Medieval Book Curses

Medieval Book Curses by Catherine T Wilson

Life in a medieval society could be both simple and contrary. As quoted by author Barbara Tuchman1 ‘any statement of fact about the Middle Ages may (and probably will) be met by a statement of the opposite or a different version.’ We know their lifestyle was based upon an explicit hierarchy and failure to comply could result in serious consequences. There was feudal law, civil law and when that failed to keep order, religious law often intervened to overrule or frighten a subject into compliance for the church could hold your very soul to ransom. When practical measures failed, fear of damnation could hold sway and this gave the monks who laboured long hours in the scriptoriums a unique way to protect their work from thieves.

Fig 1 – Monks in scriptorium – Photo by Cathy T © – Mont St Michel

The law of copyright would not exist until the 18th century. In order to protect their precious books from thieves, religious houses used a practical method of chaining their volumes to fixtures. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will have recently seen Sam Tarly working around the chained books in the Citadel’s library in Oldtown. This was not merely fiction – an example of such a library exists at Hereford in the UK.


                             Fig. 2 and 3 – Chained Library at Hereford – Christopher Furlong/Gerry Images Europe

                                              Fig 4 – A chained book –  University of Kansas, Spencer Library, MS D84
                                   (This book is a bound manuscript dated circa 1370. The text is Sermones de sanctis, writings of Frater Soccus, a monk from the Cistercian order.)

                                                                                  Fig 5 – Sam Tarly in the Oldtown Library

(I once read a comment where a lady said ‘I wish my partner would look at me the way Sam Tarly looks at books!)

If chaining books wasn’t enough to deter would-be thieves then there was one other path open to them – the insertion of a curse, usually on the first page or as part of the colophon, there to forever reside within the volume like a sentinelled demon. If punishment to the body via common law wasn’t enough to dissuade a criminal, perhaps the idea of chastisement to the eternal soul could.

Book and parchment curses date back to ancient times, one of the earliest coming from a 7th century Assyrian king who placed them on his clay tablets which were discovered in 1849 in a library at Ninevah.2

One of these curses states:

‘He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognise it [and] cannot make it to be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Ninevah, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of Heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth.3

Be it in Latin or vernacular, the good brothers of the Middle Ages were not afraid to apply such curses to their parchments either, calling down horrible punishments on miscreants.

To steal this book, if you should try,

It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.

And ravens then will gather ‘bout

To find your eyes and pull them out.4

In a digitised manuscript at the British Library, a Middle Dutch botanical and bestiary compilation ‘Der naturen bloeme’ (The Flower of Nature) commissioned by Nicolaas van Cats and written by Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant, included a curse written beside a cross which states that ‘its borrower swears that he/she will return the manuscript or die.’ The oath is signed by a woman, in a 14th- or 15th-century hand, who identifies herself as ‘abstetrix heifmoeder (obstetrix: midwife).


Fig. 6 – The British Library – Digitised Manuscript Division – Details of an Oath f. 94v    Fig.7  The Oath

The 14th century was filled with such curses calling upon the wrath of God for sinners. In William of Nottingham’s Commentary of the Harmony of the Gospels,6 the colophon first praises the scribe and rewards him with a high-quality wine then condemns any offender with death.

Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur.’ (Death from evil things: may the thief of this book die.)

Fig 8 – William’s curse in his Commentary of the Harmony of the Gospels

Other curses call for the perpetrator to be ‘hauled up by the neck.’

‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck.’7

Another from the The Arnstein Bible8 promises to afflict the thief with torture and sickness. 

‘Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein: 

(The holy books of St Mary and St Nicholas)

Quem si quis abstulerit                          

Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur

caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur


Which translates along the lines of ‘whomsoever shall steal it or take it away, let him be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness (epilepsy) and fever attack him. May he be rotated (on a breaking wheel) and hanged. Amen.’

And a curse from a monastery in Rochester for anyone who dares to steal the Book of Distinctiones9 will mean his own name shall be deleted from the Book of Life, a tome in which the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement are recorded. That is definitely a one-way ticket ‘down’ after death!

And if that wasn’t enough, then there were plenty of illuminations to reinforce the idea of eternal damnation (a very popular medieval concept) like early Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico’s ‘Last Judgement,’ the right-hand side clearly showing the horrors that awaited sinners in hell.

