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Books bound in human skin

Anthropodermic bibliopegy

Boundinskin
Leather-bound books are always lovely. But when that leather is human skin -- that's creepy, right? But it's not unheard of -- in fact, the practice of binding books in human skin was once common enough to get its own name: Anthropodermic bibliopegy.

It's not done these days, but the books are still around. They surface in museums and can be found resting on library shelves. One (secondhand) story appeared in the blog of the scholarly International Journal of the Book today:

She describes a book that she picks up in Canberra’s National Library of Australia…she did not find it by accident; she went looking for it…as ‘Finely grained and delicately textured, the colour of the leather binding is a dirty fawn flecked with spots of darker pigment. The pages are edged with gold, as are the margins of the leather where it has been folded over into the inside of the cover. When I open the book, the first thing I see is an inscription, underlined and in a neat flowing hand: Bound in human skin’.

And the book "Aurora Alegre del dichoso dia de la Gracia Maria Santissima Digna Madre de Dios," bound in human skin, is up for sale at Abebooks. Written by Joseph Bernardo de Hogal, it's listed for more than $16,000; it was last owned by an American acrobat-turned-mystic. And according to the listing information, he received it as a gift.

Some say that the practice was popular for court reports of crime covered in the skin of the murderer.  But there have been other kinds of books bound in skin, too, including a 1676 French prayer book that's at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. And a human-skin bound ledger was found in downtown Leeds, England, in 2006 -- apparently it was dropped by a burglar. You think he realized what kind of ghastly artifact he was carrying?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The spine of "Human Corpis Fabrica" by And. Vesalii, bound in human skin, at Brown University's John Hay Library. Credit: Joe Giblin / Associated Press

 
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Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, several years ago wrote an academic journal article about anthropodermic bibliopegy. The piece is entitled "The Body of the Text: Literacy's Corporeal Constant." Its point is that reading isn't just a cerebral activity but a more fully embodied one.

Great post!


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