Safeguarding Your Book

Medieval books were time consuming and expensive to produce, which rendered many almost impossible to replace. Bibles, liturgical books, and standard university texts could be replaced with effort and expense, but less widely circulated works and volumes that contained multiple texts could be literally irreplaceable. In an age with limited communications and few substantial libraries, locating another copy of an unusual book might well have been impossible.

Given these difficulties, it is hardly surprising that medieval book owners worried about the possibility of theft and therefore attempted to guard their holdings against it. Throughout the Middle Ages, denunciations of book thieves were included in Latin as well as vernacular texts.

Takamiya MS 125: Homiliae in evangelia

Takamiya MS 125. Gregorius Magnus, Homiliae in evangelia, libri II. Italy, Piacenza, second half of twelfth century.

Takamiya MS 125 contains an anathema directed against anyone who might steal Pope Gregory the Great’s Homiliae in evangelia from the Cistercian abbey of Santa Maria della Columba. Of the thief who would steal or otherwise cause this volume to be lost, the fragment declares, “Anathema sit” (let him be cursed). This leaf containing the anathema is the only trace left of what must have been an impressive manuscript.

Takamiya MS 4: Mirrour of the blessed lyf of Jesu Christ

Takamiya MS 4. Nicholas Love, Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. England, c. 1450.

Substantial volumes were the most likely to contain anathemas. Takamiya MS 4 is an excellent, complete copy of Nicholas Love’s popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ bound with several other devotional poems and texts. This unique combination of texts would have made it challenging to re-create. Perhaps that inspired the ferocity of its owner, Erkynwalld Gyttyn, who threatens earthly punishment rather than eternal damnation: “He that stellys yt shalbe hangyd on a hooke.”

Takamiya MS 114: Polychronicon

Takamiya MS 114. Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon. England, late fifteenth century.

For those unwilling to rely on curses, however stern, there were chains. Takamiya MS 114, a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, is an excellent example of a chained book, though its present binding is post-medieval. Chaining was particularly favored in libraries at schools or cathedrals, where multiple people would have access to the collection. Chains secured to a bookcase were generally attached at a corner or back of a book’s cover, and the books usually were shelved with the fore-edge facing out to prevent tangling.

Safeguarding Your Book