Cursing in a Steel Bonnet

The art of malediction, or cursing, has suffered somewhat in our modern era of waffle, “political correctness,” and mandatory insincerity. Yet this ancient pastime; so easily practiced at home or in the workplace, at worship or at leisure; can improve one’s clarity of expression, provide catharsis, and be an outlet for creativitywhether or not it has the intended effect of calling down upon one’s enemies the Wrath of Almighty God.

The “Monition of Cursing,” by Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow, was read from pulpits across the Scottish borderlands in 1525 A.D. A model for us all, it was directed against the English and Scots “Border Reivers,” which were small clans or large families with names such as Elliot and Kerr, Maxwell and Nixon, engaged in a century of what people would nowadays call “low intensity conflict” that was encouraged by their respective governments in London and Edinburgh. For the best history of this period read The Steel Bonnets, by the historian and author of the Flashman novels, the late Mr. George MacDonald Fraser.

Written in 16th Century Lowland Scots, a dialect of English, this splendid and most thorough curse employs peculiar words and unfamiliar spelling; and while we have no proof that alcohol was involved, it was written in Glasgow so one may draw his own conclusions. Readers will find that reading a phrase aloud may help to reveal its meaning. The first section of the curse, addressing “good folks” from local communities who are all members of the Holy Church (“halykirk”), expresses the Lord Archbishop’s regret at the recent murder and destruction.

“Gude folks, heir at my Archibischop of Glasgwis letters under his round sele, direct to me or any uther chapellane, makand mensioun, with greit regrait, how hevy he beris the pietous, lamentabill, and dolorous complaint that pass our all realme and commis to his eris, be oppin voce and fame, how our souverane lordis trew liegis, men, wiffis and barnys, bocht and redeimit be the precious blude of our Salviour Jhesu Crist, and levand in his lawis, are saikleslie (innocently) part murdrist, part slayne, brynt, heryit, spulziet (spoiled) and reft, oppinly on day licht and under silens of the nicht, and thair takis (farms) and landis laid waist, and thair self banyst therfra, als wele kirklandis as utheris, be commoun tratouris, ravaris, theiffis, dulleand in the south part of this realme, sic as Tevidale, Esdale, Liddisdale, Ewisdale, Nedisdale, and Annandereaill; quhilis hes bene diverse ways persewit and punist be the temperale swerd and our Soverane Lordis auctorite, and dredis nocht the samyn. And thairfoir my said Lord Archbischop of Glasgw hes thocht expedient to strike thame with the terribill swerd of halykirk, quhilk thai may nocht lang endur and resist; and has chargeit me, or any uther chapellane, to denounce, declair and proclame thaim oppinly and generalie cursit, at this market-croce, and all utheris public places.”

Having called his audience together and established a common grievance, the author builds momentum by enlisting the back-up of the Supreme Being (note the “Halygist” or third member of the Trinity), on through various saints, down more or less to the chap who fills the holy-water dispensers.

“Hairfor throw the auctorite of Almichty God, the Fader of hevin, his Son, our Saviour, Jhesu Crist, and of the Halygaist; throw the auctorite of the Blissit Virgin Sanct Mary, Sanct Michael, Sanct Gabriell, and all the angellis; Sanct John the Baptist, and all the haly patriarkis and prophets; Sanct Peter, Sanct Paull, Sanct Andro, and all haly appostillis; Sanct Stephin, Sanct Laurence, and all haly mertheris (martyrs); Sanct Gile, Sanct Martyn, and all haly confessouris; Sanct Anne, Sanct Katherin, and all haly virginis and matronis; and of all the sanctis and haly company of hevin; be the auctorite of our Haly Fader the Paip and his cardinalis, aned of my said Lord Archibischop of Glasgw, be the avise and assistance of my lordis, archibischop, bischopis, abbotis, priouris, and utheris prelatis and minesteris of halykirk.”

In the next section of this well-structured curse, the Lord Archbishop identifies the malefactors, from murders and slaughterers to people who traffic in their stolen goods and their defenders, and then to dispel any confusion curses them in capital letters.

