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Juniata Student Focuses History Research on Antique Book

(Posted March 3, 2008)

Jonathan Knepp, in brown shirt, shows visitors and history faculty an illustration from "Anthropometamorphosis" by John Bulwer

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Never underestimate the power of illustrations.

Juniata College student Jonathan Knepp, a senior from Mill Creek studying history, was working in Beeghly Library when he came across the book "Anthropometamorphosis," a volume published in 1650 by Dr. John Bulwer, an English physician. The book was filled with drawings of people from other cultures, or to be accurate, drawings of people depicted according to Bulwer's preconceived notions and prejudices. Using accounts from English explorers, Greek myths and other sources, the book seemed to be Bulwer's attempt to classify other races and civilizations.

"The illustrations are very strange; he includes people with huge ears or massive eyes," says Knepp, the son of Fran Knepp and the late Randy Knepp.

Knepp found the book as part of his archiving duties in the library's "Treasure Room," where Juniata stores its valuable collection of books, including volumes by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and chemist Robert Boyle.

Curious about the book, Knepp started to read the text and realized he had stepped beyond curiosity and into a full-fledged research project. Working with Belle Tuten associate professor of history, for his senior research project, Knepp decided to tackle the meaning of the book and why the author wrote it.

"He's writing in an allegorical way how man is made in God's image and if you alter your body that is an offense against God and nature."
Jonathan Knepp, senior

His first step into the project was to find a way not to actually handle Juniata's copy of "Anthropometamorposis." The 355-year-old volume is much too delicate to stand up to repeated readings. Knepp subsequently found a historian who had the entire book on computer-based microfilm PDF files.

Knepp's first discovery was that few historians had studied Bulwer's book, which, described simply, is the author's attempt at categorizing how different races and cultures decorated or altered the human body. Scholars call it one of the earliest attempts at comparative anthropology.

Bulwer wrote many other books, most of them focused on working with the deaf. He also developed one of the first attempts at sign language for the hearing impaired.

"When I started reading in depth it became clear that Bulwer had an agenda besides depicting these body decorations," Knepp explains. "He's writing in an allegorical way how man is made in God's image and if you alter your body that is an offense against God and nature."

Knepp's research into Bulwer's life revealed that the author was a royalist, on the losing side of the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651. Bulwer wrote the book during the time when Oliver Cromwell ruled England and royalists were persecuted. "The lesson he's trying to give is to return to nature, but not nature as we think of it today. Bulwer is talking about human nature (and the danger of change)," Knepp says.

Everything was changing around him and the writing style is hurried and his writings seem paranoid," he adds. "He couldn't come out against Cromwell and the Puritans. It seems like the book has a subtle alternative message telling readers they shouldn't (change their image) or alter their beliefs because that would offend God."

Knepp will present his research at Juniata's Liberal Arts Symposium on Wednesday, April 16. He also plans to study history or archival studies as a graduate student. Although he found himself fascinated by his peek into John Bulwer's writings, he's not sure if he will focus his research on the 17th century author. "Right now I'm limited in time and resources," he says. "I can't really fly to England on a whim to check my research."





Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.