Fig. 9 – Fra Angelico, Last Judgment, 1431-1435, tempera on wood.  Museo di San Marco, Florence


Fig. 10 – Details of the right side panel top half – and bottom half – Fra Angelico, Last Judgment, 1431-1435, tempera on wood.  Museo di San Marco, Florence

Or this in the New Minster Liber Vitae 10 in Winchester showing 11th century drawings of the Last Judgement, where angels lead souls to St Peter, two saints watch on as St Peter and a demon fight over a soul and the Archangel Michael locking the door as a demon drops the damned into the mouth of a beast in hell. (And the number of the beast is … )

Fig 12 –   New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, ff.

And last but by no means least, a manuscript11 depicting what horrors were waiting – torture, being eaten, hot oil poured onto genitals or boiled alive in a huge cauldron. Take your pick! (Is that book worth all of this later?)

Fig 13 – Hours, chiefly in Latin, containing Calendar. Fr. f. 1.  Hours of the Virgin, f. 20. Penitential Psalms and Litany,f 89. ‘Les heures de la …’

There are many more depictions, most condemning the perpetrators of crime directly to hell, such was the feeling of abhorrence to thievery of God’s work. I am sure today’s authors might feel the same.

Having discovered such a wonderful medieval custom, I could not resist inserting our own curse into The Traitor’s Noose, the fourth book in our Lions and Lilies series. This curse is no kinder than its Middle Age predecessors and the warning comes in the book’s ‘own words.’

From my spine to yours, a word of warning,

If you think to harm me, be it night, noon or morning,

I feel I should tell you if you have evil intent,

That I am protected by a potent enchantment.

Terrible things will happen until they cannot be worse,

This is the power of a medieval book curse.


When my authors learned of this, like cocks on a midden,

They crowed with delight and a curse was hidden,

Within these pages, from quill to sword,

Double-edged and sharp, to any lady or lord,

Who thinks to plunder is honourable – it’s not!

So, if you are tempted, I beg you to stop.


Like witches around a cauldron, my authors chanted and weaved,

A conjuration so shocking, it’s hard to believe,

Such words could pass the lips of these gentile dames,

But I swear on my binding, they were not playing games.

They called down a plague, a scourge, damnation,

Condemnation and castration to ensure ruination.


Should you mark me, or rip me, or steal my contents,

You will find yourself in the devil’s presence.

This invocation is no jest, it’s proven fact,

The 14th Century protected my relatives like that.

From my first page to my last and every parchment betwixt,

Is steeped in sorcery, on my oath, this is no trick.


My innards are sacred, my humour sublime,

But do me an injury and given time,

You will begin to notice that all is not well,

As you slide down the path which leads straight into Hell.

May your eyes fall out and hair, teeth and nails

As the prettier elements of this incantation prevails.


So, read me and love me, but don’t tamper with my text,

Or you will find yourself bewitched by a terrible hex,

And it’s not only me but my siblings too,

Books One, Two and Three, I tell you true.

Lions and Lilies is protected by a divine light,

And a tiny curse safeguarding medieval copyright.

By Catherine T Wilson ©



  1. A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century – (forward xvii)
  2. Norton, Jeremy. “Knowledge as Power: The Earliest Systematically Collected Library as Distinct from an Archive (668 BCE – 627 BCE)”History of Information.
  3. Libraries in the ancient world. Casson, L. (2001).New Haven: Yale University Press., 2001, pp. 13-14
  4. Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses – Marc Drogin, Page 78.
  5. The British Library – digitised manuscripts division (Add MS 11390)
  6. William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r
  7. From the church of St Aldate in Gloucester (Add MS 30506) f. 170r
  8. The Arnstein BibleHarley MS 2798
  9. The Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r
  10. New Minster Liber Vitae,Stowe MS 944, ff. 6v–7r

  1. Hours, chiefly in Latin, containing Calendar. Fr. f. 1. Hours of the Virgin, f. 20. Penitential Psalms and Litany,f 89. ‘Les heures de la …’

Blog by Cathy T Wilson

The Traitor’s Noose has been shortlisted in Chanticleer’s Chaucer Award and Cathy T and Cathy A will be attending the CAC -2018 Chanticleer conference in Bellingham, USA in April this year with fingers crossed for a fourth win!




Lions and Lilies Advent Calendar for 2017 – Merry Christmas!


Competition Details (for Aussie Residents Only – Sorry!)

Would you like to win one of the four books in the series? Welcome to our Christmas competition. On the even dates (Dec 2, 4, 6, etc) there are two hidden figures in each picture – a little girl and a little boy (see separate picture for details). Like most women, ‘Cecile’ chooses to change her dress to match the picture. Gillet, on the other hand, is far less imaginative and has only two outfits and two poses.

All you have to do is find and describe where each figure is hidden for the twelve dates (a magic number – 12 apostles, 12 signs of the zodiac, Viking God Odin had 12 sons, King Arthur subdued 12 rebel princes and of course, Twelfth Night following the 12 days of Christmas) Send us these locations by Jan 7 via email (attach a doc if you like) to

It may help to download the picture so you can zoom in but also we’ll let you know when an ‘obvious’ character is not the hidden figure. Have fun!

Sorry but due to the extremely high postal costs in Australia, this competition can only be open to Aussie residents.

Lions and Lilies


The hidden figures will look like one of these.

The various hidden figures


December 24 download


Dec 24


Decemeber 23 dove


Dec 23


December 22 bow


Dec 22


December 21 images-14


Dec 17


December 20  images-23


Dec 20


December 19 images-24


Dec 11

December 18 bells

NB.  The two male figures in white at the bottom of the picture (representing Gillet and Armand) are not the hidden figures.

Dec 18


December 17 download-10


Dec 5



December 16  images-20


Dec 16


December 15  holly_ribbon1

Dec 21


December 14 holly



 Dec 14

December 13 garland

Dec 15

December 12 

December 11 

December 10 

December 9 

December 8 

December 7 

December 6 

December 5 

December 4 

December 3 

December 2 

December 1 


All 4 covers for small use


Lions and Lilies – by Catherine T Wilson and Catherine A Wilson


Halloween is coming!

By Cathy T

Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve – the time the land is dying (summer is ending) and winter approaches … No! Don’t make me say it …. Oh, okay – Winter is coming!

Did you ever wonder how the change of seasons became known as All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween? It started as a feast to celebrate the end of summer or ‘Samhain’ to acknowledge the coming difficulties that winter would surely bring. Here then, is Lions and Lilies salute to Halloween…


The orchards are spent and the leaves are falling. The wind whispers from the north and darkness approaches in the cycle of life and land. The earth hails the approaching winter whereupon it will sleep beneath a layer of snow until the season of rebirth. During this ‘dying of the land’ the sunlight diminishes and the veil between the ‘world of the living’ and the ‘world of the dead’ grows thinner with each night.


In order to protect themselves against the coming winter and its devastations, villagers celebrate the feast of Samhain (summer’s end), the last harvest.



In the Middle Ages people were well aware that their livelihood depended on the land. The Gaelic calendar recognised this with four main festivals, Imbolc (spring), Beltane (summer), Lughnasadh (harvest season also known as Lammas), and Samhain (the onset of winter). Cattle were brought down from the summer pastures for slaughter and great bonfires were lit for the rituals of cleansing and protection.


It was also seen as a time when the spirits or fairies could enter the human world on All Hallows Eve – cross over to visit the living or perhaps, wreak havoc.

Samhain cropped

The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes and feasts were held where the ancestors were beckoned to a place set at the table just for them.

Image 6

Eventually there arose the custom of the living dressing up in disguise so that they could not be distinguished from the dead and have their souls snatched prematurely.

As Christianity took over the pagan beliefs, Pope Gregory I issued an edict (601 AD) to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.


In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints Day to November 1st, while November 2nd became All Souls Day (for the souls awaiting full sanctification and moral perfection in Purgatory so they may gain entrance into Heaven) in line with the Celtic tradition of Samhain. The Triduum of All Hallows being Samhain or All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day was known as Hallowmas but eventually became just Halloween (Oct 31).

The feasting was a typical medieval event, much food, drink, games and fraternising.



One game played at Samhain called for a noble at the high table to be disguised as King Crispin. Dressed in magnificent robes, crowned and flourishing a sceptre, he wears a heavy chain around his neck. Attached is a large medallion with the design of one big boot. King Crispin, (really Saint Crispin) is the patron saint of Cordwainers – cobblers, tanners and leatherwork (Cordwain or Cordovan leather from Spain). Since Saint Crispin’s Day is only a few days beforehand (Oct 25th – also linked with the battle of Azincourt 1415) the two were often combined.


Seven people who will be the ‘soulers’ have their masks ready (note the use of the Templar number seven).  At some point during the evening, the soulers will put on their masks and, carrying a small basket, set out to collect soul cakes. Walking briskly though the hall, the soulers will chant:

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for Him who made us all.

If you haven’t got a cake, an apple will do,

If you haven’t got an apple, give a pear or two,

If you haven’t got a pear, then God bless you.

