Book curses, the scribblings of children, and errant paw prints are just a few clues that show us more about the lives of medieval book owners. Here, historian Deborah E Thorpe considers the owners and readers of the Middle Ages who left behind some weird and wonderful evidence
There’s something special about buying a new book, whether its grabbing a bestseller at the airport or waiting patiently in a queue to pick up a new release. It’s a treat to choose one from a pile of identical copies, take it home, inhale the scent of new paper, and feel the crackling pleasure-pain sensation of being the first to test its spine.
Laying hands on an old book has a kind of magic too, though. As it is opened, it wafts the smell of aged paper into the air. Leafing through its pages, it surrenders evidence that it was once held by another set of hands. Its flyleaves might bear an inscription, perhaps recording that it was a gift: “To my beloved Elizabeth, Christmas 1929”. Its corners may have been folded and unfolded again, tracking a reader’s progress through the text. A coffee or wine stain might suggest that somebody should have been more careful.
Though many of us have been guilty of neglecting books – leaving them open spine down, accidentally ripping them, or dropping them in the bath – we tend to treat them with a degree of reverence. Much of the harm done to books is the collateral damage of everyday life. They are battered around in the bottom of bags as the owner seeks snatches of time to read them on the bus, for instance.
In contrast, intentional book disfigurement is frowned upon. Book burning stirs up powerful feelings as it is perceived as an affront to the cultural knowledge that books contain. Students are forbidden to annotate library books with pen or highlighter (though they often do anyway, to the disgruntlement of the next lender). In addition, the usual habitat of the modern book is in libraries, book shops, and prescribed areas within our living spaces (on book shelves, or on the bedside table). These are relatively safe spaces for our books, being dry, clean and, increasingly, smoke free. Thus, the historic rules of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, forbidding readers bring fire into the library “or kindle therein any fire or flame”, seem somewhat antiquated. Despite this, the library still insists that readers agree to them.
But before the 20th century, there was a real concern that a book could be burnt accidentally by a careless student with a candle. Looking further back into the history of books, into the Middle Ages, their safe storage and use was even more difficult. Medieval people shared their living spaces with a broader range of creatures than we typically do today. Thus, a book was likely to be walked over by a cat, nibbled by a hungry rat, or burrowed into by a worm. In addition, pricey handwritten books might be stolen by an enemy or permanently ‘borrowed’ by a friend. Thus, medieval owners and readers left some weird and wonderful evidence of their existence in their books, ranging from angry book curses, to wine spillages, to the footprints of their chickens. These marks are unique, often unintentional, and sometimes humorous, records of the everyday lives of historical people.
Due to the prodigious effort and expensive materials involved in the production of a book, it was a valuable possession. Being able to invest in a lavish illuminated manuscript was a showy display of your wealth. Therefore, once a medieval owner had spent their money commissioning and acquiring a book, they wanted to ensure that it remained in their possession. Thus, the scribe would often include a short curse, or anathema, before or after the text, promising torture, death, hellish damnation, or a combination of the three, to anyone who attempted to disfigure or steal it. Alternatively, the owner would inscribe the curse themselves – often in a much less practiced hand – adding their name as a way of stamping their identity on the book
Some book curses threatened a grisly death to any potential book thief, as is the case in one manuscript in the British Library’s collection: “If any person steals this book, / He shall be hanged by a hook.” A subsequent reader or owner was unsatisfied with this mode of punishment, so inserted underneath: “or by the neck with a rope.”
Unlike locked chests and chained libraries, which physically secured books with their rightful owners, these curses depended on the religious beliefs of the potential thief – his or her fear of the repercussions of their actions. Some inscriptions took a more optimistic tone. One states: “whoever found me or whoever took me, I am John Foss’s book”, a hopeful plea that the thief would feel compelled to return it. Either that, or they would fear that the stolen book might be traced back to its rightful owner (the medieval equivalent of indelible ink). However, the original name has been scratched out, and the name ‘John Foss’ is a later addition. Perhaps, as the book historian Erik Kwakkel has speculated, John Foss himself was a book thief.
Recognising that some thieves might need a monetary incentive to return the book, some inscriptions advertised a reward. These were amnesties rather than threats, offering the opportunity to claim that the book had been ‘found’ rather than stolen. For instance, a manuscript owned by a woman called Joan Holland in the late 16th century promises a guilt-free penny for he or she who ‘finds’ her lost book: “If it is lost and it you find, / I pray you be so good and kind, / As to let her have her book again, / And you shall have no worse, / But a penny to put in your purse.”
Paw prints and fowl play
Medieval books were vulnerable even before they had left the desk of their scribe. However, because books were expensive, no scribe would discard a book unless the damage was very serious. As each book was a unique product of human effort, a certain degree of individuality was expected in medieval manuscripts. Doctoral student Emir O. Filipović has argued that one 14th-century scribe was interrupted by his cat, who stood in his ink container before pouncing on the book. The mischievous feline left paw prints all over the recently-completed pages and the scribe could do nothing other than shrug his shoulders and continue with his work. This is a likely story, since medieval scribes treated their errors with pragmatism, simply scratching or crossing out mistakes and moving on.
However, in this case it is unlikely that the cat pounced while the scribe was still at work – the positioning of the prints shows that the book had already been bound and finished at this point. Perhaps it was left lying open whilst the scribe worked on another copy nearby. Or, as medieval linguist Kate Wiles suggests, he had left it out while he went out for lunch. Either way, this book is charming evidence for the close relationship between medieval people and animals. This continued after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, as we see in the case of one printed Bible. This particular book has survived since the 16th century, complete with a set of muddy bird’s footprints, perhaps made by a chicken, all over a spread of pages.
Children will be children
A Dutch writer of the 16th century issued a stern warning about children and precious books: “One should not let children learn from any books that one wants to preserve. Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or it is ruined.”
Clearly these were not always heeded, since one 14th-century book, originally written in a monastery in Italy, contains several childlike doodles in its margins. These comical drawings feature humans with elongated legs, square heads, and simplified facial features, and a strange horse or cow. These are not likely to have been inscribed by the monks who made the manuscript. In fact, the stylistic features of these figures suggest that they were doodled by two different children, perhaps siblings. It seems like medieval books often found their way to children – book historian Johanna Green has unearthed more strange creatures in a manuscript, possibly also the work of young hands.
Eyeglasses were probably invented in the 13th century, and depictions of them are common in depictions of medieval scribes and readers. Some medieval books contain more physical evidence of the use of eyeglasses by their readers. Micah Irwin found one example in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, where a pair of spectacles had been shut between two leaves for an extended period, leaving an impression on both leaves.
These fascinating pieces of evidence offer tantalising glimpses into the lives of the readers who picked up and touched medieval manuscripts. What evidence will we leave behind in our books?
Deborah Thorpe is a research associate at the University of York. Her current research focuses on ageing and neurological disorders in medieval scribes
This article was first published on History Extra in June 2017