“I denounce, proclamis, and declaris all and sindry the committaris of the said saikles murthris, slauchteris, brinying, heirchippes, reiffis, thiftis and spulezeis, oppinly apon day licht and under silence of nicht, alswele within temporale landis as kirklandis; togither with thair partakeris, assitaris, supplearis, wittandlie resettaris (knowing receivers) of thair personis, the gudes reft and stollen be thaim, art or part thereof, and their counsalouris and defendouris, of thair evil dedis generalie CURSIT, waryit (execrated), aggregeite, and reaggregeite, with the GREIT CURSING.”

Lest anyone mistakenly assume that this is a somewhat benign, general curse, the Lord Archbishop itemizes those body-parts covered by his malediction.

“I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thair tongue, thair teeth, thair crag, thair shoulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, thair armes, thais leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feet, befoir and behind, within and without.”

On something of a rhetorical roll, the author describes the potential postures and activities being cursed, extending ill-wishes to their (itemized) livestock, servants, and womenfolk, living-quarters, out-buildings, and gardens, their inanimate farm-equipment and personal belongings. That outdoor lavatories are not mentioned may imply that people saw no need for them at that time.

“I curse thaim gangand (going), and I curse them rydland (riding); I curse thaim standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse thaim etand, I curse thaim drinkand; I curse thaim walkand, I curse thaim sleepand; I curse thaim risand, I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame, I curse thaim fra hame; I curse thaim within the house, I curse thaim without the house; I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis, and thair servandis participand with thaim in their deides. I way thair cornys, thair catales, thair woll, thair scheip, thair horse, thair swyne, thair geise, thair hennes, and all thair quyk gude (livestock). I wary their hallis, thair chalmeris (rooms), thair kechingis, thair stanillis, thair barnys, thair biris (cowsheds), thair bernyardis, thair cailyardis (cabbage-patches) thair plewis, thair harrowis, and the gudis and housis that is necessair for their sustentatioun and weilfair.”

The Archbishop takes an historical digression into Biblical curses in the hope that Almighty God has not forgotten how to apply them, but when he (or his typesetter) mentions “Crits” he means Christ.

“All the malesouns and waresouns (curses) that ever gat warldlie creatur sen the begynnyng of the world to this hour mot licht on thaim. The maledictioun of God, that lichtit apon Lucifer and all his fallowis, that strak thaim frae the hie hevin to the deip hell, mot licht apon thaimr. The fire and the swerd that stoppit Adam far the yettis (gates) of Paradise, mot stop thaim frae the gloire of Hevin. quhill (until) thai forbere and mak amendis. The malesound that lichtit on cursit Cayein, quhen his slew his bruther just Abell saiklessly, mot licth on thaim for the saikles slauchter that thai commit dailie. The maledictioun that lichtit apon all the warlde, man and beist, and all that ever tuk life, quhen all was drownit be the flude of Noye, except Noye and his ark, mot licht apon thame and drouned thame, man and beist, and mak this realm cummirless (free) of thame for thair wicked synnyes. The thunnour and fireflauchtis (lightning) that set doun as rane apon the cities of Zodoma and Gomora, with all the landis about, and brynt thame for thair vile sunnys, mot rane apon thame, and birne thaim for oppin synnis. Tha malesoun and confusion that lichtit on the Gigantis for thair oppressioun and pride, biggand (building) the tour of Bablloun, mot confound thaim and all thair werkis, for thair opppin reiffs and oppressioun. All the plagis that fell apon Pharao and his pepill of Egipt, thair landis, cornse, and cataill, mot fall apon thaim, thair takkis, rowmys (places) and stedingis, cornys and beistis. The watter of Tweid and utheris watteris quhair thair ride mot droun thaim, as the Reid Say drownit King Pharoao and his pepil of Egipt, sersewing Godis pepill of Israell. The erd mot oppin, riffe and cleiff (cleave), and swelly (swallow) thaim quyk to hell, as it swellyt cursit Dathan and Abiron, that genestude (withstood) Moeses and the command of God. The wyld fyre that byrnt Thore and his fallowis to the nowmer of twa hundredth and fyty, and utheris 14000 and 7000 at anys, usurpand aganis Moyses and Aaron, servandis of God, not suddanely birne and consume thaim dailie genestand and the commandis of God and halykirk. The malediction that lichtit suddanely upon fair Absalon, rydant contrair his fader, King David, servand of God, throw the wod, quhen the branchis of ane tre fred (parted) him of his horse and hangit him be the hair, mot lie apon thaain trew Scottis men, and hang thaim siclike tha all the warld may se. The Maledictioun that lichtit apon Olifernus, lieutenant to Nabogodonooser, makand weair (war) and heirchippis apon trew cristin men, the maledictioun that lichtit apon Judas, Pylot, Herod and the Jowis that chucifyit Our Lord, and all the plagis and trublis that lichtit on the citte of Jherusalme thairfor, and upon Simon Magus for his symony, bludy Nero, cusit Ditius Makcensisu, Olibruis, Julianus Apostita and the laiff (rest) of the cruell tirrannis that slew and murthirit Crits haly servandis, mot licth apon thame for thair cruel tiranny and murthirdome of cristin pepill.”

