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12 Interesting Documents from the Digital Einstein Papers

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Earlier this month, Princeton University Press and The Einstein Papers Project at CalTech made more than 5000 of the famous scientist's documents freely available online, in both their original language and in translated text. Previously, the documents had been available as books, which had been published at a rate of one volume every two or three years since 1987. "Many people don’t have quick access to [the books]," says CalTech professor Diana Kormos-Buchwald, director of the Einstein Papers Project. “We hope to bring it to teachers and students who might be interested in reading Einstein in his own words. He was, no doubt, one of the most influential scientists of the last 100 years, but he was also a public figure and a personality of great influence during difficult political and social periods, and at a time when scientific community was much smaller. I don’t know of any living scientist to whom people would turn the way they did then [to him]. So we hope that these scholarly volumes will now be more accessible.“

Both the books and the files will continue to expand; there are 30,000 documents written by and to Einstein, so there's a long way to go—but there's still plenty to keep you busy: You'll find Einstein's birth certificate, early essays, and correspondence with other big scientific names (Marie Curie! Max Planck!). We perused the archive to find just a few of the fascinating documents within.

1. Einstein’s School Records

Einstein left his grammar school in Germany in 1894, when he was just 15. He didn't have a degree, but he did have a plan: He’d take his Matura tests—which would give him the equivalent of a high school degree—and then attend the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School (also called the Polytechnic). He petitioned Ablin Herzog, director of the Polytechnic, for entrance to the school. Typically, the school only took in students that were 18 and already had their Maturas. Herzog wrote to Einstein family friend Gustav Maier that “it is not advisable to withdraw a student from the institution in which we had begun his studies even if his is a so-called ‘child prodigy,’” but relented and let Einstein take the Maturas anyway in October 1895.

Einstein’s math and science grades were good, but he was lacking in other areas, so Herzog insisted he take another year of secondary school; Einstein started at the Argau School along the Aare River in Switzerland shortly after his attempt at the Maturas. His school records indicate that he had private lessons in French, Chemistry, and Natural History and was “exempted from singing and gymnastics upon request.” In a report on a music exam, instructor J. Ryffel notes that Einstein, playing the violin, “even sparkled by rendering an adagio from a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding.” 

2. His Final Grades

In September 1896, when Einstein was 17, he received his final grades; as one might expect, he excelled in math, garnering a 6—the highest possible score—in Algebra and Geometry. He scored a 5 - 6 in physics, and 5s in Italian, History, and Natural Drawing. 

Later that month he took his Matura exams (they begin here), which consisted of seven written exams and oral exams that were open to the public; students were quizzed for at least 10 minutes on the subjects they’d taken written examinations on as well as history and descriptive geometry. Einstein noted in his Matura exams that he planned to “study Physics and Mathematics at Department 6 of the Federal Polytechnikum.” He passed, garnering the highest average in his class—5 1/3 out of a possible 6—which allowed him direct admission to professional school. (You can read more about the process of taking the exams here.)

3. “My Future Plans”

For his in-class French exam, Einstein wrote that “a happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much upon the future. But on the other hand, young people especially like to contemplate bold projects. Also, it is natural for a serious young man to envision his desired goals with the greatest possible precision.” He then outlined his plans to enroll in the polytechnical school in Zurich—“if I am lucky and pass my examinations”—where he will study math and physics for four years: “I suppose I will become a teacher of these branches of natural science, opting for the theoretical part of these sciences.”

He might have known exactly what he wanted to do, but his French was lacking, as you can see by reading the footnotes here. “He made quite a few mistakes,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “This was Switzerland, where pupils study German and French for many years, they are required to be at least bilingual, in addition to a foreign language, but Einstein had not rigorously studied modern foreign languages while in a classical gymnasium in Munich, Germany. Therefore, he had a lot of catching up to do.”

4. Verse in the Album of Anna Schmid

Anna Schmid was the sister-in-law of the owner of the hotel where Einstein was staying in Mettmenstetten, Switzerland. At that time, Kormos-Buchwald says, “Girls and women had these albums in which they asked people to write a dedication.” In August 1899, Einstein wrote a poem in Anna’s album:

You girl small and fine
What should I inscribe for you here?
I could think of many a think
Including also a kiss
On the tiny little mouth.
If you’re angry about it
Do not start to cry
The best punishment is—
To give me one too.
This little greeting is
In remembrance of your rascally little friend.

Albert Einstein

“Einstein often wrote poems,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “They were always dedicated to someone, more in the genre of a ditty or amusing remembrance than actual literary poetry. There are poems throughout the volumes.” 

5. Military Service Book

Einstein began the process of applying for Swiss citizenship in 1899. The process, which took more than a year, required not only a background check by the police—the detective noted that Einstein was “a very eager, industrious and extremely solid man. (Teetotaler)”—but also an assessment for military service. A doctor’s exam revealed that he suffered from varicose veins, flat feet, and excessive foot perspiration. He was deemed unfit to serve. 

6. Letters Seeking Employment

After graduating, Einstein worked as a private teacher and wrote a number of letters to universities in Germany inquiring after positions, but was unsuccessful in finding a job. “Last summer I completed my studies at the mathematical-physical department of the Zurich Polytechnikum,” he wrote to physicist Otto Wiener, a professor at the Physics Institute of the University of Leipzig in 1900. “I am taking the liberty of asking whether you might need an assistant. … I would appreciate if you could drop me a few lines and let me know about my prospects of getting such a position now or possibly next autumn.” In August, he traveled to Zurich to ask about an assistant position to Professor Adolph Hurwitz at the ETH. 

In 1901, he applied for a position at the secondary school of the Technical School in Brugdorf, and was turned down. That same year, Einstein sent a copy of an article inspired by Wilhelm Ostwald’s work in general chemistry to the professor, who also worked at the University of Leipzig. “On this occasion permit me also to inquire whether you might have use for a mathematical physicist familiar with absolute measurements,” he wrote. “If I permit myself to make such an inquiry, it is only because I am without means, and only a position of this kind would offer me the possibility of additional education.” Later, he followed up with another letter that included his address. (Einstein’s father, Hermann, would also write to Ostwald inquiring after a position for his son.) And he believed that he might have had a shot at a position as assistant to Eduard Riecke, director of the Division of Experimental Physics of the Physics Institute at the University of Göttingen if he had not been sabotaged by Heinrich Friedrich Weber, who had once been Einstein’s doctoral advisor. That relationship ended when they had a bitter disagreement, and Einstein switched to another advisor. 

“He wished to be an academic,” Kormos-Buchwald says, “[but] there were very few [positions] available for a theoretical physicist at the time. The discipline was evolving. There were only five full professors in Germany, and an assistant or associate position was very difficult to obtain.” 

7. Swiss Patent Office Letter on the AEG Alternating Current Machine 

In December 1901, Einstein applied for a position at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern; in June 1902, he got a provisional appointment as Technical Expert third class, with a salary of 3500 francs a year. Two years later, in September 1904, his position was confirmed, and two years after that he was promoted to Technical Expert second class. 

Einstein evaluated a number of patents every day, and on December 11, 1907, he wrote that a patent filed jointly by Berlin’s AEG and Bern’s Nageli & Co for an alternating current machine was “incorrectly, imprecisely, and unclearly prepared. … We can go into the specific deficiencies of the description only after the subject matter of the patent has been made clear by a properly prepared claim.”

He would remain with the patent office until 1909.

8. "Max Planck as Scientist"

Ferdinand Springer, publisher of the weekly journal Die Naturwissenschaften, asked Einstein to write a piece about the work of theoretical physicist Max Planck, who had recently been appointed as rector of Berlin University. “We, his close and his distant colleagues, wish joyfully to take this opportunity to celebrate with gratitude the achievements that science owes to his creative activity,” Einstein wrote.

“Max Planck as Scientist” appeared in the journal in late October 1913. Three weeks before publication, Einstein confessed in a letter that he hadn’t yet begun to write it. This, Kormos-Buchwald says, was pretty typical: “Einstein pondered about his writings for a while, and then wrote things down very quickly, once he had it all clearly formulated in his mind.”

