Harvard curators confirmed this week that a century-old book from their library is bound in human skin.
“Des destinées de l’ame” (Destinies of The Soul) from the school’s Houghton Library was published in the 1880s and was donated to the school in the 1930s with a French note describing the reason for its unconventional binding.
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin,” the translated note reads.
“A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”
According to the curators, binding books in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, wasn’t uncommon from the 15th century on, and was done in remembrance of the dead, among other reasons.
The skin covering “Des destinées de l’ame” reportedly came from a female mental patient who died of a stroke, and whose body went unclaimed. Séverin Pineau’s “De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis” – the second book mentioned in the note – is in the Wellcome Library’s collection.
To confirm the note’s claim, university researchers analyzed peptides from a sample of the binding and isolated proteins, which ruled out every possibility other than select primates. The construction of the peptides were then examined to determine their human origin.
“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of “Des destinées de l’ame,” make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Director Bill Lane told the library.