Bell, book, and candle

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The phrase "bell, book, and candle" refers to a Latin Christian method of excommunication by anathema, imposed on a person who had committed an exceptionally grievous sin. Evidently introduced by Pope Zachary around the middle of the 8th century,[1] the rite was once used by the Roman Catholic Church. In current practice a simple pronouncement is made to anathematize formally.[citation needed]


The ceremony was described in the Pontificale Romanum up until the time of the Second Vatican Council. Subsequent post-conciliar editions of the Pontificale omitted mention of any particular solemnities associated with excommunication.

The ceremony traditionally involved a bishop, with 12 priests with candles, and is solemnly pronounced in some suitably conspicuous place. The bishop would then pronounce the formula of the anathema, which ends with the following words:

Idcirco eum cum universis complicibus, fautoribusque suis, judicio Dei omnipotentis Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, et beati Petri principis Apostolorum, et omnium Sanctorum, necnon et mediocritatis nostrae auctoritate, et potestate ligandi et solvendi in coelo et in terra nobis divinitus collata, a pretiosi Corporis et Sanguinis Domini perceptione, et a societate omnium Christianorum separamus, et a liminibus sanctae matris Ecclesiae in coelo et in terra excludimus, et excommunicatum et anathematizatum esse decernimus; et damnatum cum diabolo, et angelis ejus, et omnibus reprobis in ignem aeternum judicamus; donec a diaboli laqueis resipiscat, et ad emendationem, et poenitentiam redeat, et Ecclesiae Dei, quam laesit, satisfaciat, tradentes eum satanae in interitum carnis, ut spiritus ejus salvus fiat in die judicii.[2]

In English:

Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive him and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.[1]

After this recitation the priests would respond: Fiat, fiat, fiat ("So be it! So be it! So be it!") The bishop would then ring a bell, close a holy book, and he and the assisting priests would snuff out their candles by dashing them to the ground. However, the rite of anathema as described in the Pontificale Romanum only prescribes the candles to be dashed to the ground. After the ritual, written notices would be sent to the neighbouring bishops and priests to report that the target had been anathematized and why, so that they and their constituents hold no communication with the target.[2] The frightful pronouncements of the ritual were calculated so as to strike terror into the ones so excommunicated and bring them to repentance.

This form of excommunication was inflicted on Robert II of France by Pope Gregory V for his marriage to Bertha of Burgundy in the year 996, because Bertha was his cousin. He was later reconciled with the Church after negotiations with Gregory's successor Pope Silvester II.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

The dramatic nature of the ritual has lent itself to frequent depictions in culture and media.


  • In the 1958 film Bell, Book and Candle, based on the play by John Van Druten, the title phrase is misidentified as a method of exorcism rather than excommunication.
  • In the film Becket (1964), Archbishop Thomas Becket excommunicates Lord Gilbert with something resembling a bell, book and candle ceremony. However, the bells are rung at the start, no book is in evidence (Becket instead casts down his candle first, followed by the others in attendance) and nothing to the effect of "until he shall recover himself...." is pronounced.
  • In Lord Jim (1965), Richard Brooks' film interpretation of Conrad's book (1899–1900), the character Gentleman Brown says:

Ring the bell. Close the book. Quench the candle. What's that? Never heard the final sentence of excommunication?

Fine art[edit]

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875) by Jean-Paul Laurens.
  • In Jean-Paul Laurens' painting, The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875), the officiants have just excommunicated Robert as per the ritual, and left the quenched candle behind.


  • In the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill, the bell, book and candle are three findable items which have greatly increased powers when used together
  • In the multi-platform game Castle of Magic (2008–2009), the bell, book and candle are used as items in the Ritual Spell.
  • In the video game Hugo 3: Jungle of Doom (1992), a bell, book, and candle are required to exorcise an evil spirit to enter a cave.
  • "Bell, Book, and Candle" is the name of a quest in the video game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2012).
  • In the video game Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim (2000), one of the first and easiest missions one can play is named "The Bell, The Book and The Candle". In it, the player must retrieve the three stolen artifacts from monster-infested ruins and shrines.
  • The Bell of Opening, The Book of the Dead, and the Candelabrum of Invocation are used by the player in the game of NetHack (1987) to perform the Invocation Ritual and reach the lowest dungeon level.
  • Star Wars Galaxies (2003–2005), the Star Wars themed MMORPG, references "bell, book, and candle" in the quest dialogue from Ree-yees in the game's Jabba's Palace theme park.
  • Ultima IV (1985) uses the items in a somewhat positive light, requiring reading from the Book of Truth, lighting the Candle of Love and ringing the Bell of Courage to enter the Abyss and recover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to conclude the game.
  • In Sam & Max season 2, episode 5, "What's New, Beelzebub?" (2008), the antagonists use a bell, a book, and a candle to open a portal to a flaming pit in hell. The protagonists manage to escape, and use an improvised ritual (using an ice cream van bell, a cookbook, and a birthday cake candle) to send the antagonists to their doom.
  • An important quest in the video game Wizardry IV (1987) similarly involves the use of bell, book, and candle to bypass a portal to the flaming abyss.
  • In the early text-based computer game Zork (1977–79), the player must gather a bell, a book, and a candle in order to gain access to the lowest regions of Hell.


  • Peter Hammill's song "Empress's Clothes" from the album Sitting Targets (1981) contains the line: "You carry the bell, book and candle..."
  • Boo Hewerdine's song "Bell, Book, and Candle", on his CD A Live One (2001), refers to his efforts to rid himself of thoughts and memories of a previous lover, and contains the line: "Every night I see your face when I have to pray. I need a bell, book and candle to keep your ghost away". Boo's recording was used on the episode of Emmerdale when Tricia Dingle died[which?][citation needed]. The song was also recorded by Eddi Reader and appears on her CD Angels and Electricity (1998, Blanco Y Negro 3894-22816-2).
  • John Lennon's song "Scared" (1974) contains a line: "No bell, book and candle will get you out of this".[4]
  • The track "Tetragrammaton" from The Mars Volta album Amputechture (2006) contains the lines: "We summon by candle, by book, and by bell."
  • The Rolling Stones' song "Winter" (1973) includes the lyrics, "But I been burnin' my bell, book and candle."
  • Sabbat’s song about Faust "A Cautionary Tale" (1988) has Faustus using the phrase, and reversing it, as he despairs of his imminent excommunication and eternal damnation: "Bell, book and candle, candle, book, bell, / Forwards and backwards to damn me to Hell."
  • Bell, Book & Candle is the name of a German band known for their hit "Rescue Me (Let Your Amazement Grow)".


  • In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), the Bishop of Canterbury threatens to curse Mordred "with booke, belle and candyll." (p. 679 in the Norton Critical Edition)
  • In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus (1604), the lead character is subjected to excommunication using this process: "Bell, book and candle; candle, book and bell, / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell." (Scene 7, lines 83–84)
  • William Shakespeare referenced the practice in King John (1623): "Bell book, and candle, shall not drive me back / When gold and silver becks me to come on" (Act 3, Scene 3).
  • Although omitting a candle reference, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's character Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) says in a tirade to local monks, "[y]ou cursed me with 'bell and book,' you spread stories about me all over the place. Enough, fathers!" (Book II, Chapter 8)
  • The Informer (1925), by Liam O'Flaherty, contains the line: "Yer ol' man gev me dog's abuse and drov' me outa the house, an' he cursed ye be bell, book an' candle light."
  • In T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), Jellicle cats are described as "familiar with candle, with book, and with bell."
  • The Broadway play Bell, Book and Candle (1950) by John Van Druten and the 1958 Hollywood film into which it was adapted, starring Kim Novak and James Stewart, is a romantic comedy involving a coven of witches living in Greenwich Village.
  • Used for comic effect in Good Omens (1990) by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, believing that the ceremony can banish evil spirits, attempts to exorcise Aziraphale with it.
  • In the Old Kingdom Trilogy of books by Garth Nix, bells are used as a tool to banish undead spirits, originating from the bell, book and candle.
  • On the penultimate page of Anthony Trollope's comic novel, "Barchester Towers" (1857), the author writes of the happy state of religion in Barchester: "Welcome kneelings and bowings, welcome matins and complines, welcome bell, book, and candle, so that Mr. Slope's dirty surplices and ceremonial Sabbaths be held in due execration!"
  • In Elizabeth Bear's novel Ink and Steel the words of the excommunication ritual accompany the character Christopher Marlowe selling his name to Lucifer.
  • In Fay Weldon's novel The Stepmother's Diary, Isobel's room is exorcised by a priest with "bell, book and candle".



  • Bell, Book & Candle is the name of a restaurant in the West Village section of New York City.[5]


  1. ^ a b Joseph Gignac, "Anathema" in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 1907)
  2. ^ a b "Ordo Excommunicandi et Absolvendi". Liturgia Latina. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
  3. ^ Lea, Henry C.: Studies in Church History: The Rise of the Temporal Power, pp. 339ff, Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, 1869.
  4. ^ ""Scared" – John Lennon". MusixMatch. Retrieved June 22, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Bell Book & Candle, 141 W. 10th St., New York, NY 10014 (nr. Waverly Pl. )". New York Magazine. 

Further reading[edit]