In the Middle Ages, books were protected by curses, not electronic security systems. Long before the printing press, books were all hand-written manuscripts using specially treated sheepskin, called velum. In those days, monks would obviously have to hand-copy books. Often one manuscript would take several weeks, with a monk hand copying the manuscript and working nine hours per day. Having spent so much effort, some monks would write a personal comment to protect their work. For example, Brother Leot of Navara wrote in the 10th century:
"Reader, turn the leaves gently,
wash your hands,
and if you must hold the book,
cover it with your tunic."
Steal not this Book for
fear of shame for there
doth stand the owners
name for when you die
the Lord will say were [sic]
is that Book you stole
Feb. 11th, 1878
from Francis Henry Wood's Echoes of the Night (London: 1873)
A CURSE AGAINST STEALERS OF BOOKS
For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a
serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all
his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for
mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to
dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that
dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of
hell consume him forever & aye.
Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona
Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne
who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hotte
who stealeth thisse booke
ye divel shall cooke.
from the bookplate of one C. J. Peacock
Some curses were short poems, as in:
May the sword of anathema slay
If anyone steals this book away.
Or, in the same vein, a curse in verse:
If anyone steal it, let him be anathema!
Whoever finds fault with it, let him be accursed.
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.
from Marc Drogin's Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (1983).
By him who bought me for his own,
I'm lent for reading leaf by leaf;
If honest, you'll return the loan,
If you retain me, you're a thief.
Neither blemish this book, nor the leaves double down,
Nor lend it to each idle friend in town;
Return it when read, or, if lost, please supply
Another as good to the mind and the eye.
from William J. Hardy's Bookplates (1972).
more curses on book thieves: