meanings and origin of ‘bell, book, and candle’

The excommunication of Robert the Pious - 1875 - by Jean-Paul Laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875), by the French artist Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)—image: Wikimedia Commons
The officiants have just excommunicated Robert by bell, book, and candle, and left the quenched candle behind.
Robert II (972-1031), known as the Pious, the son of Hugues Capet, was excommunicated for incest by Pope Gregory V after refusing to repudiate his second wife and distant cousin Berthe of Burgundy.


The phrase bell, book, and candle refers to a form of excommunication from the Catholic Church, which closed with the words:

Doe to [= shut] the book, quench the candle, ring the bell!

By extension, this phrase refers to any process of condemnation carried out thoroughly.

The earliest recorded use of the phrase is from the lines referring to John of Lindbergh, the original owner of one of the 14th-century manuscripts of Cursor Mundi (Surveyor of the World), an anonymous poem written around 1300 (John of Lindbergh had paid one or several scribes to copy the poem):

And speciali for me ȝe pray
þat þis bock gart dight,
Iohn of lindbergh, i ȝu sai,
þat es mi name ful right.
If it be tint or dune a-way,
treuli mi trouth i plight,
Qua bringes it me widvten delay,
i sal him ȝeild þat night.
And qua it helis and haldis fra me,
treuli i ȝu tell,
Curced in kirc þan sal þai be,
wid candil, boke, and bell.
     in contemporary English:
And specially do you pray for me
that caused this book to be made,
John of Lindbergh, I say to you,
that is my name full right.
If it be lost or taken away,
truly I pledge my troth,
Whoever brings it to me without delay,
I shall reward him that very night.
And whosoever shall hide and withhold it from me,
truly I tell you,
Cursed in church shall they be,
with candle, book, and bell.
—source: Cursor Mundi (The Cursur o the world). A Northumbrian poem of the XIVth century in four versions. Edited by the Rev. Richard Morris (London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1892)

An early description of this form of excommunication occurs in A View of the Civile and Ecclesiasticall Law: And wherein the Practice of them is streitned, and may be releeved within this Land. Written by Sʳ Thomas Ridley Knight, and Doctor of the Civile Law. The second Edition, by I. G. Mʳ. of Arts (Oxford: William Turner, 1634), by Thomas Ridley (1550?-1629) and John Gregory (1607-46):

Men of holy Church moune [= may] curse by name hem that wolen [= will] not pay her Tythes as it is written in many places of the law of holy Church.
At the repeating of these Articles, the Prelate standeth in the Pulpit in his Albe, the Crosse being lifted up, and the candles lighted. After the Repetition, these or the like formall Words of Execration are denounced. Ex Authoritate Dei Patris Omnipotentis beatæ Mariæ Virginis & omnium Sanctorum, excommunicamus, anathematizamus & Diabolo commindamus omnes supradictos malefactores. Excommunicati sunt, anathematizati, & Diabolo commendati; Maledicti sunt in villis, in campis, in viis, in semitis, in dumibus extra domos, & in omnibus aliis locis, stando, jacendo, surgèndo, ambulando, currendo, vigilando, dormiendo, commedendo, bibendo, & aliud opus faciendo: Or as the Caterbury Book saith: But thorow authoritie of our Lord God Almighty, and our Lady St. Mary, and all Saints of Heaven, of Angels, or Archangels, Patriarches, and Prophets, Evangelists, Apostles, Martys, Confessors and Virgins, also by the power of all holy Church, that our Lord Jesu Christ gave to S. Peter, we denounce all those accursed that we have thus reckned to you: and all thoe that maintaine hem in her sins, or given hem hereto either helpe or councell so that they be departed from God and all holy Church, and that they have noe of the passion of our Lord Jesu Christ, ne of no Sacraments that been in holy Church, ne noe part of the prayers amon christen folke, but that they be accursed of God and of holy Church from the sool of their foot unto the crown of their head, sleaping and waking, sitting and standing in all her words, and in all her workes, and but if they have grace of God for to amend hem here in this life, for to dwell in the pain of hell for ever withouten end (Fiat, Fiat). Doe to the Book, Quench the Candle, Ring the Bell: Amen, Amen.
This Generall Sentence was solemnely thundered out once in every Quarter, that is (as my old book saith) the fyrst Sunday of Advent at coming of our Lord Jhesu Cryst the Sunday of Leenten. The Sonday the Feste of the Trynyte, and the Sunday with in che [misprint for ‘the’?] utus (octaves we say) of the blessed Vyrgin our Lady S. Mary.

In The life and death of King Iohn (London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Philip the Bastard uses the phrase when King John, who has just been excommunicated, commands him to hasten to England to collect money from monasteries:

– Iohn. Cosen away for England, haste before,
And ere our comming see thou shake the bags
Of hoording Abbots, imprisoned angells
Set at libertie: the fat ribs of peace
Must by the hungry now be fed vpon:
Vse our Commission in his vtmost force.
– Bast. Bell, Booke, & Candle, shall not driue me back,
When gold and siluer becks me to come on.