Soulers, still chanting, approach guests with much hilarity to collect gifts and everyone offers their soul cake, (a flat, oval cake with currants, cinnamon and nutmeg) or a piece of fruit. The soulers threaten punishment to those who do not contribute. One can imagine how, after several hours of ale-drinking, the evening would become! Eventually the seven baskets are set beneath the bonfire candelabrum for alms distribution.


As this was the time of year for divination, another game played was ‘Apple Bobbing.’ Each apple bobbed for was given the name of a desired mate. If the bobber succeeded in biting the apple on the first try, then his/her love would thrive. If the apple was caught on the second try, love would exist only briefly. Success on the third chance meant hate and four tries or more meant no luck with that person; name another.


The game dates back to when the Romans conquered Britain. bringing with them the apple tree, a representation of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona. The combination of Pomona, a fertility goddess, and the Celts’ belief that the pentagram was a fertility symbol began the origins of bobbing for apples. When an apple is sliced in half, the seeds form a pentagram-like shape, and it is thought that the manifestation of such a symbol meant that the apple could be used to determine marriages during this time of year.


Here then are some of the ancient customs from which our modern day Halloween celebration has sprung; the dressing up, bobbing for apples and asking for candies in a basket (in place of soul cakes).

LandL blog3

By Cathy T










All 4 covers for small use

The Lily and the Lion – 1st Place Chanticleer Chatelaine Award – 2014

The Order of the Lily – 1st Place Chanticleer Chatelaine Award – 2015

The Gilded Crown – 1st Place Chanticleer Chaucer Award – 2016

The Traitor’s Noose – Entered into Chanticleer Chaucer Award – 2017



Medieval Fayres and Festivals

Imagine if you had the opportunity to step back in time to the very era that tantalises your imagination. To that place long past where the characters from your favourite book reside. To a world where you can eat, breathe and sleep just as your ancestors did.

Medieval Fayres and Festivals provide an opportunity for lovers of middle history to ‘get up close and personal’ with the period in a unique and informative way. They are also fertile grounds for authors such as Cathy T and I as we indulge our love of all things ‘medieval.’

The ‘Medieval Fayre’ is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia and commenced with the Abbey Festival in 1989. Held annually in Brisbane, the Abbey is a truly ‘authentic’ experience and promotes itself as the largest ‘living history’ event in the Southern Hemisphere.

As you step through the gates you are transported to a bygone era – nothing produced from the 19th century onwards is permitted within the Abbey grounds. The sights, sounds and smells are all genuine to the period, as are the costumes, hairstyles and weaponry of the reenactors.

Ironfest Lithgow, also held annually, celebrates multiple themes and styles. It is an eclectic mix of historical time periods and fantasy worlds where you can brush shoulders with a wookie, enjoy a rowdy melee and have your palm read by a wandering gypsy.

Enormous effort is placed on appearance, with a large proportion of visitors investing a huge amount of time and money into their steampunk outfits, robots, court couture and Viking and medieval armour. It is a feast for the eyes.

Blacktown Medieval Fayre is a relative newcomer to the festival scene, having burst onto the calendar in 2011. Blacktown is a standout for me as it includes the International Jousting Competition, with riders from New Zealand and England competing against the Aussie crew of Full Tilt Jousting.  It is also the only festival that offers free entry to visitors, attracting up to 60,000 people over 2 days.

What do I love best? Dressing up! You can’t really appreciate the restrictive nature of a medieval gown, nor the annoying drag of a heavy cloak, the weight of a crispinette or the irritation of a tight belt unless you wear them yourself.

It is easy to imagine the difficulty of balancing a heavy helm upon your head, but it is not until you put it on that you discover just how little you can see, or how the metal rubs against your ears and that the sound around you is reduced to a muffled garble.

Watching men fight, with heavy swords, is dramatic. The sound of the blades as they clash and the manner in which the weapon behaves as it connects with a chest plate has to be seen in real time.

As a writer, the opportunity to immerse myself in such a manner is absolutely invaluable and I highly recommend it to all writers, everywhere. Plus, what not to like about a day at the fayre?

Ironfest 2012

Cathy A and Cathy T at Ironfest Lithgow

Interested in attending a Medieval Festival – check the link for the Australia wide calendar of events

It’s getting closer!


‘Get out of my way! Book Four is coming soon! I want to get it first! Get out of my way, you fool!’

You get out of my way! I want to be the first to read it!’

See below to find out what all the fuss is about …

Letter Head title only 2