We read about once in a lifetime finds all the time, so what makes the finding of three books in the Harvard Library so much different? Could it be what was on the inside that made them unusual? It was exactly the opposite. It was what was on the outside that made these three books so incredibly unique.
Recently, employees at Harvard Library came across three books that had an unusual feeling cover. They were slightly smooth and even a little shiny, unlike any leather bound books they’ve seen before. Come to find out, these three unusual books are bound with skin! Yes, real human skin!
Because this seemed absolutely shocking, they decided to do a little bit of research. They found that books bound with skin were actually quite popular in the 17th century. It’s called Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. It was often done on anatomical textbooks. This practice became popular as medical professionals would use the skin of cadavers after they dissected them for research. This was their way of ensuring nothing went to waste.
The three books found at the Harvard Library were about Roman poetry, French philosophy, and a treatise on medieval Spanish law. The book, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias, also had an inscription inside. The inscription said, “the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.” This book got a lot of attention thanks to that little inscription. So Harvard had it tested. Turns out the cover was made from cattle and pig collagen.
Harvard decided to have all the books tested to see what they were made of, and they did find out that at least one of the books found in their collection was bound with human skin. Harvard Laboratory director, Bill Lane, said, “The test result from Des destinees de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle, and goat.”
It’s believed that there are other human skin bound books out there in the world, but due to some of the negative attention these books received, you might be hard pressed to find the owners willing to admit the ownership of these books.
Would you want to read a book bound in human skin? I don’t think I would at all. Not only does the inside of the book tell a story, I’m sure there are a lot of stories to be told about the binding of the book as well.