Here the Archbishop drives them from the Church (“kirk”) of God, consigns them to the devil, bans them from the sacraments (save baptism) and bars any Christians from forgiving them.

“And all the vengeance that evir was takin sen the warlde began for oppin synnys, and all the plagis and pestilence that ever fell on man or beist, mot fall on thaim for thair oppin reiff, saiklesse slauchter and schedding of innocent blude. I disserver and pairtis thaim fra the kirk of God, and deliveris thaim quyk to the devill of hell, as the Apostill Sanct Paull deliverit Corinthion. I interdite the places thay cum in fra divine service, minitracioun of the sacramentis of halykirk, except the sacrament of baptissing allenerlie (only); and forbiddis all kirkmen to schriffe or absolbe thim of theire synnys, quhill they be firs abolyeit of this cursing.”

Recognising that even scoundrels have friends and relatives, and just in case his audience missed his ban on forgiveness in the preceding paragraph, the Archbishop helpfully itemizes the social and religious activities to be avoided with those being cursed.

“I forbid all cristin man or woman till have ony company with thaime, etand, drynkand, spekand, prayand, lyand, gangand, standand, or in any uther deid doand, under the paine of deidly syn. I discharge all bandis, actis, contractis, athis (oaths) and obligatiounis made to them by ony persounis, outher of lawte (out of loyalty), kyndenes or manrent (personal fealty), salang as thai susteined this cursing, sub that na man be bundin to thaim, and that this be bundin till all men. I tak fra thame and cryis douned all the gude dedis that ever thai did or sall do, quhill thai rise froae this cursing. I declare thaim partles (excluded) of of all matynys, messis, evinsangis, dirigeis or utheris prayeris, on buke or beid; of all pilgrimagis and almouse deids done or to be done in halykirk or be cristin pepill, enduring this cursing.”

Coming to a conclusion, the Lord Archbishop condemns the cursed to Hell after being hanged, drawn, quartered, and fed to animals on a local moor. He bans them from the eyes of God and the community—but as he is a good Christian, only until they repent and make penance.

“And, finally, I condemn thaim perpetualie to the deip pit of hell, they  remain with Lucifer and all his fallowis, and thair bodeis to the gallows of the Burrow Mure, first to be hangit, syne revin and ruggit (then ripped and torn) with doggis, swyne, and utheris wyld beists, abhominable to all the warld. And their candillis gangis frae your sicht, ast mot their saulis gang fra the visage of God, and thair gude faim fra the warld, quhill thai forbeir thair oppin synnys foirsaidis and ryse frae this terribill cursing, and mak satisfaction and pennance.”

Not only we members of The Society for Christian Malediction, but any gentle reader may readily appreciate the quality of this curse, while lamenting its namby-pamby equivalent employed by our political leaders. Modern Churchmen, too, may find inspiration in the late Lord Archbishop of Glasgow’s efforts and may desire to practice and improve their maledictory skills on, for example, abortionists.

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