Tuesday, October 19, 2010
*Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, by Colin Dickey
Each one of these people has something in common beyond the fact that they're famous (okay, and that they're dead): the composers Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart; Spanish artist Francisco Goya; and philosophers Emanuel Swedenborg and Thomas Browne, and Rene Descartes have all at some point in time had their skulls stolen. Not only were they taken, but they were moved around Europe, often under shrouds of mystery that would not be cleared up in any short order. Cranioklepty examines why and how these thefts occurred, offering a brief history of skull theft as well as a look at cranioscopy (what we could today call phrenology) and its uses, tracing how it went from a "dubious scientific theory to a worldwide cultural phenomenon," even so far as to be used in literature: it made its appearance into works by George Eliot (who used it in her early works such as Scenes of Clerical Life) who used her subject's skull to "access...that inner consciousness." The Bronte sisters used it, and so did Charles Dickens.
Cranioklepty is an accessible book for those who are interested in the history of science and for those readers who want something a bit different in their nonfiction reading. The author shows that in some cases, skulls were kept based on the idea that genius could be measured; in other cases, skulls were relics to be venerated. The idea is not new; in the middle ages, many religious pilgrimages were based on the trek to worship these relics, which were held at churches and became objects of awe and reverence. The holding of these relics often resulted in competition among churches for congregants or pilgrims, and there was an entire illicit trade of bones or skulls purportedly belonging to saints, as well as relic theft. But in later times, as the author notes, scientists used skull measurement (craniometry) to prove theories of intelligence capabilities based on race, which were completely bogus, but which only added to the imperial mindset of the superiority of Europeans over other races. There's much more to this book -- these are the highlights. Cranioklepty is well written and is an interesting addition to the history of not only science, but cultural and intellectual history as well.
I liked Cranioklepty, and I'd recommend this book, largely to people who have an interest in the history of science and pseudosciences. At times it does get a bit draggy, and sometimes you're in the middle of a story about one skull and it switches to something else, so it's easy to become a bit confused. Overall, however, it is quite interesting. It's obvious he's done a lot of research, and I was quite happy to see that he used two of my favorite books as part of his work: Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair and Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones. There's also a bibliography at the back so that geeky people like myself have an opportunity to read more. I hope he writes another one like this!