When books were rare and precious objects, their owners protected them with curses to deter thieves and vandals. We should adopt that same attitude of repugnance toward modern-day censors.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We take it for granted that books are common objects. It’s easy to find one on any subject you want to read about.

You can patronize your favorite bookstore, where the shelves are stacked floor to ceiling with books. You can borrow a treasure trove of books from your local public library for free. Or you can buy anything you want from an online bookseller with an infinite virtual catalog and have it on your doorstep in a few days.

This casual abundance makes it easy to overlook how good we’ve got it. Book lovers of past eras had a much harder time. Until very recently in human history, books were rare and precious treasures.

Before Gutenberg

For thousands of years, from the dawn of literacy until the invention of movable type (1450 in Europe, and several centuries earlier in China), the only way to copy a scroll or a book was by hand, one letter a time.

It was a slow, arduous task requiring the labor of trained scribes. Imagine a medieval scriptorium: rows of monks working by candlelight in unheated rooms, writing with quill pens and ink they made themselves from local pigments. Imagine the straining eyes, the aching backs, the cramping hands. One marginal note, written in a medieval manuscript by the copyist, gives a sense of the labor involved: “Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake, give me a drink!”

Even the parchment that books were written on was a valuable commodity. It was made from calfskin, and it might require the slaughter of dozens or hundreds of calves to yield enough for an entire book. There was good reason not to waste it. This led to the creation of palimpsests: a book whose previous writing was erased, washed or scraped off, so that the precious parchment could be reused for something new.

These palimpsests are a treasure trove for modern scholars. With multispectral imaging, we can read the older, nearly-invisible traces of letters underneath the newer writing. Some ancient manuscripts are only known from these remnants.

Because books were so laborious to produce, the copyists made each one an object of beauty. Many surviving ancient texts are illuminated manuscripts, decorated with elaborate border art and illustrations, sometimes made with gold or silver leaf. A particularly elaborate book like the Lindisfarne Gospels might have taken as long as ten years to craft.

All the work required meant that books were luxuries of the very rich. And to top it all off, books were fragile. Unlike, say, a marble statue or an iron tool, they could easily be destroyed by fire, by water, by rot, or by simple thoughtless vandalism. All that staggering labor could be erased in moments—and often was. (The sum total of written material in Old English comes from a mere four books that survived the centuries.)

Naturally, people who owned books were fiercely protective of them. After you’d gone to the trouble of getting a book copied for your collection, you’d be more than a little piqued if someone borrowed it and never gave it back.

“Let him be fried in a pan”

This inspired one of my favorite literary inventions: the book curse.

Scribes would write these curses at the beginning or end of a book. Like Egyptian pharaohs’ curses on anyone who desecrated their tombs, they promised an awful fate for anyone who stole the book, damaged it, mutilated it, or borrowed it and didn’t return it to the owner.

A short book curse might threaten book thieves with excommunication, damnation or general wrath of God, like this one: “May the sword of anathema slay / If anyone steals this book away.”

However, they could also be longer and more inventive. A more detailed one went like this:

“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.”

Marc Drogin, Anathema: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, quoted in Atlas Obscura

Another one reads:

“To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’
Remember, you deserved this woe.”

Medieval people were seriously hardcore about protecting their books.

The evil of book burners

Of course, book curses weren’t magic spells. They had no power outside the superstitious fear they inspired in potential thieves. On the other hand, that’s why the concept is brilliant. The kind of person who’d want to steal a book, presumably, also cares deeply for the written word. That’s the same kind of person who’d be most likely to believe that words have supernatural power to inflict harm on wrongdoers.

Aside from antiques and rare editions, books aren’t so scarce anymore. On the contrary, we’re positively drowning in words. There are more books published than anyone could read in a lifetime. For the first time in history, our biggest problem isn’t finding books, but choosing which ones to read.

We live in a world those candlelit medieval scribes could scarcely have imagined. Even still, there’s something we can learn from them. The lengths they went to to safeguard their precious books—and the violent hatred they felt for thieves and vandals—is an attitude we’d do well to reclaim.

In those ancient times, it was a special kind of evil to burn or otherwise destroy a book. To do so would be to consign countless hours of labor, sweat and devotion to the flames. It was all too possible to erase a book from existence by destroying every copy.

Nowadays, book burning and censorship are merely symbolic acts. The internet enables endless digital replication, perpetual archiving and virtually free distribution, all protected by encryption if necessary. It makes wannabe book destroyers’ efforts perfectly futile. Anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge, or a little bit of money, can read any book they want with very little effort.

Even so, we should hold to the view that to burn a book—literally or metaphorically—is one of the worst crimes you can commit. To keep knowledge out of the hands of those who come seeking it is a grave sin, in the secular sense of the word. Only those with truly depraved souls would attempt such a deed.

Books are accelerators

A book is a distillation of knowledge. It condenses months or years of research into a product that can be read and absorbed in a few hours. Because of this wonderful power, books were the first accelerators that sped up the pace of human progress. The more and more widely we read, the better equipped we are to comprehend the world and to see through others’ eyes. We can each be the beneficiary of many lifetimes’ worth of progress, far more than any one individual could rediscover on their own.

It’s this acceleration that book burners and book censors want to prevent. They want to keep us all tied to a single view of the world, a single set of ideas. Every book that challenges the status quo, that proposes new ways of seeing, is a mortal threat to them. When they come knocking to take the books from our hands, we know what to say to them, courtesy of our medieval forebears. We ought to have our book curses at the ready for any who want to defile the temple of knowledge.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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