9. Manifesto to the Europeans

In mid-October 1914, Einstein wrote “Manifesto to the Europeans” in response to a document, signed by 93 German scientists, that supported Germany’s aims in the first World War. Einstein disagreed with them. “Through technology the world has become smaller; the states of the large peninsula of Europe appear today as close to each other as the cities of each small Mediterranean peninsula appeared in ancient times,” he wrote, continuing (emphasis Einstein's),

In the needs and experiences of every individual, based on his awareness of manifold of relations, Europe—one could almost say the world—already outlines itself as an element of unity. 

It would consequently be a duty of the educated and well-meaning Europeans to at least make the attempt to prevent Europe—on account of its deficient organization as a whole—from suffering the same tragic fate as ancient Greece once did. Should Europe too gradually exhaust itself and thus perish from fratricidal war?

The struggle raging today will likely produce no victor; it will leave probably only the vanquished. Therefore, it seems not only good, but rather bitterly necessary that educated men of all nations marshall their influence such that—whatever the still uncertain end of the war may be—the terms of peace shall not become the wellspring of future wars. The evident fact that through this war all European relational conditions slipped into an unstable and plasticized state should rather be used to create an organic European whole. The technological and intellectual conditions for this are extant.

It need not be deliberated herein by which manner this (new) ordering in Europe is possible. We want merely to emphasize very fundamentally that we are firmly convinced that the time has come where Europe must act as one in order to protect her soil, her inhabitants, and her culture.

“This is an extraordinary document,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “Einstein thought the war was wrong, and it was a brave act to sign this document at a time when many of his colleagues were nationalistically inclined.” 

One year later, he followed “Manifesto” with My Opinion of the War, which began “The psychological roots of war are—in my opinion—biologically founded in the aggressive characteristics of the male creature. … This aggressive tendency comes to the fore whenever individual males are placed side by side, and even more so when relatively close-knit societies have to deal with each other. Almost without fail they will end up in disputes that escalate into quarrels and murder unless special precautions are taken to prevent such occurrences.”

10. The Nightmare 

In its December 25, 1917 issue, the Berliner Tageblatt devoted a section of the paper to the possible discontinuation of Germany’s Arbitur exam, which consisted of written exams lasting from 8am to noon, followed by oral exams from 2 to 6pm, for as long as six consecutive days. In his essay, Einstein wrote,

I consider the final secondary school exam that follows normal school education not only unnecessary but even harmful. … The fear of the exams as well as the large mass of topical subjects that have to be assimilated by memorization harm the health of many young men to a considerable degree. This fact is too well known to need to be verified in detail. But I will nevertheless mention the well known fact that many men in the most varied professions have been plagued, into their later years, by nightmares whose origins trace back to the final secondary school exam.  

And in a criticism that sounds like it could come from a teacher today, Einstein writes that the exam “lowers the level of teaching in the last school years. Instead of an exclusively substance-oriented occupation with the individual subjects, one too often finds a lapse into a shallow drilling of the students for the exam.” In other words, professors were teaching to the test.

11. Memorandum to Mileva Einstein-Marić, with Comments

Einstein married Mileva Marić in 1903, but by 1914, things had soured (in fact, Einstein had started an affair with his married cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, two years earlier). The Einstein family moved from Zurich to Berlin, and the scientist wrote his wife this letter of rules she had to obey if she wanted to stay married:

A. You make sure
1) that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order and repair
2) that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room.
3) that my bedroom and office are always kept neat, in particular, that the desk is available to me alone.

B. You will renounce all personal relations with me as far as maintaining them is not absolutely required for social reasons. Specifically, you do without
1) my sitting at home with you
2) my going out or traveling together with you.

C. In your relations with me you commit yourself explicitly to adhering to the following points:
1) You are neither to expect intimacy from me nor reproach me in any way.
2) You must desist immediately from addressing me if I request it.
3) You must leave my bedroom or office immediately without protest if I so request.

