Ernulph’s Curse


Sometime during his lifetime he gave name to what has become known as “Ernulph's curse.” What the background to the event was has yet to come to light. One website included an article on it from the Lancet, the medical journal, which provided some insight.

"The need to protect books from thieves and defilers (from biblioklepts and biblioclasts) is ancient indeed. A thousand years ago the making of a manuscript book was a time-consuming, back-breaking task. Sitting in the exposed archway of a monastery, huddled over a sheet of vellum on his knee, the scribe worked 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for at least 6 months to make even the simplest of books. Accuracy was paramount; any error was considered a great sin since the mutated form would be reproduced in any subsequent copies.

Substantial sums were required as pledge that a book borrowed for copying would be returned, and often a second copy was required as payment for the loan. To copy without permission was to be guilty of the Roman crime of slave-stealing or plagium (from which we get plagiarism). St Columba, Irish apostle to the Scots, is reputed to have copied, without permission, a rare and beautiful manuscript belonging to his teacher, Finian of Moville. When Finian demanded both original and copy, Columba refused. The case came before Diarmit, King of Meath, who decided in Finian's favour, and Columba left Ireland for exile on Iona.

The invocation of prayerful protection for books is probably as old as writing itself. A pious Christian scribe would begin his manuscript with an inconspicuous Xb, an abbreviation for Christe benedic ("May Christ bless [my work]") and when, at last, he had finished he wrote Explicit, short for Explicitus liber est ("The book is finished"). If a blank space remained he might append a brief orison, a lament, a sigh of relief, the oldest of which says "Three fingers hold the pen but the whole body labours.”

When scribes realised that their precious work might fall into the hands of greasy-fingered semi-barbarians, they began to issue instructions such as "Please wash your hands before reading this" or "Don't put your hands on the page.” And eventually scribes and book owners began to invoke the wrath of the Almighty on would-be book stealers. Marc Drogin has collected many of these early book curses. Examples are given in the figure.

Osler chose as his own the grandfather of all curses, that of Ernulphus. Ernulf was a gentle, scholarly English cleric who was consecrated Bishop of Rochester at the cathedral of St Andrew in 1114. Ernulf (1040-1124), a survivor of the Norman Conquest, preserved in the Codex Roffensis the rites and rituals of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The rite of excommunication and damnation was already old when Ernulf wrote it down. Lawrence Sterne used the curse whole in Tristram Shandy. In the passage in question Dr Slop (a vicious and, according to Osler, unfair caricature of John Burton, the "man-midwife" of York) is commissioned by Tristram's father to perform a caesarean section and thereby spare the nas- cent Tristram's delicate brain. Slop cuts his finger trying to open with his penknife the knot tied in his obstetrical bag by the servant Obadiah. Slop then invokes on Obadiah Ernulphus' all-encompassing curse, and I quote largely from Sterne's rendition. Think of this the next time you are tempted to steal a book:

"By the authority of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost, and of the holy canons, and of the undefiled Virgin Mary, mother and patroness of our Saviour, and of all the celestial virtues, angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, powers, cherubims and seraphims, and of all the holy patriarchs, prophets, and of all the apostles and evangelists, and of the holy innocents, who in the sight of the Holy Lamb, are found worthy to sing the new song of the holy martyrs and holy confessors, and of the holy virgins, and of all the saints, together with the holy and elect of God

We excommunicate and anathematize this malefactor, and from the thresholds of the holy church of God Almighty we sequester him, that he may be tormented, disposed and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram, and with those who say unto the Lord God, Depart from us, we desire none of thy ways. And as fire is quenched with water, so let the light of him be put out for evermore, unless it shall repent him and make satisfaction.

May the Father who created man, curse him. – May the Son who suffered for us, curse him. - May the Holy Ghost, who was given to us in baptism, curse him. - May the holy cross which Christ, for our salvation triumphing over his enemies, ascended, curse him.-May the holy and eternal Virgin Mary, mother of God, curse him. - May St Michael, the advocate of holy souls, curse him.- May all the angels and archangels, principalities and powers, and all the heavenly armies, curse him.-

May St. John, the Praecursor, and St John the Baptist, and St. Peter and Paul, and St. Andrew, and all the other Christ’s apostles, together curse him. And may the rest of his disciples and four evangelists, who by their preaching converted the universal world, and may the holy and wonderful company of martyrs and confessors, who by their holy works are found pleasing to God Almighty, curse him.

May the holy choir of the holy virgins, who for the honour of Christ have despised the things of the world, damn him.-May the saints, who from the beginning of the world to everlasting ages are found to be beloved of God, damn him. - May the heavens and earth, and all the holy things remaining in therein, damn him.

May he be damn'd wherever he be  - whether in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, or the highway, or in the path, or in the wood, or in the water, or in the church.-May he be cursed in living, in dying. May he be cursed in eating and drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting, in sleeping, in slumbering, in walking, in standing, in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting, and in blood letting. May he be cursed in all the faculties of his body.

 May he be cursed inwardly and outwardly! - May he be cursed in the hair of his head! - May he be cursed in his brains, and in his vertex, in his temples, in his forehead, in his ears, in his eye-brows, in his cheeks, in his jaw-bones, in his nostrils, in his fore-teeth and grinders, in his lips, in his throat, in his shoulders, in his wrists, in his arms, in his hands, in his fingers!

May he be damn’d in his  mouth, in his breast, in his heart and purtenance, down to the very stomach! May he be cursed in his reins, and in his groin, in his thighs, in his genitals, and in his hips, and in his knees, his legs, and feet and toe-nails!

May he be cursed in all the joints and articulations of his members, from the top of his head to the sole of his foot! May there be no soundness in him!

May the Son of the living God, with all the Glory of his Majesty, curse him! And may heaven with all the powers that move therein, rise up against him, curse and damn him unless he repent and make satisfaction. Amen. So be it - so be it. Amen."


Sterne, L. (1760), Tristram Shandy Bk III, chs x, xi;