Thursday, March 22, 2012

Borrow My Book?

I'm reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, which is an erudite and surprisingly entertaining book about the origins of modernism. Greenblatt has a lot to say along the way about the history of books and the various means by which reading has been either encourages or discouraged by the prevailing technologies (not to mention political and religious forces) of particular eras.

One recurring narrative thread in the book features the efforts of one Italian layman, Poggio Bracciolini, who in 1417 was going from monastery to monastery seeking out rare or unusual books. He could never be sure of his reception, because, as Greenblatt points out:

Books were scarce and valuable. They conferred prestige on the monastery that possessed them, and the monks were not inclined to let them out of their sight, particularly if they had any prior experience with light-fingered Italian humanists. On occasion monasteries tried to secure their possession by freighting their precious manuscripts with curses.

Greenblatt then offers this example, which made me sit up and take notice for two reasons: first, because it's disconcerting specific and startlingly forceful curse, but second, because I actually remember having run across this text when I was in college, and in fact had in made into a bookplate that I glued into several of my more prized volumes:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

So there. You want to borrow my book? Sure. Just read the terms of the contract and sign here...

Spoiler alert: Poggio does manage to liberate one manuscript, De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, and that manuscript winds up playing a key role in the development of modern consciousness.

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