Don't Touch This Book

by Christine Hearn
Illustrations by Eric Sangwine

Medieval curses to protect precious print

The purple devils in Eric Sangwine’s painting carry a blunt message: if you fold down a corner of the page, the devil will toast you; if you make a mark, the devil will roast you; and if you steal the book, the devil will cook you. Oh, yes, and if the big purple devils don’t get you, what about all the thousands of little green ones at their feet? It’s enough to make anyone take care of the books in their possession.

And that was exactly the intent. In the Middle Ages when books were very rare – so rare they were worth their weight in gold – it was common for curses to be inscribed somewhere on the book to deter thieves. Books were written on vellum (made from calfskin) and were such valuable commodities that one book sold by the bishop of London raised a king’s ransom, almost enough money to free King Richard I from incarceration in Austria on his way from a crusade in the Holy Land. The most treasured books were written on vellum that came from calves owned by the king.

in the middle ages when books were very rare ... it was common for curses to be inscribed somewhere on the book to deter thieves.

Eric Sangwine first got interested in medieval curses while working on his master’s degree in history at SFU. “This would go back to 1973 or ’74,” he recalls. “I found the curses fascinating and just sort of filed the idea of them away.”

After SFU, Sangwine completed library school and worked for many years in Ontario libraries. But he says art (and possibly the medieval curse) was always in the back of his mind, so he quit his job and went to the Ontario College of Art, where he completed his degree in 1990, winning the David L. Stevenson Scholarship in Drawing and Painting.
While going to art school he got part-time work doing library programming for children and is now a children’s librarian with the Oshawa Public Library. The curses became a subject for his art and also a teaching aid in his work with children.

“The curses are an opportunity for me to help show kids the value of books,” he says. “Kids respond well to illustrations, so I researched the words for the curses – note the original spelling as they didn’t have dictionaries in medieval times – and then let my imagination and my knowledge of the Middle Ages have free rein.”

The kinder, gentler curse in Sangwine’s painting above takes the form of a plea from Eleanor Worcester – if she loses the book and you find it, she asks that you take some pains to return it to her. Eleanor lived a privileged life (or she wouldn’t have had a book) and the illustration shows a number of things that likely were part of that world: the musicians, the bird-filled pie, the castle walls, the hawk, and the belief in unicorns, griffins, and dragons.

The two curses shown here are part of a set of four recently featured on TV Ontario’s Imprint program for the arts. The set was also displayed at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information science during the faculty’s 75th birthday in February. A fifth curse painting appeared in the fall 2001 issue of Access, the magazine of the Ontario Library Association.

Eric Sangwine (right) has an affinity for both libraries and the medieval world. His mother, Jean Sangwine, was a librarian at SFU, and Eric worked in the library while attending the university. He became enthralled with the Middle Ages while completing his master’s degree in history at SFU. Now a resident of Ontario, Sangwine says he really misses British Columbia.