On Wednesday the LA Times book blog “Jacket Copy” made a gruesome discovery — a little-known (and hopefully long defunct) practice called anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the binding of books in human flesh. Yes, really.
The story actually broke on The International Journal of the Book blog. There, Dr. Margaret Zeegers reported that she “had never heard of such a thing” until reading a piece aptly entitled “Of Human Bondage” by Maryrose Cuskelly, which was published in last month’s Australian Literary Review.
Actually this is old news. Back in 1994 Professor Carolyn Marvin of Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication published a piece in The Quarterly Journal of Speech called, “The Body of the Text: Literacy’s Corporeal Constant.” Its focus is, among other things, anthropodermic bibliopegy. I reference the essay in passing in the Introduction to The Late Age of Print, where I mention “book history’s more sinister side.”
The response I’ve been hearing to the “Jacket Copy” and IJB posts has pretty much amounted to,”eww, isn’t that disgusting!?” That’s understandable, but it also completely avoids the question that anthropodermic bibliopegy now poses to us: how could it be that such a sickening practice was, for some people, not only acceptable but even desirable?
This is exactly what makes Professor Marvin’s research so compelling. Instead of avoiding the question she actually goes there, attempting to understand — but by no means explain away — why one human being would want to bind words and ideas in the flesh of another.
I cannot do justice to her essay here, but I’ll do my best to provide a quick summary. Marvin begins in the late-18th/early-19th centuries, when medical science — particularly surgery — was still in its infancy. At the time “surgeon” was hardly a respected profession. In fact most surgeons were also barbers, and in general the profession harbored strong connotations of manual labor. Surgery, that is to say, was hardly the white collar profession that it’s considered to be today.
So how as a budding surgeon in the 18th/19th centuries do you differentiate yourself from the rabble of manual laborers? How do you show that yours is a truly “cerebral” profession rather than “mere” handicraft? You take the flesh from the bodies of the indigent persons upon which you’ve been trying out your new surgical techniques and, rather than disposing of it, you use it to contain your budding corpus (pun intended) of medical knowledge. In other words, anthropodermic bibliopegy was a way for surgeons and other medical pracitioners to assert their professional and economic authority over others.
As I said, there’s much more to Professor Marvin’s essay, both conceptually and historically. It’s certainly worth the read — assuming you have the stomach for it.