"Anthropodermic bibliopegy": Something about book binding you probably didn't want to know
If a creature has run, hopped, slithered or swum on this planet, at some point its skin has been used to bind a book. Stingray, monkey, ostrich and shark have all clothed literature. The 'sympathetic' form of bibliopegy (bookbinding) matches the written material with appropriate outer material. "Moby Dick" has been bound in whale, for example, and "Das Kapital" has been bound in boa constrictor. (All this can be found in wonderfully entertaining book, "The Madman's Library," Chronicle Books, 2020.)
Of course, it's not just the binders who have cut swathes through the animal kingdom. Before the development of paper, parchment was sourced from sheep, calves and goats. Vellum is made from the softer skin of young lambs and calves. On average, between 50 and 75 sheep were needed to produce enough parchment for a medieval manuscript Bible.
And then there's human skin bindings -- "anthropodermic bibliopegy" if you want to bring the subject up during dinner. As weird it is to modern sensibilities, skin was once an acceptable decorative extra, particularly when used to bind accounts of murderers and to grace medical studies. The bulk of known human-skin examples were produced from the late 1600s through the late 1800s. The practice may have reached its peak furing the episode of the French Revolution known at the Reign of Terror, when an estimated 40,000 peple were execucted and the country was overwhelmed by corpses. A state committee gave permission to a tannery to secretly process the "valuable resource." Several volumes of the French Constitution thus came to be bound in skin.
Criminals' skin was a favorite for book binding as well. A English murderer, William Burke, was hanged in 1829. His body was publicly dissected at a local college, during which a professor dipped his pen into Burke's blood and wrote a note. Part of Burke's skin was used to make a wallet. A larger piece was used to make the pocketbook shown above.
Not surprisingly, libraries don't like to advertise that they have anthropodermic books, but we do know that the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has five of them. It constitutes the world's largest collection. If you visit, wear long sleeves and pants so you don't give anyone any ideas.
Join us the evening of June 30 for savings and fun
Now that it appears safe to go out again, we invite you to our first after-hours soiree in a couple of years. It's Thursday, June 30 from 5:30 to 8 pm. We'll have food and drink and lots of book-talk, all free. We'll also discount all purchases by 10%.We do want to limit the size, though, so please RSVP to theshop@printedpagebookshop if you plan to attend!