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23 May 2017

Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses

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Have you ever lost, forgotten to return or accidentally damaged a library book? If so, you may have been asked to pay a fee to replace or repair the book — but you still got away easy! During the Middle Ages, the fate of both your body and soul could have been at serious risk. Medieval librarians often added curses to their books upon those who did not return or damaged borrowed books, or stole them from their libraries. These curses usually invoked God, suggesting that these punishments would be made effective with divine authority.

Royal 15 D V   f. 107v
The sort of fate medieval librarians wished on book thieves: detail of a miniature illustrating Gregory's Homily 40, of a man with two demons in Hell, from Les Omelies Saint Grégoire pape, Low Countries (Bruges), 2nd half of the 15th century, Royal MS 15 D V, f. 107v

Some book curses guaranteed an immediate, physical punishment. The British Library has recently digitised a Middle Dutch natural encyclopaedia and bestiary (Add MS 11390) that contains, rather appropriately, an ‘animal oath’ (‘dieren eet’) below an image of a cross, with which the borrower had to swear that he or she would return the book or die. At least one borrower, a woman who identified herself as a midwife (‘Abstetrix heifmoeder’), dared to subscribe to this oath.

The ‘animal oath’ in Jacob van Maerlant’s The Flower of Nature (Der Nature Bloeme), Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v 

A similar curse is found in a manuscript with a commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels (Royal MS 4 E II) from Evesham Abbey. A colophon that praises the scribe’s work — and requests high-quality wine (‘vini nobilis haustum’) for him as a reward — ends with a curse in which the book’s thief is wished a ‘death from evil things: may the thief of this book die’ (Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur).

  British Library  Royal MS 4 E II  f. 471r
A colophon in which the scribe curses a book’s thief to death, from William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r 

Other curses give us an insight into how some librarians imagined that the book thieves should die. A quickly scribbled curse in a liturgical manuscript (Add MS 30506) from the church of St Aldate in Gloucester states, ‘This book is of St Aldate: he that takes this book shall be hauled by the neck’ (f. 170r: ‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck’). An even more harmful curse was issued by the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein. The so-called Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798), as noted by Marc Drogin (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses), damned a book thief to a bloody death by torture, sickness and execution:

A book of [the Abbey of] SS Mary and Nicholas of Arnstein: If anyone steals it: may he die [the death], may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.

(Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein Quem si quis abstulerit Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur Amen)

One of the most harmful book curses written in the Middle Ages? From the Arnstein Bible, W. Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172 Harley MS 2798, f. 235v 

Other physical punishments were given explicit religious overtones, such as those that the Benedictine monastery of St Albans wished upon anyone who damaged one manuscript (Royal MS 8 G X) they loaned to monks studying at Gloucester College in Oxford:

British  Library  Royal MS 8 G X  f. 1v
A curse that identifies a book thief with Judas Iscariot, from ‘Doctrinale Antiquitatum Ecclesie Ihesu Christi contra blasfemios Wycleuistas’, mid-15th century, Royal MS 8 G X, f. 1v 

This book is given in use to the brothers of Oxford by John Wethamstede, father of the flock of the proto-martyr of the English [St Alban]; if anyone secretly tears this inscription or removes it, may he feel Judas’s noose [around his neck] or forks [presumably handled by demons!].

(Fratribus Oxonie datur in munus liber iste Per \Johannem Whethamstede/patrem pecorum prothomartiris Angligenarum. Quem si quis raptat · raptim titulum ue[l] retractet uel Iude laqueum · uel furcas sensiat Amen.)

Royal 19 C I   f. 185v
Devils wielding implements which may include a fork, from Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 185v

Gruesome as these punishments seem, to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health. A spiritual condemnation was often expressed with the Greek ‘Anathema’, sometimes followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’). Both terms were used in a curse that was added to a manuscript with spiritual letters and sermons (Royal MS 8 F XVII) from Lesnes Abbey:

This book belongs to the church of Thomas the Martyr of Lesnes. Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed [Anathema Maranatha]. Let it be done. Let it be done. Amen

(Hic liber est ecclessiae beati Thome martyris de Liesnes. Quem qui ei abstulerit . aut illi super eo fraudem fecerit . nisi eidem ecclesie plene satisfecerit ; anathema sit maranatha. fiat. fiat. Amen.)

British Library  Royal MS 8 F XVII  f. 1r
A book curse with the Anathema-Maranatha formula, from a collection of Latin sermons and letters, 13th century, Royal MS 8 F XVII, f. 1r

A monk from Rochester Abbey emphasised the severity of the ‘Anathema’ by claiming that his book’s thief would be condemned by the entire religious community at Rochester Cathedral:

A volume of Aristotle’s Physics from the monastery of Rochester by John, prior of Rochester: whosoever steals this book from the monastery, conceals it, or erases this inscription, he incurs the curse of ‘Anathema’ for one long year from the Priory and the entire community of the Chapter of Rochester. 

