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Judging a book by its binding: using human skin to make books

While it might seem a rather morbid Halloween joke, anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books with human skin, is a very real and macabre underbelly to the history of bookmaking. This chilling process has been rumoured for centuries, and while some may avoid the topic as too grisly, recent attention has been drawn to the practice due to the publication of Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom this October. 

There are allegations of books bound with human skin as early as the Medieval period – maybe because the tanning of human skin posthumously, as well as the preservation of body parts, became commonplace in this period. However, there is little evidence to reinforce these claims; the first reliable accounts of anthropodermic books date from the late 16th/early 17th century. 

The issue of provenance plagues this field of research

There are also persistent rumours of the practice having a role in the French Revolution, for example anthropodermic pamphlets of Droits de l’Homme were supposedly given as party favours at the legendary Le Bal du Zéphir. However, there has been little actual evidence to support this. The lack of evidence to support claims is also true for the Nazis. Despite wide reports of the use of Holocaust victims’ skin to bind books, little evidence has, as of yet, been found to prove these atrocities. 

The issue of provenance plagues this field of research, as in the case of Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regia, a 17th-century Spanish law text, now owned by Harvard Law School. As is the case with many alleged anthropodermic books, the text had an inscription with the claim of human skin binding, even naming the deceased. However, upon analysis, the book was found to be bound with sheepskin. There is much critical speculation about whether the inscription was a rather morbid joke, or if the original binding has since been replaced. 

The popularisation of the practice seems largely to have derived from some doctors’ 19th-century view of their patients as commodities

In fact, confirmed cases of these books are rare: since 2015, The Anthropodermic Book Project has been investigating the 50 alleged anthropodermic books. As of May 2019, of these books only 18 are confirmed to be human, and 13 have been discounted as categorically animal. The Project investigates the books using scientific methods such as mass spectrometry and peptide mass fingerprinting to determine the material of the bindings. This is characteristic of the recent developments in the field, moving towards less subjective methods. Previously, hair follicle distribution was used to determine whether the binding was of animal or human origin, as DNA evidence is usually destroyed in the preservation process. 

The practice appears to have become more popular in the 19th century: a particularly high profile case was that of William Burke. Burke, alongside partner Hare, committed 16 murders in Edinburgh in 1828, selling their victim’s organs and cadavers to Dr Robert Knox. Following his execution for his crimes, Burke’s body was publicly dissected by a team of surgeons. His skin was flayed (peeled from the body, with an attempt to keep it in one piece), and parts of his skin were stolen and used to bind a small notebook, which can still be viewed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh. 

It is this medical element that is particularly gruesome. Rosenbloom notes: “It’s easier to believe that objects of human skin are made by monsters like Nazis and serial killers, not the well-respected doctors the likes of whom parents want their children to become someday.” The popularisation of the practice seems largely to have derived from some doctors’ 19th-century view of their patients as commodities, whose organs and bodies can be preserved and sold as gory artefacts, rather than as patients to whom they have a duty of care. 

It is, as Rosenbloom points out, much easier to externalise these horrible acts to murderous sects, rather than broach the reality that many of these grim mementos are products of medical approaches. It is important to remember that things we might rather ignore, or write off as gruesome, have been produced in places rather closer to home than is comfortable. 

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