D. You commit yourself not to disparage me in word or in deed in front of my children.

Before WWI broke out, Marić took the children and returned to Zurich. “This was painful,” Kormos-Buchwald says, “and divorce took many years, since Mileva returned to Switzerland and Einstein stayed in Berlin. They were separated for four years.” During that time, Einstein lived with Lowenthal, which he admitted to in a deposition:

It is correct that I committed adultery. I have been living together with my cousin, the widow Elsa Einstein, divorced Lowenthal, for about 4.5 years and have been continuing these intimate relations since then. My wife, the Plantiff, has known since the (spring) summer of 1914 that intimate relations exist between me and my cousin. She has made her displeasure known to me.

12. Divorce Agreement

In 1918, Einstein and Marić finally settled on the terms of their divorce. “[It’s] notable that he declared he would give her the Nobel Prize money if he were to receive it, which happened only in late 1922,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “In 1923 he indeed receives the actual prize money and sends it to her. Mileva purchases a home.”

In February 1919, the divorce was granted. A few months later, Lowenthal and Einstein were married.

Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO
20 Surprising Facts About Silicon Valley
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

You don’t have to know a PDF from a CMS to understand that Silicon Valley is one of the funniest comedies on television right now. While it’s been a hit with tech insiders—proving to be as cringe-worthily authentic to their industry as This is Spinal Tap was to musicians around the world—the show’s creators are banking on the fact that the majority of viewers don’t understand the first thing about compression or any other technical process. As the Emmy-nominated series prepares to debut its fifth season—its first without T.J. Miller—here are 20 things you might not know about the hilarious, Mike Judge-co-created comedy.


Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch in 'Silicon Valley'
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

More than 10 years before Silicon Valley made its debut in 2014, co-creator Mike Judge—who had logged some hours as an engineer in the real Silicon Valley—toyed with the idea of creating a feature film centered around America’s tech giants. “I’ve been hovering around with something like this for a while,” Judge told Deadline during the show’s first season. “Way back, before the dotcom burst in 2000, I thought about doing something like this, about a tech billionaire [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen-type, but that was as a movie.”


Though Judge never got around to writing that feature, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky—writers and showrunners on Judge’s King of the Hill—eventually came to Judge with their own take on the tech world. “[Altschuler] suggested an idea like Falcon Crest, but instead of wine and oil money, it would be tech money,” Judge said. At the same time, HBO had expressed interest in working with Judge on a project. “HBO came to me with an idea about gamers with Scott Rudin attached, and from that point it was always going to be a TV series,” he explained. “I told them that I didn’t know enough about the gaming world, but I had worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley, and I suggested we do a project about that.”


Though HBO was anxious to work with Judge on a project, network executives were reportedly less than thrilled with the original pilot, which revolved around two women who come to Silicon Valley from Los Angeles in order to land the next dot-com billionaire. “We wanted women," one HBO exec told The Hollywood Reporter, "but not like that.”

Though Altschuler and Krinsky remained committed to the original idea, HBO was ready to walk away from the project. The writers departed the project, and Judge recruited writer-producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) to help rethink the series. “We reshot half the pilot," Casey Bloys, HBO's president of programming, explained. "And what those guys turned in was a comedy that was genuinely funny and also had something to say."


Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

Though Thomas Middleditch was better known for his standup and some smaller film and television roles, he is the person Judge had in mind when he was writing the role of Pied Piper founder Richard Hendricks. “This project felt charmed from the beginning,” Judge told Deadline. “I was a little worried before we started the casting process. I thought of Thomas Middleditch when I wrote it. He auditioned like everybody else and was great. It was important to me that the cast was believable, that they are highly intelligent and not just goofy caricatures. They had to be both funny and good actors.”


Nearly every actor who ended up as a series regular (with the exception of Middleditch) auditioned to play Erlich Bachman, the self-centered entrepreneur who runs the incubator in which Pied Piper is born. Eventually, it was T.J. Miller who landed the part—or, more accurately, his silhouette. Judge told The New York Times that they were auditioning for the role in a frosted glass conference room, and when Miller walked by, just his silhouette elicited laughter. “If someone’s silhouette can make you laugh, they’re probably pretty funny,” Judge said.


