The closing words of the excommunication ceremony were “Do the book, quench the candle, ring the bell” whereupon: 1) The Book (the Bible, symbolizing the Book of Life – those who are to inherit eternal life) was closed 2) The candle (symbolizing the soul) was extinguished by throwing it to the ground. And thus the soul was removed from the sight of God as the candle was from the sight of man. This action was also symbolic of expulsion from the community of believers into which the person had been received when a candle was lit at his baptism. 3) The bell was tolled, as for one who had died, to signal his spiritual death.
The excommunicated person was henceforth denied the sacraments of the church and the company of its believers. The rite was described in a Latin text of about 1300, and the phrase appears in numerous early writings (e.g. Sir Thomas Malory, Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe, Miguel de Cervantes, and Shakespeare).
The expression enjoyed a revival as the title of the Broadway play ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ (1950) by John Van Druten about a beautiful modern-day witch who falls in love and loses her supernatural powers. It was later made into a motion picture (1958, starring Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Ernie Kovacs, and a black cat named Pyewacket).
(Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)<1596 “BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE shall not drive me back, When gold and silver becks me to come on.”—‘King John’ by Shakespeare, III, iii>
<1796 “BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE. They CURSED HIM WITH BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE; an allusion to the popish form of excommunication and anathematizing persons who had offended the church [used by Shakespeare]”–‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ by Captain Francis Grose>
<1988 “Those who wielded BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE blithely ignored the fact that sanctions without the threat of military intervention have had a dismal record in the conduct of international affairs.”—‘American Spectator,’ March> [[Threats, smeats! Just bomb those mothers in to the stone age.]]
Ken G – November 13, 2004
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)