Monday, September 20, 2010

Bible Chains, Book Curses & Copyright Notices

In the Middle Ages books  were precious and valuable objects coveted by the wealthy elite - and marauding Norsemen.  As such, books - especially bibles - were common targets of theft.  To combat this Irish monks tethered bible to iron rods with chains.  And, on the advice of counsel, scribes affixed curses to books.  In Biblioclasm, author (and professional medieval illuminator) Marc Drogan, identifies the following as the most famous literary curse.   
 "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."  --  Revelations, 22:19
The church didn't have a monopoly on literary curses.   Medieval Jewish scribes issued stern warnings against modifying even a single letter of the Hebrew bible, as each of the 304,805 letters had divine meaning.  As such, God was the first to first to lay down the now familiar "unauthorized derivative works prohibited" rule.          
"Whoever alters a word of this mahzor or this writing or erases one letter or tears off a leaf . . .  may he have neither pardon nor forgiveness; neither let him behold the beauty of the Lord.  He shall be like a woman in impurity and like a leprous man, who has to be locked up so that his limbs may be crushed, the pride of his power broken, his flesh consumed away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were covered made bear." --  A warning at the end of the Moshe Ben-Asher Codex, C 984, the oldest medieval Hebrew bible. 
Medieval colophons (the precursor to today's copyright notices) appeared as concluding statements at the back of manuscripts.  The colophon would indicate the work's title, the copyist (not the author), date and place of copying, and contain either a blessing or a curse.  According to the Encyclopedia of the Book by Geoffrey Ashall Galister (Oak Knoll/British Library), by the early 16th Century, the practice of placing a colophon at the end of a book was largely abandoned.   Instead of the scribe's name appearing at the back of the book, the printer's name (and its royal license to sell the work) appeared on the title page.  Over time, colophons morphed into copyright notices, and the policing of unauthorized copying was transferred from God's exclusive jurisdiction to the crown's.    

According to Drogin, the oldest known book curse appears on cuneiform tablets found in the biblical city of Ninevah.  Like today's authors, Babylonian King Assurabini-pay wasn't just concerned with protecting against theft, but receiving credit for his work.  Similar to warnings found on today's sound recordings ("WARNING: All Rights Reserved.  Unauthorized Duplication is a Violation of Applicable Law"), King Assurbani-pal imprinted this form of notice on his royal records:

"Whosoever shall carry off this tablet or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land."
The following isn't a curse.   However, like the curses above, it reveals how our ancestors thought about books.  It addresses the perishability of the written word.  Impliedly, it is about the perishability of cultural property.   
"One must be careful not to put his books in the same receptacle with food for fear of the mice nibbling them both.".  --  Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel Leon Chassid, Sefer Chassidon (Book of the Pious), Germany, 1190.
The 21st Century take away?  If you fear rodents, and value books, buy an inedible Kindle or iPad.  But, if what you really fear are natural (and man-made) disasters, perhaps the best investment is a bound book.  Torah scrolls have held up pretty well over the centuries. Papyrus had a good 4,000 year run.  Notwithstanding the sack of Rome in 410 and the Viking raids of the Middle Ages, parchment still speaks to us today.  Recently, a parchment psalter wrapped in ancient Egyptian papyrus was found in an Irish bog.  I am, however, unaware of any antediluvian or Atlantean e-Books that survived the great flood.  Atlantis sank.  Alexandria was sacked.  Their knowledge was not inheritable.  Ebook readers?   They are good between 32 and 90 degrees. 

Digtial Publishing and the Dark Ages

The power to learn and the power to reproduce are intimately related.  When knowledge is inheritable, we all benefit.   They didn't call it the Dark Ages for nothing.  If what we write is written in disappearing ink, largely for temporal fame, and not for the ages, what are the consequences?

Without physical book production, will an e-Book author's influence be limited to their own generation? I have no horse in this race.  But, print-values differ from digital values.  Manuscript book writing (i.e., books written before the advent of digital technology) were static.  Authoritative (except when they were not).  Digital works can be mashed up, recast, and repurposed.  If these variations are inheritable, is learning raised up, or undermined?  

Copyright law is harmonious with literary production when you define it as the assembly line manufacture of physical books.  When there are no physical copies, what is the role of copyright law?  Bible chains and curses were once effective devices for passing along cultural property and knowledge intact from one generation to another.  The  King James Bible rules.  Has since 1610.  
Marshall McLuhan  once asked, "What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as the these older forms of perception and judgment are interpreted by the new electric age?" 

Warning!  I you infringe this article, may you be seized by the neck like a bird, your head cranked off, and your carcass hung up to drain*.  Go ahead, I dare you.

*adapted from a curse on the tomb of the courtier Biw at Sakkara, circa 2260 B.C.


The story of St. Columba: A modern copyright battle in sixth century Ireland

Books in Chains by the Late William Blades (1892) (full text version)

Biblioclasm:  The Mythical Origin, Magic Powers & Perishability of the Written Word (Rowman & Littlefield) by Marc Drogan.