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:
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.
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.]
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.
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.]
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.