Volumen de naturalibus · aristotelis · de Claustro Roffensis · Per Johannem Priorem Roffensis Hunc librum quicumque alienauerit ab hoc cla[u]stro · alienatum celauerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleuerit ; dampnacionem incurrit Anathematis lati singulis annis a Priore et totu cetu capituli Roffensis.

British Library  Royal MS 12 G II  f. 1v
A year-long curse from the monastery of Rochester: Royal MS 12 G II, f. 1v 

Other scribes gave weight to their curses by attributing them directly to God-Christ. The aforementioned liturgical manuscript from the church of St Aldate, for example, contains another book curse, written in Middle English, purportedly originating from Christ himself:  

This book belongs to the church of St Aldate

This book is one and Christ’s curse is another

He that takes the one takes the other Amen.


Thys boke ys one and chryst curse ys Anoþer

he þat take þe one take þe oþer Amen.)

British Library  Add MS 30506  f. 169r
Christ’s book curse: Add MS 30506, f. 169r 

Just like physical punishments, scribes could also specify the particular spiritual punishments they had in mind for their books’ thieves. One example comes from a manuscript from St Albans Abbey whereby the thief was excommunicated. The latter could have learned about what this entailed simply by consulting the stolen book, since the topic of excommunication was discussed in its contents, the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

This book belongs to the monastery of St Albans, anyone who steals it from the said monastery should know that he will incur the punishment of excommunication.

(Hic est liber monasteri sancti Albani quem qui a dicto monasterio alienauerit sentenciam excommunicacionis se nouerit incursurum) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 C XIII  f. 1r
A book curse excommunicating a book thief, from a copy of Gregory’s Decretals, St Albans, mid-13th century, Royal MS 10 C XIII, f. 1r 

Another monk from Rochester specified that the thief’s name would be deleted from the ‘Book of Life’. According to biblical sources, this records the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement; stealing the manuscript would be turned into a one-way ticket to hell:

This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.

(Liber distinccionum de claustro Roffensis quem qui inde alienauerit · alienatum celauerit aut retinuerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleueritur · deleri ue[l] fecerit aut procurauerit · deleatur nomen eius de libro uite · Amen ·) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 A XVI  f. 2r
A book curse for deleting a book thief’s name from the Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r

The use of these book curses seemingly sits at odds with the monastic lifestyle. Medieval monks dedicated their lives to imitating Christ, including his virtues of patience, forgiveness and love for mankind. The fact that monks used these curses testifies to the immense material and spiritual value that they attributed to their libraries: their books had not only been extremely costly and labour-intensive to produce, but often they also contained the only copies of a particular work to which their communities had access. The loss of a book did not only mean a material loss, but it could have permanently deprived a religious community of a work of knowledge that was essential for preserving or developing its religious identity. This may explain why some religious communities went to great lengths to protect their books. Book curses were a radical but effective way of preserving their book collections. 

Clarck Drieshen

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19 May 2017

King Arthur: not just a man of the sword?

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Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for all versions of the King Arthur Legend, medieval and modern

A popular hero of our blog, King Arthur, is once again in the news with this week's UK release of Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. In yet another variation on the legend, the young Arthur in the film is a gangster in the back streets of Londinium, who is unaware of his royal lineage until he draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. He fights to conquer his inner demons, avenge his parents’ murder by defeating the tyrant Vortigern and win back his rightful crown. This all sounds rather violent, and violence is certainly a key element in the Arthurian tales. But there is so much more to the various legends of our favourite hero-king. 

Of course, medieval stories about Arthur featured lots of fighting. Medieval manuscripts often depicted Arthur battling demons and giants, as well as heathen kings.

Arthur and the black beast, from L'estoire de Merlin,  Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 209v

Drawing of King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig, from Wace, Roman de Brut, England, c. 1325–1350, Egerton MS 3028, f. 49r

Miniature of King Arthur and three knights slaying the heathen kings England, from The Fall of Princes, South-East England (?Bury St Edmunds), Harley MS 1766, f. 218r

Sometimes Arthur and his followers fought to rescue a maiden.

A miniature of Arthur slaying the 'swine-eating' Spanish giant on the island of Mont St Michel, and rescuing Helena, niece of Hoel of Brittany, from Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, volume 1, Royal MS 15 E IV  f. 156r

And sometimes they acted in self-defence.

