The Morbid Anatomy Anthology

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By | The Researcher’s View

The ‘Morbid Anatomy Anthology’, is a collection of essays by scholars, artists and writers “working along the intersections of the history of anatomy and medicine, death and the macabre, religion and spectacle”. Carla Valentine from Barts Pathology Museum tells us what she thought of it – here’s her review.

Joanna Ebenstein is a self-taught scholar who has explored the interstices of anatomy, art, history and more in her blog, Morbid Anatomy since 2007, so this anthology is a logical progression. It encompasses essays from other autodidacts, writers, historians and artists. The anthology illustrates in one beautiful, weighty tome the sheer breadth of topic covered by the Morbid Anatomy brand and can be read consecutively or dipped into depending on your area of interest – it’s the perfect coffee table book.

The Morbid Anatomy Anthology cover.

Front cover of the Morbid Anatomy Anthology.

It is separated into five parts with approximately six essays making up each part, all co-edited by Joanna and Colin Dickey, author of Cranioklepty and Afterlives of the Saints. Within its glossy pages are on topics ranging from Anatomy to Zoos (albeit human zoos) with brief stopovers in Paris for death themed cabarets, Palermo for the Capuchin catacomb mummies, and St Petersburg for the unusual anatomical specimens of Frederick Ruysch.

 Ruysch "Thesaurus anatomicus", 1701-16: foetal skeletons

Foetal Skeletons in Thesaurus Anatomicus, 1701-16 by Frederick Ruysch. Wellcome Image no. L0019778.

Particular favourite contributions of mine include “Anatomy or an Ottamy?” by Simon Chaplin, Head of The Wellcome Library. This is a thorough and concise history of the word ‘ottamy’ and how it pertained to dissection as a punishment via The Murder Act in Georgian England. To be “…scragged, ottamised and grin in a glass case” was a threat meted out to all criminals, and could easily have been said to John Bellingham who was hanged and dissected in 1812 as punishment for assassinating the Prime Minister and whose skull now resides in a glass cabinets at Barts.

 Execution of William Burke

Execution of William Burke, etching by W Geike, 1928. Wellcome Library no. L0001668.

Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death and generally known for her quirky YouTube series “Ask a Mortician” demonstrates her other life as an accomplished Medieval Historian. Her fascinating offering ‘Demonic children and their curious absence in the European witch trials’ examines why even the most fervent witch hunter struggled to believe that demonic children could actually be born of human females – an essay based on her University of Chicago thesis.

L0025428 The Prince of Darkeness: Dagol; c. 1775

The Prince of Darkeness: Dagol; c. 1775. Wellcome Image no. L0025428.

D. K. Smith tackles anthropodermic bibliopegy – the practice of binding books in human skin – and covers many of the different reasons why skin may have been used to bind books in this way. However, I was hoping for some clarification on a comment in a recent book by Dr Anil Aggrawal  stating that sometimes necrophilia was a motive for this form of bookbinding and that certain volumes of work by the Marquis de Sade were salaciously bound in female breast skin in Paris in the 1800s. There’s no mention of it here but if anyone could expand on that anecdote it would probably be Vadim Kosmos, author of the anthology’s essay “Hell Epoque”: a morbid little romp through the death-themed cabarets and other macabre entertainments of 19th century Paris.

These include the famous Paris Morgue – less science and more spectacle – where the deceased and their clothing were on display behind glass for extant next of kin to identify them. However, it became an interesting day out for most macabre Parisians who also considered their Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), Cabaret de L’Enfer (Cabaret of Hell) and Cabaret du Mort (Cabaret of Death) as ‘light’ entertainment.

L0058207 Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy, 1 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome

Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy. Wellcome Image no. L0058207.

Another Wellcome Collection contribution by Kate Forde focuses on anatomical models, such as wax moulages,  and harks back to ‘Exquisite Bodies’ exhibition of 2009. By situating these anatomical models in their varied contexts of education, private collections and fairgrounds Forde explains that their appeal lies in their adaptability, something that I’ve witnessed myself with potted anatomical specimens at Barts.

It has been a pleasure to review such an educational and entertaining book from Morbid Anatomy. I hope there will be a volume two.

Author: Carla Valentine is Technical Curator of Barts Pathology Museum, responsible for conservation of the 5000 anatomical specimens and events organisation. Previously she was a Senior Anatomical Pathology Technologist, assisting at autopsies.

For more about Carla’s work and research interests, visit her blog: The Chick and the Dead.

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