Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

candleIt is somehow appropriate — however morbidly so — that a 19th century Arsène Houssaye’s French treatise  “Des destinées de l’ame” (On the Destiny of the Soul), a meditation on the soul and life after death, in the Harvard university’s Houghton Library is bound by human skin.

harvard bookThe Houssaye book, deposited at Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1934, contains a manuscript note claiming that the book was bound in skin taken from the back of a woman, since “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” Researchers confirmed the claim using several techniques, including peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), which identifies proteins.

“The PMF from ‘Des destinées de l’ame’ matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat,” Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Daniel Kirby, of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, told the Houghton Library Blog.

Nothing to it, actually.  Anthropodermic bibliopegy has a long and impressive history. 

Brown University’s  John Hay Library has three anthropodermic books. One is the famous anatomy textbook De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius.

They also have two copies of Dance of Death illustrated by a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -

One copy of the Dance of Death dates to 1816, but was rebound in 1893 by famous master-bookbinder Joseph Dance f DeathZaehnsdorf. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to cut it. The front cover, bound in the outer layer of the epidermis, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer of skin, felt like suede. Zaehnsdorf  left the covers plain to showcase the material.

Another edition, done in 1898, is decorated better with inlays of black leather and a gold-tooled skull. After a closer examination, the pores of the skin’s former owner aren’t all that hard to discern.

Books bound in human skin have appeared in the Middle Ages, when   tanning of human skin was a rather common practice. Although most of those books haven’t lived to see the 21st century, there is plentiful information about the existence of such books. 

A number of anthropodermic books, dating back to around XVII century, survived. Many of  these volumes were books on medical subjects. The skin for binding once belonged people who bequeathed their bodies to medical sciences. Andreas Vesalius’ book On the Structure of the Human Body is is a fine example of such book.

In 19th century, books bound in human skin were  quite common — a “natural” phenomenon. Peculiarly, at this time a gift of anthropodermical book was considered a romantic gesture.

Skin for bindings often came from paupers – people without families whose bodies were often sold to medical schools and skin sold to binders.

In My Life with Paper, master book designer Dard Hunter (1883-1966) remembers being hired by a young widow to bind a volume of letters, dedicated to her late husband, in his skin.  The widow has remarried shortly thereafter. Hunter learns about it and wonders whether her second husband sees himself as volume two. “Let us hope that this was strictly a limited edition, ” he said.
Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary


Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary:

Samuel Johnson was one of the most prolific writers and lexicographers in the English language.  A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, the dictionary had 40,000 words, making it the most extensive work of its kind up to that point in history.

In 1818, a criminal named James Johnson was hung in Norwich.  His skin was then used to wrap together a copy of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.  There is no known connection between the two.

French Constitution of 1793:

The practice was so popular in 18th century Revolutionary France that even copies of the French Constitution of 1793 were bound in human skin.

Quran at The Cleveland Public Library:

It is claimed that the Cleveland Public Library is in possession of a Quran that  may have been bound in the skin of its previous owner, an Arab tribal leader.

Suspecting an internet hoax, Islamic Community Net contacted the Cleveland Public Library for verification that they actually had made such a claim and received the following cavalier response:

Hello — my name is Pam Eyerdam, Head of Fine Arts & Special Collections. In regards to the article, if you read it carefully the sentence clearly states that the “Quran that MAY have been bound in the skin of its previous owner” is the best verification that has been documented with the item when the library acquired it decades ago. The AP was not incorrect in its statement. We are just not absolutely sure since there is no way to test it.

Pam Eyerdam

“People kept their family histories written in Bibles, and what is a Quran?” she said.

Islamic Community Net responded to Pam Eyerdam’s email accusing The Cleveland Public Library of spreading blood libel against Holy Quran , Islam and Muslims.

But this is altogether different story.bookinskin

There are quite a few more anthropodermic books in existence with interesting and sometimes troubling  “behind the book” stories.

Harvard’s announcement is important because now it is possible to prove the “pedigree” of the leather in questionable cases.

“We are just not absolutely sure since there is no way to test it,” the Cleveland Public Library’s official said about the “possibly human-skin-bound” Quran. Now there is a way — several techniques, actually, including protein identification, using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF).


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