Bringing Back the Medieval Book Curse

Photo of an illustrated medieval manscript, in colro

Illustrated medieval manuscript from Depositphotos.com.

​​On the copyright page of the hardback edition of Leigh Bardugo’s novel King of Scars there’s this little story:

At the foot of the Petrazoi lies a small swamp that smells potently of feet and rancid cooking oil. It is known as the Armpit and its fumes cause dizzy spells, vomiting, and fervent prayers to Sankt Bozkho the Minty. Forced to camp there overnight and desperate for relief, an army regiment begged a passing witch for help. A generous sort, she cut off their noses and replaced them with crow beaks and they were grateful for it. Steal this book and you will stink worse than this swamp—and no passing witch will help you.

I thought this was an amusing idea thought up by the author. ​But after listening to a recent podcast, I realized that this was her version of a medieval book curse.

Because medieval books took so long to write and illustrate, all of it painstakingly done by hand, the theft of a book was a big deal. So it was common to include a curse at the front or the back of the book to instill fear in the hearts of potential thieves.

​The most often quoted book on the subject is Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses by Marc Drogin. Unfortunately, it appears as if this book is out of print​. However, articles such as Top 10 Medieval Book Curses on Medievalists.net have ​examples ​from the book. Here are some of my favorites: ​

Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.
—A 15th-century manuscript owned by Count Jean d’Orlean
Whoever steals this Book of Prayer
May he be ripped apart by swine,
His heart be splintered, this I swear,
And his body dragged along the Rhine.
— Simon Vostre of Paris added this to a Book of Hours that he wrote in 1502

​And the curse most often found when researching this topic:

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen. — At the end of a Bible, written around the year 1172

Because of the strong religious beliefs of the times, many curses deal with being cut off from Christ or God, or damned to hell. I love that Leigh Bardugo created a book curse that’s in the style of her Grishaverse dark fantasy novels.

I tried thinking of an appropriate book curse for my books.

For the SSU books I could write:

Whosoever steals this book shall find themselves a prisoner in Alvarez’s dungeons, suffering unspeakable agonies until the end of days.

​Or maybe:

Yo. Don’t steal this book. Kaufmann needs more subjects for his ​excruciating experiments and he loves putting book thieves on his operating tables.

For the WAR series:

Steal this book and the horrors that befall you will make the Hospital Massacre seem like a fond caress.

​The one thing I don’t know is if any of the book curses actually worked. But I’m tempted to add curses to the fronts of my books, just to see if anyone notices.

Now it’s your turn. Write a book curse to go in the front of your favorite book and share it in the comments. 

​I'll leave you with a blessing instead of a curse:

May your books never be stolen and all those you lend out be returned in good time and in the same condition as they left your care. --Vanessa Kier