(To be) in someone’s black books

As long ago as 1175 there were a number of official books -bound in black leather which were actually called Black Books – containing straightforward matter concerning the Exchequer or the Admiralty. But the term gained its connotation of someone being out of favour in the reign of King Henry VIII.

During the 1530s he was anxious to offload the matronly Queen Catherine for the more seductive charms of Anne Boleyn. But the Pope refused him an annulment, and as a result of this Henry went looking for news of murky doings in the strongholds of the Church in England – corruption in the monasteries, abuses of privilege and anything scandal worthy to help his case. Henry didn’t write the assertions himself, but ordered that all damaging information found be recorded in black-bound books. So black books referred quite literally to records of censure.

From thereon, black books acquired a metaphorical sense. Being in someone’s black books didn’t necessarily mean anything was written in an actual book, just that disapproval existed. That same aura of censure carried over to the later term ‘black list’. By the 19th century, black books had also developed a parallel but slightly softened version – bad books.

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