Harvard’s Houghton Library has established that one of its books is bound in human skin. The book contains a note from the binder detailing and justifying the binding’s origin. Harvard’s blogs contain details of the book and a discussion of the testing. They say “While books bound in human skin are now objects of fascination and revulsion, the practice was once somewhat common. Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice blog brings us a little history of anthropodermic bibliopegy. (This includes a note about a Harvard Law Library book which, as the link above tells us, has  since been proven to be bound in sheepskin, despite the claim in the back of the book.) The Wikipedia entry on anthropodermic bibliopegy is quite informative. This BBC News Magazine post mentions other examples including this notebook made from the skin of William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame), and a book on virginity in the Wellcome collection with a note in the back about its binding by the same Ludovic Bouland who bound the Harvard book!

I think we all reflexively think this sort of thing is revolting at least in part because of the stories about WWII excesses. If you can clear your mind of the revulsion factor, I suppose you could see a way in which someone might find this a somewhat touching way of memorializing a friend — is it really wildly different than keeping locks of hair, which I think we also find a bit creepy nowadays? (Cf. “Relics”) Of course we don’t know what we don’t know, but it seems a little odd to me that this form of commemoration was mostly focussed on the criminals not the benefactors of humanity. Maybe that’s just a result of availability. I bet someone has at least wished they could bind an author’s works in this way. In this context my earlier post “DNA ink” is relevant.

 

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