As I was casually surfing on a watch website, I came across news that struck me: some people apparently use human skin to bind books! After a short investigation, I discovered this practice does exist, and Harvard has just confirmed they even hold a copy bound this way: that of Destinies of the Soul, a meditation by French author Arsène Houssaye owned by the Houghton library. As the world tattoo show was being held in Paris, I thought it funny to deal with this fascinating, though rather revulsive practice called ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’.
But why apply human skin on a book? This idea did not come from the author himself, but from one of his friends. In the mid-1880s, Arsène Houssaye presented his book to Ludovic Bouland, a widely known bibliophile doctor. Since the book focused on soul and life after death, the doctor ‘naturally’ bound the book with the skin of a patient suffering from psychiatric disorders who had died of a heart attack. The doctor took the time to leave a note to explain his decision.
The term ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’ has been used to refer to books bound with human skin at least as soon as the 16thcentury. This practice was quite common at that time. Sometimes even criminals’ confessions were bound with their own skins. Others also asked for being immortalized in the form of a book to remain with their families or lovers. If Bonnie and Clyde had lived in the 19thcentury, they might have donated their remains for bibliophilic purposes: James Allen, a notorious highwayman also known as George Walton, actually requested that a book be bound with this own epidermis and offered to John Fenno, who had dared stand up to him, as a ‘proof of his respect’.
The historical perspective provided by Curator of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts David Ferris deserves to be mentioned: ‘Binding is considered as a tribute, similarly to the rings and jewels based on dead people’s hair in the 19thcentury,’ he explained in the Harvard Crimson article. ‘What seems macabre to us today was seen as a way to honour the memory of the dead at that time.’
Among others, this website contains an impressive list of creations based on human skin:
If it was pretty difficult then to implement these practices of an arguably bad taste, nowadays, it would be much easier to do with our tissue culture, and, who knows, maybe they will be revived one day, with the same types of motives. Why not, we already make jewels based on hair! But we are talking about tomorrow here, a time when the skin will have seen rather spectacular developments, far beyond skincare. That is what 3D printed skin is about. Here are three examples:
- A 3D printer to make synthetic skin. Scientists made a decisive step forward in the field of biological tissue engineering when they invented a process to create a functional substitute for the skin for a modest sum and in very little time. Since the device only requires one single step, it would be the first in the world to quickly create living tissue on a large scale, which is essential to regenerate skin damaged by burns or other large wounds. It was developed with the hope of replacing traditional skin grafts with healthy skin areas in the patients. The latter could receive mechanically-made, safer grafts quick to produce and less costly.
- Stem cells to create organs with 3D printing: Bioprinting, or human tissue printing, might well take on a new dimension. For the first time, scientists have managed to develop a 3D printer that can lay human embryonic stem cells without destroying them or their pluripotent properties. Now, how can that not give rise to all sorts of fantasies, like regenerating whole organs?
- Human skin 3D printingcould be seen as a solution to go much farther than the answer we have today to meet graft needs.
Of course, some of these practices have disappeared. But they should not be mistaken for tattoo practices, although some people would think they are similar. The movie Le Tatoué did make a link between them in the form of a nod. In this 1968 French-Italian comedy directed by Denys de La Patellière, one day, broker Félicien Mezeray, interpreted by Louis de Funès, discovers an authentic Modigliani painting. Here he goes: he is a rich man. Or is he? The work of art was tattooed on the back of a grumpy, quick-tempered former legionnaire played by Jean Gabin, who pays no attention to Mezeray’s little schemes. The latter would do anything to achieve his own ends.
The history of tattoo is very difficult to relate, because although it refers to an ancestral practice, no one has managed to find the exact date of its beginnings yet. Tattoos have been proven practice in Eurasia since the Neolithic. And many other elements demonstrate its persistence and development throughout human history. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that at the beginning of our era, Breton people sported all sorts of body marks often described as tattoos in Julius Caesar’s conquest narratives. These skin marks were initially signs of belonging to a group: a tribe, a religion, pirates, former prisoners, or legionnaires. But it was also a way to put an indelible mark on specific population categories, like slaves or prisoners. Also, there are these sad memories of Nazi camp tattoos. Then, a real craze for tattoos emerged in the 1970s, and then more widely in the 1990s. There was a shift from displaying your belonging to a group, a tribe, or a neighbourhood, to asserting your own originality and will to seduce, beautify, provoke, or compensate for something. Likewise, ‘tattoos’ are applied to make medical therapy reproducibility easier.
Nowadays, it is a very popular practice that has just had its own 2018 show in Paris, and which gives rise to some astonishing expressions! Maybe one day we will need to dedicate a post to it.
Human skin is still a significant source of inspiration. Remember this most remarkable statue sitting enthroned in the Duomo di Milano? It can make anyone feel really uncomfortable, due to its realism and most solemn, harsh, almost unhealthy feeling it conveys. I am talking about the Statue of St Bartholomew, a work of art created in 1562 by Marco d’Agrate, representing the saint showing off his skin thrown on his shoulders like some fabric. Still, it is fascinating and reminds us that the skin is not a mere human body cover. It is much more than this.
Duomo di Milano
Jean Claude LE JOLIFF