The Curse in the Colophon: Chapter 1

by | Sep 2, 2021 | The Curse in the Colophon

Note: Fans of New Testament textual criticism and manuscripts might be interested to know Edgar J. Goodspeed wrote a novel on these subjects entitled The Curse of the Colophon. (I’ve written about this unique book before in a post you can find here). Unfortunately, this book is out of print and difficult to come by. It was published in 1935 by Willett, Clark & Company—who so far as I can tell, no longer exists. Below is the text of chapter one. OCR made the task a little easier, but it still required lots of work to make corrections.



ADVENTURES, we are told, are to the adventurous, but it was through the ordinary routine of humdrum academic life that I was introduced, in spite of myself, to the extraordinary series of hopes, anxieties and perils I am about to relate.

I was, I can now see, going pretty stale with my professional routine, and already beginning to shrivel into that strange being, the typical professor, when in the most unexpected way escape came to me, and I was transported into another world, of wonder and surprise.

Or perhaps it was just Tish.

Anyway, it began, as I look back upon it, on a spring afternoon in my office, when young Windom came in from across the hall to talk over a point or two in some Greek manuscripts we were interested in. He is a star man in our Department and his proficiency in such manuscripts from the first century to the sixteenth is not confined to their text but extends also to the crabbed and intricate scrawls that various owners have through the centuries seen fit to append to them. In fact these colophons, as we call them, have a positive fascination for him, so that he really seems to value a manuscript more for the number and difficulty of such enigmas attached to it than for its serious original contents.

It was about one of these that he came in to chat with me, for I strive to maintain an expert pose in such matters, even though my proficiency may sometimes be a little thin in spots.

‘That man Burchall is back this quarter’ he began, ‘you remember him? We assigned him a couple of manuscripts we bought last year from Saurel in Paris, the chap in the Rue Saint Sulpice, you know. Well, he thinks he’s unearthed something, and as a matter of fact he is so upset over it that he wants to chuck the manuscript it’s in and try another one, so he tells me.’

I was a good deal put out by this, confess.

‘Why on earth does he want to chuck the manuscript if he’s found something good in it?’ I grumbled. ‘Is it so hard he can’t read it? If it is, you might help him out a bit with it yourself, just till he gets the hang of it, you know.’

‘Well, I did, as a matter of fact,’ replied my colleague. ‘But as far as I can see the fellow’s right about it, and I don’t altogether blame him for being nervous, You see it’s the last colophon that’s the trouble.’

‘My dear fellow!’ I expostulated. ‘I didn’t suppose there was a colophon going that would baffle you. Why, look at the job you did on that Grebaut thing from Bagdad, the one with the Voivode in it. A man who could read that could read anything. And then there was that Greek owner’s name the French dealer had so carefully scratched out, and you read it from a photograph as though it were print! You’re not telling me that some little colophon has you stumped!’

Windom shifted a little in his chair, and seemed to hesitate a moment before answering.

‘We can read the thing, all right,’ he remarked. ‘For that matter Burchall’s reading of it was right enough, But suppose you see him and let him tell you all about it himself. That’s what he wants to do anyway.’

I couldn’t seem to get anything more out of him, though why he should make such a mystery of the thing puzzled me. But I said of course I would see Burchall and straighten the thing out with him. Windom seemed dubious about it, I noticed, but I put it down to his youth and inexperience in dealing with people, who are after all a little different from manuscripts. It was all still just a part of college routine, and gave no hint of the crescendo of adventure and discovery that afterward came of it.

It turned out to be a couple of weeks before I saw young Burchall and sounded him about the manuscript and why he wanted to give it up. He said he had meant to come and see me sooner but he had been feeling very poorly and the University Health Officer had sent him to the Clinics for ten days and he was only just out. He did look rather pale, I thought myself, but so few of these young fellows know how to take care of themselves, especially when they get absorbed in a real piece of research. He sat fidgeting in his chair for a few minutes and seemed reluctant to get down to the subject. However, I eased him into it.

‘About those manuscripts of yours, Burchall,’ said I heartily, ‘what progress are you making?’

He almost jumped at the words, commonplace as they seemed to me.

‘Oh, the manuscripts! Yes, certainly, sir! Why, very well, I think, at least with one of them, sir. I’ve gone through the text and Mr. Windom has helped me to classify the readings and they’re turning out quite interesting, sir, he seems to think.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said I, a bit brusquely, perhaps,’ but the other one — Larissa 22, isn’t it? Mr. Windom said you encountered some difficulty with it that you wanted to take up with me. What was it? Anything I can help you with?’

The poor fellow almost broke down, at least he seemed quite overcome.

‘Oh, sir,’ he exclaimed with quite unnecessary vehemence, ‘if you could only let me have another in place of it! Or two others! I’m not afraid of work, sir! But if you would only take me off Larissa 22! I — it’s having a bad effect upon me, I’m afraid. I don’t want ever to see it again.’

Well, I had no end of trouble with the man. He seemed all unstrung and of course he was just out of the hospital, and I couldn’t be too hard on him. Besides I did not want him to collapse right there in the office, so I calmed him down and decided to get the facts from Windom, When Burchall had gone I looked him up in his office.

‘Now, Windom,’ said I, ‘what is the matter with Larissa 22? Burchall was almost hysterical about it, but I couldn’t find out anything from him after all. What ails the poor chap? He seemed almost off his rocker. Maybe the Clinics turned him out too soon; anyway he’s not himself yet by a long shot.’

‘Didn’t he tell you?’ said Windom. ‘That’s very funny. He was full of it when I saw him; in fact, I could hardly get him to stop talking about the beastly thing.’

‘What is there so beastly about it? ‘ said I with some warmth. ‘Larissa 22 is one of the finest manuscripts that has come our way — beautiful hand, no gaps, nice miniatures, and a very interesting string of colophons reflecting a long history. An ideal piece of work for any young scholar.’

‘True, true,’ said Windom hastily. ‘But I say, why don’t you look it over yourself? It wouldn’t take long; it’s only the final colophon that is the matter, You can read it in ten minutes.’

‘All right,’ said I testily. ‘Bring it along and I’ll have a go at it myself.’ It seemed the only way to get to the bottom of what ought to be a very simple matter.

The manuscript, it turned out, was in the locked boxes off the Bible Room upstairs and Windom, somewhat reluctantly, I thought, consented to get it out and bring it down to my place. It was certainly a beautiful thing; the Four Gospels, splendidly written, in a hand of the late thirteenth century, with evangelists’ portraits finely painted and at least a dozen colophons of various dates scattered over the vacant spaces left by the scribe. I glanced hastily through them, looking for familiar names, but not stopping to puzzle out all the abbreviations, until I came to the last one of all.

It was written long after the original text of the manuscript itself; not earlier than the seventeenth century, I thought, and was easy enough to read, being in a large, rather clumsy hand. It gave a date in a perfectly usual way and then proceeded in this curious fashion:

And whoever buys this book with his money,
whoever takes it away,
whoever reads what is below written,
with the curse of the three hundred
and eighteen holy and inspired fathers
who assembled in Nicea let him be smitten
and let him be excommunicated.

This struck me as being decidedly out of the ordinary. Manuscripts often pronounce blessings upon those who shall read them, but I had never encountered a curse upon a reader. Besides, this referred to reading what was ‘written below,’ and there was nothing written there.

‘There is something funny about this thing, I admit, Windom,’ said I. ‘What do you say about it yourself? And why did it upset poor Burchall so?’

‘Well, you see he had been working on the manuscript for weeks and was all wrapped up in it and its problems, when late one night, when he was at the very end of his strength, he ran into this colophon, which it seemed had been cursing him all the time for meddling with the manuscript at all, and it broke him all up nervously. And it is a curious fact that he has gone off terribly ever since he began work on the thing.’

‘Nonsense,’’ said I, ‘he’s probably been going without his luncheon. Besides, the thing doesn’t refer to reading what precedes but what follows, and nothing follows, so he couldn’t have read it. Tell him that, if he’s worrying over this imprecation.’

‘That’s all right, of course,’ said Windom. ‘The fact was, he was so tired when he first struck the thing that he didn’t read it quite straight and saw only the ” written.” That’s why he thought the curse might light on him. Absurd, of course, but as I say, he was all run down at the time. — Though if you’ve ever seen a picture of the three hundred and eighteen Nicene fathers, you wouldn’t want them after you!’

‘Possibly not,’ said I, impatiently, ‘But leaving Burchall out of it for the moment, what can it mean? There is nothing written below, anyway, for anybody to read. What was the sense of cursing somebody for doing something that couldn’t be done? There is usually some sense in these old curses, against thieves or purchasers; they are meant to keep the book in the convent where it belongs and prevent anybody’s carrying it away.’

Windom had taken the manuscript from the table and was looking closely at it.

‘There’s another funny thing about this colophon,’ said he presently. ‘This date is too early for this hand. The writing is evidently quite modern, But the date given is in the fifteenth century; late in the fifteenth, I think. Let me see.’ He reflected for a minute or so. ‘Yes, 1492, or not far from it. Look here, do you suppose somebody has copied this colophon out of an older manuscript? Such things do happen, you know, in the best of families.’

