If you love reading as much as I do, you might be like me—reluctant to let anyone borrow a book that you’ve bought. It’s always a risk because you can never be absolutely sure that the borrower—even a close friend—will take proper care of it. Many years ago when I was in fourth grade, I let a classmate borrow my favorite hardback book of scary stories. Naively, I thought everyone respected books as much I did. After weeks of repeatedly asking for it back, I escalated to a threat to have my mother call her mother. The next day my book was returned. The cover was torn off, some pages had been ripped out, and the remaining pages had been scribbled on. It had suffered a horrible, demeaning death at the hands of a book murderer! A difficult lesson to learn at such a tender young age, that day I discovered I shouldn’t trust just anyone with my most valuable possessions.
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Years later I loaned a book to a friend of mine. I had known her for a long time, we had socialized at each other’s homes, I thought she was a fine, upstanding person. A few weeks passed and I asked if she had finished the book. She cheerfully gushed that it had been a great read and then she told me she had donated it to charity along with a few dozen other books she had read. I was dumbstruck. In my assessment of her worthiness to borrow my book, it never occurred to me to question her understanding of the word “borrow.” How did she come to the conclusion that I had given her my book to do with as she pleased after she read it? Let’s just say that, due to a plethora of reasons that include her insensitivity to property rights, she is now an ex-friend.
When I saw Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange movie last year, I was ready to enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. It was a great movie, filled with mysticism, excellent imagery, and just the right amount of humor. But the part I liked best was the library. The ancient tomes were so valuable and their contents so dangerous they were kept chained to the shelves so no one could steal them. This makes a great plot point in a movie, but the fact is, chaining books to shelves was a fairly common practice in medieval libraries.
Before Gutenberg started a printing revolution, books were laboriously hand-copied by scribes, back-breaking, tedious work that made every bound text precious and expensive. Chaining books to shelves and keeping them locked up helped deter thievery. But long before books were made of sheets of parchment or paper either hand copied or mass produced, there was a technique used to add a layer of special protection to the readable work: book curses.
Pop culture has made us all familiar with curses written on mummy’s tombs and bewitched books of spells. Did you know that the oldest known library routinely inscribed its books with elaborate curses to prevent theft? Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, assembled his library at Ninevah. He had scribes include various curses on the tablets invoking the wrath of ancient deities for anyone who would steal or damage them:
I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.
Whoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in the place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land.
Ashurbanipal made allowances for those who wanted to borrow, not steal. He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it to the owner’s house the same day, and He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of it and respect it.
As books evolved from clay tablets to something a little more portable, the tradition continued. In medieval times monks and scribes often appended their own colorful curses to the works they produced. Like Ashurbanipal, they called upon a wrathful God to strike down the book thief and frequently recommended excommunication from the church.
This book is one, And God’s curse is another; They that take the one, God give them the other.
To steal this book, if you should try, It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ’bout To find your eyes and pull them out.
From a Bible in 1172: 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.
From a 13th Century Vatican document: The finished book before you lies; This humble scribe don’t criticize. Whoever takes away this book, May he never on Christ look. Whoever to steal this volume durst, May he be killed as one accursed. Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!
Some medieval book curses got right to the point, like this one from 1461: Hanging will do for him who steals you.
These days, a lot of serious bibliophiles like bookplates. Fancy or plain, exotic or traditional, they offer a personalized way to identify the book’s owner that goes beyond merely writing a name inside the cover. If you want to remind a borrower how serious you are about books, you might even want to incorporate a whimsical book curse in your bookplate. It’s too late to recover the book my ex-friend gave away, but now when I loan one out, I make a point of showing the borrower I’m serious about getting it back.
Click here to download my printable bookplates. Some of the designs are featured above.