King Arthur and knights are attacked, from Guiron le Courtois, Southern Italy, (Naples?), between 1352 and 1362, Add MS 12228, f. 126v

But often it seems he and his knights just enjoyed a good battle.

A battle, from La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 125r

There are, however, differences between the modern film and common medieval stories about Arthur. Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life.

Merlin at Arthur's baptism, from Le Livre de Merlin, Northern France  (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117,  f. 66r

This version of the sword in the stone incident is a bit different, too. For a start, it does not feature David Beckham!

Arthur removes the sword from the stone and is blessed by Archbishop Brice, from Le Livre de Merlin, France, N. (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 73v

And in this version of the story, it is Merlin and two dragons who confront Vortigern, not Arthur.

Detail of Merlin showing Vortigern two dragons, in L'estoire de Merlin, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 84v

There are many more stories about Arthur, and not all the incidents emphasize violence. This manuscript of the Chronicles of England features an image of Arthur’s coronation.

The coronation of King Arthur, from the Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges); after 1471, before 1483, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 141v

Once crowned, King Arthur is busy with many varied activities according to the legend, not all of them involving bloody battles.

King Arthur blowing a horn while hunting with Urien and Accalon, from the Suite de Merlin, Add MS 38117, f. 193r

Arthur dictating to a scribe, from Le Morte Artu, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  140r

Arthur on the wheel of fortune, from Le Mort Artu, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10294, f. 89r

He seems to end up in prison quite often, although there tends to be a damsel to look after him on these occasions.

Arthur in prison, from Lancelot du Lac, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10293, f. 144v

And he also enjoys many a great banquet with Lancelot, Guinevere and his courtiers.

Arthur and Guinevere at a banquet, while Lancelot kneels before them, requesting permission to leave the court, La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  89r

Royal 20 D IV f. 1
Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet, from Lancelot du Lac, Southern England (Pleshey Castle), c. 1360–1380, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 1r

Finally (SPOILER ALERT), in medieval versions there is no happy ending.  Arthur is killed at the Battle of Salisbury Plain and his noble vision of the Round Table is destroyed.


The death of Arthur, from Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1479–c.1480; Royal MS 14 E V, f. 439v

But the legend lives on …. on the British Library website. You can find a virtual exhibition of some of our Arthurian manuscripts here.

Of our large collection of Arthurian manuscripts, some are fully digitised online on Digitised Manuscripts:

Add MS 5474: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 10292/Add MS 10293/Add MS 10294: The entire Prose Lancelot-Grail cycle

Add MS 12228: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 23929: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 23930: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 32125: Wace, Roman de Brut; the Anglo-Norman Description of England; Estoire del Saint Graal; Robert de Boron, prose Merlin

Add MS 38117: Robert de Boron, Joseph d'Arimathie, Le Livre de Merlin, Suite de Merlin ('the Huth Manuscript')

Add MS 59678: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

Egerton MS 3028: Wace, Roman de Brut and other texts

Harley MS 4419: Lancelot du Lac

Lansdowne MS 757: Lancelot-Grail

Royal MS 14 E III: Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu

Royal MS 20 A II: Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, the Lament of Edward II, fragments of Arthurian romances

Royal MS 20 D IV: Lancelot du Lac

Prose Brut Chonicles

Royal MS 12 C XII: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Royal MS 20 A III: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Prophecies of Merlin

Add MS 25014: An excerpt from the prologue of the Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

Add MS 25434: Prophecies of Merlin

Arundel MS 66: Astrological compilation including Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 1629: Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 3908: Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

And others are partially digitised in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with downloadable and searchable images, including:

Add MS 17443

Egerton MS 2515

Lansdowne MS 757

Royal 14 E V 

Royal MS 19 B VII

Royal MS 19 C XII

Royal MS 19 C XIII

Royal MS 20 B VII

Royal MS 20 D III

Chantry Westwell

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated. This is exemplified in a 1536 letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but evidently sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Fascinatingly, the letter shows that in 1536, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction. The letter from Sir Piers keeps up the appearance of this approach. He writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why.

Sir Piers does not, however, ask for the immediate seizure of the abbey itself: he instead proposes that Dom Rondul of Wilmslow, a monk at Vale Royal, become the master of the house. This is a rather odd suggestion, given that Vale Royal Abbey was Cistercian, while Norton was composed of Augustinian canons. Ostensibly, the replacement is suggested on account of his learning and devoutness, but one wonders whether something else is afoot, with his allusion to an unspecified undertaking that the monk is to satisfy:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Dutton K.

This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded the closures of abbeys. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed after arresting him, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Andrew Dunning

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