‘I know, I know,’ I replied, doubtfully, ‘Though I don’t see much sense in it at that. Still, these old fellows did do some unaccountable things at times. But do you mean that

there was something written below, in the older manuscript, that wasn’t to be read? If so, why didn’t the old chap simply erase it, if he didn’t want it read, instead of making such a fuss about it and really drawing attention to it? And besides, how could it have been written below this colophon unless it was written after it, I mean later than the colophon? It’s all very confusing.’

‘As for that,’ said Windom meditatively, ‘this curse might have been written into the upper margin above what the writer of it wanted to curse, or on a blank space at the foot of the previous page. You’d have to see the thing this was copied from to be sure about that.’

‘What chance is there of that?’ I interrupted. ‘All we know is that it was somewhere, where this Larissa manuscript of ours was, about 1700, more or less. But where was Larissa 22 at that time? Anyway, the older book may have perished by this time. Why do you suppose our old scribe ever copied that strange colophon, anyway? It had nothing to do with these gospels he wrote it into. It all seems so pointless.’

‘I don’t know,’ Windom rejoined. ‘He saw all these earlier colophons in this manuscript, and perhaps he wanted to stop the endless writing of more of them into it. If he wrote this curse on anything written below, it might stop the thing. Anyway, it seems to have done it, His is the last one, you see.’

‘Yes, I see,’ I remarked dryly. ‘Still the invention of printing may have had something to do with that. Manuscripts were going out of style about that time, if you remember.’

‘Still, I’ve seen colophons dated as late as 1700,’ said Windom. ‘Haven’t you? There was that old fellow Chrysanthus, who says he rescued his book from the hand of the Turks, in the country of the Iberians (meaning Georgia, I suppose,) in the year 1700.’

‘Well, have it your own way,’ I admitted. ‘But what I want to know is, is there any way to trace the manuscript our man was copying so as to get a look at the writing he didn’t want read?’

‘And incur the curse of the three hundred and eighteen fathers of Nicea? Are you sure you want to do that? You know some people take these old curses very seriously.’

‘Oh, as for that, it doesn’t trouble me much. I’m eating three meals a day and feeling pretty normal. But the thing is so extraordinary. Why should any scribe write such a thing into a book? You’ve read scores of colophons; did you ever come across anything like it yourself?’

‘No, I never have before. But there are lots of possible explanations. Perhaps there was a magical formula that somebody had scrawled at the end of the book, and this was written in later, to steer people away from reading it.’

l’ve seen such things in manuscripts of medical prescriptions, written into the margins, but they were simply blacked out with ink. He could have done that in this case.’

‘But that would have spoiled the manuscript, blacking out a whole page! Think how it would look in this Larissa thing if half a page or so had been blotted out like that! After all, these monks weren’t absolute vandals; some of them back there took great care of their books, and went to great lengths to protect them from desecration and pillage’

‘Nevertheless, I’d like to see that manuscript,’ said I doggedly. ‘I wish I could think of some way to get on the track of it. The thing lays hold of me strangely. Doesn’t it appeal to your own curiosity at all?’

‘Well, not very strongly, I must confess,’ said Windom. But if you’re really so keen on it, there is a collection of these colophons being made by our old friend Pond down at Middletown. He might possibly have this one. If you like, I’ll write him about it and find out.’

I certainly had no idea of the romance of lost treasure to which this weird old curse was to introduce me, but I accepted his offer gratefully, Some weeks went by, however, before Windom again brought the matter up.

‘I wrote to Pond about that colophon, and he hasn’t it in his collection. Thought it very curious and interesting though. He suggested that we might get at it another way, by the date, or the scribe’s name, or something. There’s a published list of scribes, you know, and it might be in that,’

‘That’s an idea. What was the scribe’s name? Parthenius, wasn’t it? Where’s that list? Can you lay your hand on it? That sounds like a good lead.’

We were off to the Seminar Room in an instant, and had the book in question on the table in no time. With our heads together we ran down the column: Pabunchis, Pamphilus, Pantaenus — Parthenius! There he was, just as in our colophon.

‘Same date, too, by George,’ exclaimed Windom, ‘Say, I believe that’s the very manuscript. There’s only one scribe of that name known, and the date fits exactly: 1492 is what it works out to, you see. So it’s still in existence, anyway. But where is it? Here’s the location: St. Gall’s, Switzerland, Convent Library! That ought to be easy. You can write ’em for a photostat.’

‘Not much! ‘ said I. ‘I’m going to get my hands on that manuscript! I’m going to St. Gall’s myself!’



Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall