The phrase "bell, book, and candle" refers to an archaic method of excommunication for one who had committed a particularly grievous sin. Apparently introduced around the late 9th century, the practice was once used by the Roman Catholic Church. This ceremony involved a bishop, with 12 priests, reciting an oath on the altar:

We separate him, together with his accomplices and abettors, from the precious body and blood of the Lord and from the society of all Christians; we exclude him from our Holy Mother, the Church in Heaven, and on earth; we declare him excommunicate and anathema; we judge him damned, with the Devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until he shall recover himself from the toils of the devil and return to amendment and to penitence.

After reciting this the priests would respond "So be it!" The bishop would ring a bell to evoke a death toll, close a holy book to symbolize the excommunicant's separation from the church, and snuff out a candle or candles, knocking them to the floor to represent the target's soul being extinguished and removed from the light of God.

Cultural references

Laurens excomunication 1875 orsay

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens. The officiants have just excommunicated Robert as per the ritual, and left the quenched candle behind.

  • In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus, 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: "Bell, book, and candle, shall not drive me back / When gold and silver becks me to come on" (Act 3, Scene 3).
  • In the film Becket, 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, Richard Brooks's film interpretation of Conrad's book, the character Gentleman Brown says:
    Ring the bell. Close the book.
    Quench the candle.
    What's that? Never heard the final sentence of excommunication?
  • The track "Tetragrammaton" from The Mars Volta 2006 album Amputechture contains the lines "We summon by candle, by book and, by bell."
  • In the early 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. The same set of items for roughly the same purpose is also found in the later games NetHack and Ultima IV.
  • In the 1992 computer game Hugo 3: Jungle of Doom, a bell, book, and candle are required to exorcise an evil spirit to enter a cave.
  • In the computer game Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, 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.
  • T. S. Eliot's Jellicle Cats are described as "familiar with candle, with book, and with bell."
  • The Rolling Stones' "Winter" (1973) includes the lyrics, "But I been burnin' my bell, book and candle."
  • John Lennon's song "Scared" contains a line "No bell, book and candle will get you out of this".
  • "Bell, Book, and Candle" is a song written by British musician Boo Hewerdine. It appears on his 2001 CD A Live One and, in reference to his efforts to rid himself of thoughts and memories of a previous lover, 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". The song has also been recorded by Eddi Reader and appears on her 1998 CD Angels and Electricity (Blanco Y Negro 3894-22816-2).
  • In Charmed, the song "Bell, Book, and Candle" by Eddi Reader is played during the funeral procession of Prue Halliwell.
  • In the board game Fukuda, the bell, book and candle are used as items in the Ritual Spell.
  • In the movie "The Good Witch"(2008)(TV) Cassandra Nightingale(Catherine Bell) owns a shop called "The bell, Book and Candle".


  • "Bell, book, and candle." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. [1]
  • Mabillard, Amanda. "Shakespeare FAQs: Bell, book, and candle." 2005. [2]

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