Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe? You’re probably not inclined to do this, because the object in question might be stolen. The medieval reader would nod his head approvingly, because book theft happened in his day too. In medieval times, however, the loss was much greater, given that the average price of a book – when purchased by an individual or community – was much higher. In fact, a more appropriate question would be whether you would leave the keys in the ignition of your car with the engine running when you enter Starbucks to order a coffee. Fortunately, the medieval reader had various strategies to combat book theft. Some of these appear a bit over the top to our modern eyes, while others seem not effective at all.
The least subtle but most effective way to keep your books safe was to chain them to a bookcase. Walking around in a “chained library” is an unreal experience (Fig. 1). There is nothing like seeing a medieval book in its natural habitat, where the chains produce a “cling-cling” sound when you walk too close to them – a sound that must have been familiar to medieval users of chained libraries.
While there are only a modest number of chained libraries still in existence today (in my own country just one remains, Fig. 2), many of the medieval books we consult in modern libraries were once part of such a collection of “imprisoned” books. Objects that were once chained can be identified with ease, either from the attached chain (Fig. 3) or from the imprint it left in the wood of the book binding (example here, lower edge). The links of the chain are remarkably crude and clunky, although they have a certain charm as well (Fig. 4 and image all the way at the top, taken from this source).
The primary reason for chaining a book was, obviously, safekeeping. Just like phones and tablets on display in modern stores are fixed to their display tables with straps, these precious medieval books were bolted to the library that owned them. This feature of stabilitas loci (to allude to the Benedictine ideal of staying in one location your entire life) turns the chain into something interesting beyond the strictly book-historical. It shows, after all, that the text inside the object was available in a public or semi-public place, such as a church or a cathedral. In other words, chains (or traces of them) suggest how information was accessed.
Not all chained books were part of a real library – say a room with one or more bookcases. The famous seventeenth-century “Gorton Chest” from Chetham’s Library shows that books were also chained inside a book chest (Fig. 5, more here and here). This particular example was made in 1658 to contain 68 volumes that were purchased from the bequest of Humphrey Chetham. The lot made up the full extent of the parochial library of Gorton Chapel.
While book chests were a common phenomenon in medieval times, most of them did not actually feature chains. Surviving specimens suggest that the majority were merely wooden boxes, often enforced, that were fitted with one or more locks. The one that still survives in Merton College library, dating from the fourteenth-century, is a good example of such an object (Fig. 6). The theft-prevention plan of these chests was simple yet effective: the filled object was too heavy to move or steal, while the locks kept the contents safe from theft. In a sense, the heavy and enforced chest is the equivalent of a modern safe. Similar chests were used for other kinds of precious objects as well (here is one not made for books).
Considering these two practical theft-prevention techniques – chaining your books to something unmovable or putting them into a safe – the third seems kind of odd: to write a curse against book thieves inside the book. Your typical curse (or anathema) simply stated that the thief would be cursed, like this one in a book from an unidentified Church of St Caecilia: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act” (source and image). Some of these book curses really rub it in: “If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgement the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ” (source).
Book curses appear both in Latin and the vernacular, including in non-Western traditions, like Arabic (example here). Fig. 7 shows an Anglo-Saxon curse from the second half of the eleventh century, in a manuscript donated to Exeter Cathedral by bishop Leofric. This combination (of curse and donated book) is encountered more often. The inscription at the bottom of the page in Fig. 8 notes that the book was donated to Rochester Priory in Kent by Ralph of Stoke. The notation ends with a short book curse.
These two cases suggest that the receivers of the gifts felt compelled to treat the given object with extra care. A similar sentiment is encountered in some books that were copied by individuals who were, for some reason, important to a religious house. In the early twelfth century, one Humphrey was precentor in Rochester Priory, Kent, meaning he lead the congregation in singing during the mass. He is also known as a scribe who copied a number of books for the community in a particularly dazzling script. One of these books he copied bears a curse as well as a note “In memory of Humphrey the precentor” right below it (Fig. 9). The apparent significance to the community may well be the reason why a curse was added.
Book curses raise a lot of interesting questions. Were they indeed favoured for books of special significance? Are we to understand their presence as a sign that librarians and book owners really thought the inscriptions were effective? And if they were, why not place them in all books contained in the library? No matter the answers to these queries, there is a certain optimism embedded in such notations: the writer of the note apparently believed that a gentle reminder would bring potential thieves around and they might consequently not take the object.
Interestingly, the same optimism is echoed by inscriptions that ask the finder or thief of a book to return the object to its rightful owner. A Middle English note reads: “Ho so me fond er ho so me took I am // jon Fosys Boke” (Whoever found me or whoever took me, I am John Foss’s book) (Fig. 10, information taken from this article).
Notes like this bring us back to Starbucks, where I have seen similar requests stuck to the wall: whoever took my iPad, please return it, or at least return the files on it. Just as in modern times, medieval books were likely also not often returned. In fact, the example of John Foss’s book gives us reason for pessimism: in the inscription the name is written on erasure, meaning that an earlier name, of a previous owner, was erased with a knife. Curiously, this makes John Foss the potential thief of this book. If this is indeed the case, the thief identifies himself by altering the very book curse that was aimed at people like him.
Post-scriptum: more on chained libraries in this post and on the one in Zutphen here. The link to the image of the curse related to the Church of St Caecilia was provided by Elizabeth Archibald (@Elizarchibald).