9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

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It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.

1. DEATH BY FRYING PAN

A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”

2. "A WORSE END"

A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”

3. "THE MOST SAINTED MARTYR WILL BE THE ACCUSER"

A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

4. "OUT WITH HIS EYES"

Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as Medievalists.net notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"

5. "DAMNED AND CURSED FOREVER"

A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “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.”

6. "YOU DESERVED THIS WOE"

This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"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."

7. "CURSED FROM THE MOUTH OF GOD"

This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”

8. "I WISH SHE MAY BE DROUNED"

A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."

9. "THE GALLOWS BE YR END"

An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”

BONUS: TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

10 'Nuts' That Aren't Actually Nuts

None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
margouillatphotos/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Who doesn’t love a pedantic houseguest? Next time you’re at a dinner party and someone breaks out the mixed nuts, seize the moment and let everyone know that a lot of the tasty treats we call nuts don’t actually merit the title. Botanists define a “nut” as a dry, one-seeded fruit encased in a hardened ovary wall (called a pericarp). Genuine nuts are fused to their shells and won’t naturally break open upon reaching maturity. Hazelnuts fit the criteria. So do chestnuts. But these ever-popular snack foods sure don’t.

1. Peanuts

The star ingredient of America's favorite nut butter isn't actually a nut. Instead, peanuts are considered legumes, along with soybeans, lentils, and chickpeas. Unlike nuts, most legumes come in self-opening pods—which may or may not grow underground, depending on the species. 

2. Almonds

A group of almonds in wood bowl atop a rustic table
These almonds formed inside a fleshy fruit.
onairjiw/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Almonds are seeds found within the fleshy, peach-like fruits of the Asian Prunus dulcis tree. They’ve earned a spot on our list because actual nuts don’t come wrapped up in softened fruit matter. So how do botanists classify almonds? As drupe seeds. Briefly stated, a drupe is a soft fruit with a hard inner shell. (Think peach pits.)

3. Cashews

Like almonds, cashews are drupe seeds pulled from soft fruit packages. The trail mix staples poke out of red, yellow, or green “cashew apples” that grow on South American trees. Cashew seeds are naturally protected by a toxin-coated outer shell that's roasted to neutralize the acid. In spite of this defense mechanism, the yummy snacks were soon embraced by Portuguese explorers and distributed across the globe.

4. Walnuts

A squirrel eating walnuts in a park
The walnuts this squirrel is noshing on are drupes, not nuts.
Serhii Ivashchuk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Hey look, it’s another member of the drupe clan! Walnuts inhabit green fruit on temperate trees in the genus Juglans. Most of the seeds that end up on American dining room tables come from the English walnut tree, Juglans regia [PDF]. Even if you don’t eat the drupes, you can probably find a use for them: Walnut shells have been incorporated into everything from cosmetic products to kitty litter.

5. Pine nuts

About 20 pine tree species—including the Italian stone pine—produce big seeds that get harvested en masse. Those seeds are removed from cones in a meticulous process, which accounts for their high selling prices.

5. Brazil Nuts

You’ll encounter Brazil nuts all over the Amazon rainforest, in such countries as Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and (of course) Brazil. They come from a hardened 4-to-6-pound pod containing up to two dozen seeds that might become trees someday. The pods are so hefty, getting bonked on the head by a falling one is enough to stun or even kill you.  Surprisingly, Brazil Nuts can also be fairly radioactive thanks to the trees' roots, which grow deep within radium-rich soil.

7. Macadamia Nuts

Rows of trees at an Australian Macadamia orchard
An Australian macadamia orchard filled with the country's native drupe.
oxime/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Gympie, Queensland, has an odd claim to fame: Approximately 70 percent of all the macadamia nuts on Earth are descended from trees grown in the Australian town. Macadamias are an ecological staple in Queensland and New South Wales. But—stop us if this sounds familiar—their so-called “nuts” are drupes.

8. Pistachios

Not only are pistachios drupes, but they’ve got shells that automatically open with a literal popping noise once the contents reach a certain size. When all’s said and done, though, at least pistachios are Frank Drebin-approved.

9. Pecans

The Algonquian term for “nut that requires a stone to crack” gave us the English word pecan. Wild pecans can be gathered in Mexico and the United States—they’re true North American treasures. Name origin aside, they can’t accurately be called nuts. Botanists usually refer to them as drupes, but because of their tough shells, the label “drupaceous nuts” might be more appropriate. Either way, pecans aren’t true nuts. They make for great pies, though.

10. Coconuts

A monkey sticks out its tongue while eating a coconut
This cheeky monkey seems to be enjoying its delicious drupe.
Volga2012/iStock via Getty Images Plus

A drupe of unusual size, the coconut is a fibrous juggernaut that bears a single seed. The whitish fleshy interior can be immersed in hot water and then rung out through a cloth to produce coconut milk. Meanwhile, the outer shells are responsible for some of the most delightfully bizarre Guinness World Records categories, such as “most green coconuts smashed with the head in one minute.” (You can see other unusual Guinness World Record categories here.)

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