book curses reduce exchange value

book curse from ex libris C. J. Peacock

Book curses attempt to protect books from damage and theft.  A book printed in Paris in 1502 has written on its inner upper cover:

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.[1]

While it has terrifying terms, this curse has communicative force only for potential thieves or an actual thief.  Others can’t tell whether the book was stolen.

A book curse that specifies the book owner has broader communicative effect.  An owner-specified book curse communicates the curse to those who find the book in the possession of someone other than the specified owner.  For example, along with specifying its owner, C. J. Peacock’s “peacock” bookplate contains a book curse:

Who folds a leafe downe ye divel {devil} toaste browne
who makes mark or blotte ye divel roaste hot
who stealeth this boke ye divel shall cooke.[2]

A book written before 1327 similarly contains an owner-identified curse:

This book belongs to St. Mary of Robert’s Bridge; whoever steals it, or sells it, or takes it away from this house in any way, or injures it, let him be anathema-maranatha.

Sensitive to others’ perspective, a different owner of this book added in 1327 this inscription:

I, John, Bishop of Exeter, do not know where the said house is: I did not steal this book, but got it lawfully.[3]

A better lawyer would have included in the subject of the book curse, “{whoever…} or buys it, or acquires it in any way, including but not limited to, transactions lawful under the jurisdiction of {insert jurisdiction favorable to the client}.”  With good enough lawyering and a credible enough public, a book curse could prevent a book’s circulation and reduce its exchange value to zero.

W.S. Merwin’s book curse doesn’t prevent his book from circulating.  Merwin wrote in one of his books:

a dark shadow will follow anyone who steals this book from the library where it belongs

That curse is on the title page with a book label for a public library.  Hence Merwin’s book curse doesn’t impede the public circulation of his book.

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[1] In the Book of Hours of Simon Vostre of Paris, Paris PML 18206.  Originally written in old French.  Drogin (1983) p. 88-9.

[2] In Charles Kelsall, Classical excursion from Rome to Arpino (Geneva: 1820), copy in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), displayed in the exhibit, In the Library: Marks of Ownership, Jan. 9-Apr. 20, 2012.

[3] This and previous book curse originally in Latin.  For both, see Drogin (1983) pp. 91-2.  Maranatha in “anathema-maranatha” intensifies the curse.


Drogin, Marc. 1983. Anathema!: medieval scribes and the history of book curses. Totowa, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun.

2 thoughts on “book curses reduce exchange value”

  1. I am offering a book with an exlibris on pastedown with the above described Peacock provenance.
    Can I quote this article?
    van Vliet

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