Bell, Book and Candle is the title of a 1950 play by the English-born U.S. playwright and theatre director John Van Druten (1901-57). In this play, a beautiful modern-day witch falls in love and loses her supernatural powers.

Based on the play, Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 U.S. film directed by Richard Quine (1920-89), starring Kim Novak (born 1933) and James Stewart (1908-97).

Frank Martin used the phrase figuratively in his column Frankly Speaking, in The Sunday Tribune of (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of 23rd October 1994:

Adolf and the wig ban

I wonder to what extent the green-eyed monster has played its part in the decision of the Government to try to ban the wearing of wigs in court. We’re all aware that the Junior Minister at the Department of Justice has had a bee in his bonnet about the wearing of wigs for years, and it’s obvious that he has succeeded in infecting his hardworking boss with his enthusiasm.
Whatever the reason, it seems to me that there’s a touch of the Adolf Hitler in the notion that any government can compel a body of citizens just what or what not to wear as part of their working uniform.
And the proposed ban on wigs is a nonsense anyhow. There’s no way the ban can be enforced, once the barristers decide to ignore it.
Years ago the government of the day decided that judges should no longer be addressed in court as “my Lord”. They legislated for change, and bell book and candle ordained that in future the correct title was simply “judge”. Barristers simply ignored that earth shattering piece of legislation.
It’s a pity that a serious effort to improve the working of the courts should be marred by the inclusion of such a petty provision — and it’s a waste of time and energy anyway.

I have found a humorous use of the phrase bell, book, and candle in the column Des Ekin’s Diary, in the Sunday World (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of 6th August 2000—in 1999, the Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor (born 1966) became Mother Bernadette Mary, a priest in the breakaway Latin Tridentine Church:

I’m glad to report that the verdict is now official. Singer, actress and priest Sinead O’Connor will not face excommunication from her Tridentine Church after all.
Archbishop Michael Cox tells me that his Bishop of Leinster, Martin Pius Kelly, was well out of order in throwing the bell, book and candle at Sinead and that he could now face an internal inquiry for allegedly overstepping his authority.
How sad that relations between the Bishop and the Actress* should have deteriorated to this extent.

(* This is an allusion to the phrase as the bishop said to the actress.)




There seems to be uncertainty as to the significance of the three objects used during the ritual of excommunication by bell, book, and candle.

The following, for example, is the interpretation given by the English scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) in the second volume of An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (Birmingham: Printed by Piercy and Jones, for J. Johnson, London, 1782):

Compulsory penances were introduced in the seventh century […].
In this period the sentence of excommunication became a much more dreadful thing than it had been before, and a proportionably greater solemnity was added to the forms of it. The most solemn part of the new ceremonial was the extinction of lamps or candles, by throwing them on the ground, with a solemn imprecation, that the person against whom the excommunication was pronounced, might in like manner, be extinguished, or destroyed by the judgment of God. And because the people were summoned to attend this ceremony by the sound of a bell, and the curses accompanying the excommunication were recited out of a book, while the person who pronounced them stood on some balcony or stage, from which he would throw down his lights, we have the phrase of cursing by bell, book, and candle.

A slightly different symbolic interpretation of the three objects occurs in an article titled Sketch of the Reformation in Dingle and Ventry, published in The Christian Guardian, and District Visitors’ and Sunday School Teachers’ Magazine in connection with the Church of England (London: L. and G. Seeley) of November 1842. This article explained that, in 1834-35, an increasing number of people of that area of western Ireland were leaving the Church of Rome for the Church of England; despite their efforts, the Catholic priests were unable “to stop the work of reformation”—what is also interesting in this article is that it shows that the ritual of excommunication by bell, book, and candle continued to be practised well into the 19th century:

Finding, therefore, their ordinary curses disregarded, one of the priests, a young man from Maynooth, resolved to make a desperate effort; and selected as the object by whom he should strike terror into the people, a poor Roman Catholic woman, who was not at that time herself a convert, but incurred his displeasure by persisting in keeping her children at the Protestant school. Quite unexpectedly, one Sunday, after mass, he changed his clothes, put on a black dress, and proceeded to read the sentence of excommunication against her—devoting her to destruction, temporal and eternal. After doing so, he blew out the candles which were on the altar—shut his book violently, and rung the bell; or in technical language, excommunicated her by bell, book, and candle light. The ringing the bell was to summon the devils to carry her away—closing the book implied that the Book of Life was closed against her—and quenching the candles was symbolical of her being deprived for ever of the light of heaven.

The Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Bell, book, and candle, gives yet a different interpretation:

The bell represented the public character of the act, the book the authority of the words spoken by the presiding bishop. The candle was believed to symbolize the possibility that the ban might be lifted by the repentance and amendment of its victim.

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