Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Of books, book curses, and the wrath of librarians...

Yesterday I was linked in to a conversation on Twitter about some strange and unusual markings that had been found on the front-piece of a sixteenth century book. The symbols were circular, and one was bisected by a number of lines in the form of a star. I was asked if I had come across anything similar, as the markings seemed to be a bit of a puzzle to those studying the work. The answer was 'yes - all the damned time - and I am sure I've written about it somewhere'. It turns out I had started a blog on the subject, but just never got around to finishing it. As usual. So below is a version of that blog post. I have re-written sections of it to tie in with the excellent blog written by Elizabeth DeBold from the Folger library, and hope that the bits and pieces I have found will enhance and add to what she has been looking at. I have, however, left most of the swearing in.

Since I began the graffiti project about a decade ago it quickly became clear that there were certain symbols and motifs that turned up time and time again. To begin with they were most obvious amongst the graffiti, but as the project received more publicity people started emailing and messaging me with their own findings. In many cases they were intrigued that the marks they were coming across in their own fields of research were the same as those that I and the numerous volunteers were coming across etched into buildings. Years later and the photographs keep on coming. However, amongst some of the first people to contact me were book historians and librarians, who had come across these same markings on books in their own care and were somewhat puzzled as to why they were there, and what they meant? At first it was just one or two images of books, but the numbers soon began to increase, and we all soon realised that 'something' was going on.

Bodleian Library, Ms Rawl. 141

These marks are actually far more common on books than we at first realised, and once researchers have started looking for these simple annotations they really are turning up everywhere. Often as an informal drawing on the fly-leaves, sometimes on the covers, and occasionally even hidden amongst the more formal decoration and illumination. Compass drawn motifs, pelta designs, pentangles - multiple variations upon a theme - and occasionally even combinations of symbols.

A selection of typical 'holy signs' or ritual protection marks found on buildings and objects.

These symbols are exactly the same symbols and motifs that we are finding amongst the graffiti on the walls of our historic houses,churches and cathedrals. Not just similar, but the same. It is a language or canon of symbolism that crosses just about every boundary. They can be found upon buildings, upon fonts, upon parish chests, upon beds, upon seals, upon pilgrim badges, upon jewellery, and as we have seen - upon books. They are quite literally universal in pre-reformation and early modern western Europe. To be blunt, they get bloody everywhere.
Bodleian Library, ms 57-2

So the big questions have to be - what do they mean, and what was their supposed function?

All these signs and symbols are part of a group of markings that are often referred to today as 'apotropaic' marks, or 'ritual protection marks', or more commonly misreferred to as 'witch marks'. Put simply, they are markings that are designed to ward off evil, and offer some form of 'protection'. Today a lot of people tend to class these markings as being part of some sort of superstitious practice - often referred to as 'folk magic' or 'folk belief'. However, over the last decade it has become clear that this attitude is generally a massive over simplification, and that the use of these markings and signs was fundamentally embedded within the everyday practices of the medieval church. They are used by all levels of society, including the parish priest, and turn up on a regular basis amongst the formal decoration of the orthodox church. The use of these symbols was no more a 'superstitious' practice than many of the other traditions of the early church, including the blessing of the farmer's plough, or even, dare I say it, the Mass itself.

A lot of these symbols, if not all, have their origins in the pre-Christian period. Take the six petal rosette, for example, also variously known as a 'daisy wheel', 'hexfoil', or 'geometric'. This familiar symbol is the single most common motif recorded amongst the graffiti inscriptions at the Roman site at Pompeii, where it appears to have been regarded as a symbol associated with the sun. It also turns up on Roman altars, particularly in northern Europe, and on Roman grave markers, where it is to be seen alongside a number of other previously identified spiritually significant symbols. However, the early Christian church was a bit handy when it came to appropriating the myths, legends, and symbols of those who came before, and the six petal rosette was quickly swept up by the early Christians. It's associations with the sun and concepts of rebirth and renewal fitted well with the newly developed Christian message, and most particularly with the rite of baptism. As a result it entered the formal imagery of the early church, and in this chilly little island stuck in the north sea, it became the single most common decorative element that has been recorded on twelfth century baptismal fonts.

