (thing),
And God’s curse is another;
They that take the one,
God gives them the other.]

–found in various Middle English books.

This book belongs to Christ Church, Canterbury […] May whoever destroys this title, or by gift or sale or loan or exchange or theft or by any other device knowingly alienates this book from the aforesaid Christ Church incur in his life the malediction of Jesus Christ and of the most glorious Virgin His Mother, and of Blessed Thomas, Martyr. But otherwise, should it please Christ, […] may his soul be saved in the Day of Judgment.

–Trinity College Library MS 163

This Middle English curse is written as if spoken by the book itself:

Wher so ever y be come over all
I belonge to the Chapell of gunvylle hall;
He shal be cursed by the grate sentens
That felonsly faryth and berith me thens.
And whether he bere me in pooke or sekke,
For me he shall be hanged by the nekke,
(I am so well beknown of dyverse men)
But I be restored theder agen

[Wherever I might end up over all,
I belong to the Chapel of Gonville Hall;
He that feloniously ferries me and bears me from thence
Shall be cursed by this great sentence:
Whether he bears me in a pouch or sack,
On account of me he shall be hanged by the neck,
(I’m too well known by many men [to not be noticed])
Unless I be returned there again.]

–Found in a breviary held in the library of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

But far and away my favorite curse is found in a collection of English court transcripts made by William Easingwold around 1491.  It takes the form of a clever Latin code.  If you read the top two lines together it says “May he who wrote this book procure the joys of life supernal”, but the bottom two together produce “May he who steals this book endure the pangs of death infernal” (Drogin’s translation).  I don’t have an image of the manuscript, but this is a close approximation:

Would that Hollywood would turn some of its creative power toward the legal mumbo jumbo in the front matter of its DVDs as medieval scribes did for these books. Somebody might actually read the warning for once.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sigivald

    Not quite.

    The FBI warning is not actually intended to "make people not copy by scaring them because they believe words are magic".

    (Nobody's stupid enough to think that'll work, least of all the FBI or the media companies.)

    It's intended to make it impossible for the copier, when caught, to say "I had no idea it was illegal! I'm innocent of any criminal intent!".

  • Got Medieval

    Since ignorance of the law won't get you anywhere in court, I doubt it's that.

  • lilburne

    Not so. There is in copyright the principle of the Innocent Infringer. If you can claim that you thought that the thing was sans copyright you may escape statutory damages, that is why copyright is on all the packaging, and some lawyers are claiming that as mp3 don't have a copyright warning before each song any one that downloads them is an innocent infringer.

  • Got Medieval

    I stand corrected.

  • Doug

    If it's all the same, I'd like Hollywood to keep working on the scripts.

  • Stormerne

    This kind of thing does work in the modern era too, and in quite unusual circumstances.

    Ten years ago I worked in a London office that used a communal kitchen, in which was a communal fridge. I happened to spend a little extra money and get some really good butter for my toast and bagels, and I kept it in the fridge together with an obligatory note on it saying my name.

    Did people respect that system? No. Without fail, and with great regularity, the butter was stolen. So I resorted to a different method, capitalizing on the weirdness with which my heathen roots were regarded. I simply wrote on the packet, "Warning: this butter is cursed." No one ever stole from it again.

  • lilburne

    Too right it works. I was part of a group that set up an urban farm in the UK as a community project and educational resource. A couple of weeks after opening two scotes climbed the fence and made off with a number of chickens.

    We out up a sign saying "All poultry on this site is fed on a high phosphate diet, which makes them unfit for human consumption". Never had any more problems after that.

  • Duncan

    I really like the Latin code, that is ingenious!

  • Omnifarious (aka Eric Hopper)

    This is not copy protection, it's protection of the copy, which is very different. The monk would likely have been quite pleased if someone wanted to copy the book. The problem the warning is trying to safeguard against is someone who would steal or damage that particular physical copy of the book.

  • John D. Ayer

    There is of course a problem with your logic. In the middle ages people were encouraged to copy books and discouraged from stealing them. Churches often employed people with penmanship skills to copy books. These books were sold for a fee, BUT, if you wanted a copy of your own you could also copy it yourself. Most priests hand copied their own collection of scriptures. God encourages copying and discourages stealing which is why there is a commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal" and no commandment about copying even though, as you point out, intellectual property existed at the time.

  • De Facto

    I'd be more inclined to respect a beautifully written curse than I would the mediocre FBI warning, especially if it was as creative as the curse those English court transcripts by William Easingwold.

    Thanks for the fascinating info. You've now reaffirmed my believe that there is nothing new under the sun, only cheap and dull remakes.

    De Facto

  • Indica Man

    This is interesting and funny…pedantic bunch of loons!

  • Chuck

    I think what's most bothersome isn't really that copyright thing… It's that we have record of authors of books claiming their books where given to them by god…. How many messages of biblical texts claim their messages where from god? Was this really in the name of copyright?

  • Jens Ayton

    Chuck: in the middle ages (and, indeed, through most of history) creativity was a gift from God (or the gods, as the case may be). Claiming divine inspiration was an affirmation of humility, not hubris.

  • Mabel Amber

    Fascinating new knowledge – ingeniously contrived curse – greatly appeals to me – imagination over law!

  • Deepali

    Haha! that is fantastic – I had no idea that those books had latin curses written on the last page 🙂
    hmmm…maybe thats something to add onto your books that get lent out and never returned? 🙂
    e-Volving Books

  • Wibu

    A bit sad that people would be more inclined to respect a beautifully written curse than they would the mediocre FBI warning.

    If these people were software developers or musicians I wonder if their attitude would change.

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