Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bindings of Human Skin

I have recently been thinking about the close identification between people (authors, readers, devotees) and their books, but until now it did not occur to me to link them physically. While describing one book in the Philadelphia Athenaeum, however, Atlas Obscura provides a summary of the practice of binding books in human skin:

Anthropodermic bibliopegy or the practice of binding books in human skin has a curious history begining in the middle ages when parchments made of human skin began showing up. The first known books bound in human skin come from the French revolution when a number of copies of the French Constitution were bound in the skin of those who opposed the new republic. (These can be seen in the in the Museum Carnavalet in Paris.)

By the 19th century the practice become almost commonplace. Criminals such as James Allen, James Johnson, William Burke and William Corder, were hung, flayed and then bound onto books that cataloged their misdeeds. The other use of anthropodermic bibliopegy was by physicians. Dr. John Stockton Hough bound three medical volumes in the skin of a patient with the first diagnosed case of trichinosis. The doctors found the material to be "relatively cheap, durable and waterproof." Books such as the "The Dance of Death" were being bound in human skin as late as the 1890's. Many libraries, including Brown University's, Harvard's, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and even the Cleveland Public Library contain examples of books bound with human skin.

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