Silicon Valley is very much a boy’s club—so much so that it gave Amanda Crew, who plays Pied Piper board member Monica Hall, pause when it came time to audition. Concerned that she’d play more of a “seductress” than the whip-smart venture capitalist she became, she admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that, “I almost canceled my audition.”


When discussing the authenticity of the series, Judge told Esquire that his past experience as an engineer working in Silicon Valley certainly helps, especially as “the personality types haven't changed that much.” But Berg shared that the writers really immerse themselves in the research, telling the magazine that, “At the beginning of each season, the entire writing staff goes up to San Francisco and the Valley for about a week. We pack our days with meetings with startups and with venture capitalists and different serial entrepreneurs. We have lunches and dinners with all kinds of oddball people with a lot of interesting thoughts.”


Matt Ross stars in 'Silicon Valley'
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

Silicon Valley nails the true spirit of the Bay Area tech corridor and the people who inhabit its cubicles—sometimes, a little too well. “I get a good chunk of people saying hey, 'I love the show, it’s great, that happened to me' or whatever,” Middleditch told Den of Geek, “and then I get a really large amount of people saying ‘I can’t watch your show, it’s too painful. It’s like all my painful memories of being an entrepreneur are brought up in your show and therefore I can’t watch it.’”

For his part, Berg takes that as a compliment. “I’ll take that,” he said. “To me, if you look at a bell curve, rather than being at the center of the curve where everybody thinks it’s alright, I would rather live out at the edges where we’ve got fanatical fans and we’ve also got fanatical haters. I’ll trade mediocrity for the extreme.”


While Judge, Berg, and their talented team of writers have no problem bringing out the humor in the series’s colorful cast of characters, the biggest challenge they face is creating drama and excitement around a group of guys who spend the bulk of the day sitting in front of a computer monitor. Having funny actors helps. “We found these guys and juggled things around and wrote to them,” Judge told Deadline. “These guys are programmers and sit in front of the computer screen for 16 hours—how do you film that and make that funny? That was a challenge. This world is so absurd, there’s a lot of great material along the way.”

“We try and make it about emotions or you try and get characters on opposite sides of a point of view so that they can argue about it in words, like Dinesh and Gilfoyle are constantly at each other and that’s not a thing that plays inside an IM window, that’s two people talking to each other,” Berg told Den of Geek. “We have to be good at figuring out what the emotional angles are and having characters play that.”


Technology moves at a breakneck speed—and so does Silicon Valley. “There were a few instances where the show would describe something, and by the time the episode came out, it had already happened in real life. I mean, bad ideas included,” Judge told Esquire. “Like that app that was in the pilot, Nip Alert. It was supposed to be a bad idea. We had already shot the pilot and we went to TechCrunch Disrupt to kind of check it out. There was a big controversy because some Australian douchebag programmer had started a thing called Titstare. It brought out the sexism in Silicon Valley, and by the time our show aired—which was like nine months after that or so—it was written up somewhere as, ‘Oh they're making fun of Titstare,’ but we actually had that before.”


While some potential viewers may be turned off by the idea of a “tech” show, you don’t need to know a thing about technology to understand what’s going on. In fact, Judge and Berg half expect that their audience knows nothing about the subject. “We kind of make it so when there are technical things in play that it’s really not about the technology, it’s about some kind of emotion or a story that’s rooted in some kind of personal stakes that are relatable in an emotional way, hopefully,” Judge told Den of Geek.

“Fundamentally this is a show about outsiders and that’s one of the things that I think makes it, as you said, relatable,” added Berg. “These are guys trying to do something but they face long odds and they’re decidedly not part of the establishment which I think makes them somebody you root for.”


Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr in 'Silicon Valley'
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

Though he plays a master programmer on the show, Martin Starr is the first to admit that he isn’t the tech-savviest of actors. “For the most part, I use my computer to write and Google whatever pops up in my brain that I want to know about in the moment,” Starr told Fast Company. “Other than that, tweeting may be about as tech-savvy as I get.”

Fortunately for Starr and the rest of the cast, there are consultants on the set to help the actors better understand what the hell they’re talking about. “Most of my questions to those guys are about understanding what I’m saying,” Starr said. “In our [first] season finale, there’s perhaps the most complicated dick joke that’s ever existed. It makes you feel real stupid when a base-level joke is too complicated for you.”