C12th font, west face, Sculthorpe church, Norfolk

However, as with all these symbols, such a straightforward interpretation is also usually a far too simplistic interpretation. From the twelfth century onwards in England the six petal rosette is also to be found being used as a substitute or replacement for the more traditional cross or crucifix. At churches such as Eaton near Norwich, and Cerne Abbas in Dorset (and possibly Reigate in Surrey, where only the outline survives), the six petal rosette was actually used in place of the traditional equal armed cross as a church consecration cross. Likewise, there are a whole series of medieval grave markers known as cross slabs, that are found predominantly in the north of England, where the central motif of the four armed cross has been directly substituted by the six petal rosette. In these cases it appears that the symbols associations have gone beyond simple links with baptism, to being regarded as a substitute and alternative to the cross or crucifix. In the West Country the six petal rosette motif was traditionally even known as the 'symbol of the Passion', or 'flower of the Passion', again reinforcing the links between the motif and the cross or crucifix. As such, the motif would carry with it exactly the same potent symbolism, and apotropaic function, as the cross itself. The cross is, after all, one of the most powerful and protective of all Christian symbols and the sign of the cross has long been recognised as having a demonstrable apotropaic function across the Christian world. It is therefore logical to assume that symbols that act as alternatives, or substitutes, for the cross can be regarded as having been regarded as having similar, if not identical, functions. In a number of the Baltic states, where these symbols were still widely used until very recent times, they are known as 'holy signs', and are as much a part of lay piety as any other part of the church's teachings and imagery.

Six petal rosette used as a consecration cross, Eaton, Norfolk
And so, as these markings turn up on just about every other type of structure and artefact, I'd be more surprised if they didn't turn up on books as well. And they do, in quite considerable numbers.

Of particular interest are a whole series of medieval Jewish chronicles, where these motifs - and in particular the six petal rosette - form part of the formal decoration. In these manuscripts the motifs are actually formed of micrography (from the Greek, and literally meaning 'small writing'), where the symbols were actually created using text to form their shape. A mix of reading, writing and imagery, where the devotional text forms an image with spiritual associations. A double whammy as it were.


So as with the Jewish works, these symbols appear to have been added to the books to offer a form of spiritual protection. You marked your books in the same way that you marked your house, the box in which you held your valuables, the bed in which you slept - in the same manner you marked your child with the sign of the cross during baptism. All of these mechanisms were designed to offer an additional level of protection.


As with all of these symbols it is impossible to argue that the beliefs associated with them in the twelfth century continued unaltered through into the early modern period. Were people inscribing these same marks into sixteenth century books, or seventeenth century buildings, still thinking of these marks as alternatives and substitutes for the cross? Well, it is impossible to be certain in every case, but we do have some very well documented examples where, over time, the meanings and associations of a particular symbol shifts and evolves - an evolution of belief as it were. The example I always use (sorry!) is the pentangle. Today the symbol is largely associated with magic, witchcraft, and even the modern Wiccan movement. However, we know from the fourteenth century poem 'Gawain and the Green Knight' that in the later Middle Ages the symbol was deemed to be a Christian one, representing the 'five wounds of Christ' and the 'sign of Solomon', amongst other things. So, at some point in the centuries between then and now the meaning of that particular symbol has evolved, until it now actually has almost exactly the opposite associations to that which it began with.

I'm not arguing that this is the case with all these symbols. Some indeed are still used by the church to this day, and have overt religious connotations. However, what appears likely from the evidence is that for many of these symbols the direct religious associations diminished, and they evolved into symbols that were simply regarded as being 'protective', or at the most base level, perhaps even just 'lucky'. What is unquestionable though is that they continued to be used. On bloody everything.

C16th/C17th ring with apotropaic decoration.

The reality is that these strange markings shouldn't even really be regarded as particularly unusual in relation to book history. They are there to offer a level of protection to the book, and are simply another aspect of a concept that book historians and librarians are really already very familiar with - the book 'curse'.

Book curses - you've all heard of them right? Book curses? No? Well, we aren't talking about those weird people who display their paperbacks with the spines towards the wall, so that the multiple colour of the books don't interfere with their pale aesthetic. They probably should be cursed, but this is something completely different. These were written curses that were applied to ancient texts, most usually to deter thieves, or to 'encourage' the return of lost, stolen, or borrowed books.  The wording of these curses often invoked God, suggesting some form of divine retribution for those committing crimes against books and librarianship, and some of the medieval examples also contain an image of the cross for enhanced efficacy and potency. However, book curses carry on well into the post-medieval period, with the most recent that I have personally come across being applied to a book published in 1835. The 'curse' contains the name of the book's owner, 'Sarah Jane Webster', and the rhyme 'Steal not this book for fear of shame, for here you see the owners name. And if I catch you by the tail, I'll walk you off to Leicester gaol'. Powerful stuff for anyone that has visited Leicester... You can read more about book curses here.

The similarity between the better known book curses and these symbols is therefore clear. As many of the symbols themselves are alternatives or substitutes for the more traditional cross, carrying with them the apotropaic functions usually associated with the cross or crucifix, they are simply adding a layer of spiritual protection to the book. But unlike a lock or a book clasp, these motifs and symbols offered a protection that actually invoked God in aiding in that protection. And who would want to annoy God? I've seen him on Twitter, and he can be quite testy at times...

1 comment:

  1. It does make one wonder what steps The Librarian of Unseen University undertook to protect his charges... Certainly not someone you'd want to want to cross - whether equal armed or otherwise. ook?