In October 2017, Kumail Nanjiani, who plays programmer Dinesh Chugtai, took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the power of technology. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t overly optimistic.


Though Silicon Valley’s stars and writers are just that—actors and writers—that doesn’t stop the would-be Richard Hendrickses of the world from pitching anyone involved with the show their own tech ideas. “You have to be careful, because if you start talking to them, then they’ll start pitching you their thing,” writer Clay Tarver told The New York Times. “So I just don’t talk to anyone. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb here.”


Amanda Crew stars in 'Silicon Valley'
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

The upside to all that pitching? Some of the show’s stars have been bitten by the Silicon Valley bug and actually invested in some startups. Amanda Crew has invested in a handful of female-run businesses, including Darling, a magazine that adheres to a strict “no retouching” photo policy. Middleditch, meanwhile, has focused on companies dedicated to aviation and the environment­, including Beyond Meat, a plant-based ‘meat’ company. Both Middleditch and Martin Starr have also invested in WaterFX, a solar desalination company.


Though the show’s creators had trouble getting industry insiders to open up to them in the early days, before the show was a proven quantity, they’ve since managed to lure a number of A-list tech names to sit in the writers room.

“[A]fter the first season aired … I do think we got a lot of fans, and it became much, much easier to get people to talk to,” Berg told Esquire, adding that they ended up having former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo “sitting in the writing room once a week. He's just a fan of the show, and he found himself out of work, and he decided to come down once a week and just hang.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (who was a classmate of Berg’s at Harvard), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman are among the individuals who have offered input to the show’s creators.


Zach Woods as Jared in 'Silicon Valley'
Ali Paige Goldstein, HBO

Though Donald “Jared” Dunn (Zach Woods) may be the heart of Silicon Valley, you’re probably best not knowing too much about his oft-hinted-at dark past. According to Judge, many of the seemingly out-of-nowhere lines that Jared delivers about his bizarre personal history come straight from Woods. “A lot of this originally came from lines that Zach would just improv in the first two seasons,” Judge told Entertainment Weekly. “Almost none of them made it in, but they did influence our writing of the character. Then we just started putting them in in ways that made a little more sense, where it was a little more organic to the scene.”

As for Woods himself: “To me, there’s like a hazy toxic fog that’s behind Jared,” he told IndieWire. “You don’t really know what happened, but you know it was real bad … If you could see the amount of backstory I have for Jared! I’m constantly trying to shoehorn in Jared’s unbelievably traumatizing history. Because in my head, one of the things that’s funny about Jared is that he’s endured unspeakable, constant tragedy for the first 30 years of his life, but is completely un-self-pitying and resilient.”


If you’ve ever wondered what Pied Piper’s website might look like if it existed in real life, you’re in luck: HBO built a website for the company, complete with company bios, a blog (written by Jared), cheesy font, and banner that proudly touts the fact that, “Pied Piper's Space Saver App Hits Top 500 in Hooli App Store!”


Season four ended with a bit of a shakeup when T.J. Miller and the series very publicly parted ways with the show. As one of Silicon Valley’s breakout stars, the departure left the writers with a couple of challenges, but Judge—for one—believes that Miller’s departure was for the best. “It just wasn't working,” Judge told The Hollywood Reporter. He and his fellow creators offered Miller the chance to return for three episodes in the fifth season, in order to give Erlich a proper sendoff, but Miller declined.


With Erlich Bachman gone, Jian-Yang is ready to take up the role of becoming the series’s resident a**hole. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jimmy O. Yang—who has spent several seasons in Erlich’s shadow—said he is ready to ratchet up the obnoxiousness of his character. “I kind of love it,” he said of his character’s recent transformation from quiet incubee to Erlich’s nemesis. “Because me, myself, I don’t think I’m an a**hole in real life. Something about me playing an a**hole is very funny, because I look very small and nice.” 

9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.


A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”


A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”


A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"


A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”


This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming 'oh, oh, oh!'
Remember, you deserved this woe."


This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”


A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."


An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”


One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to 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 sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms 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 for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.


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