Friday, May 24th, 2013...9:30 am

Bound in human skin

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Houghton Library contains countless curiosities. Perhaps the most disturbing example is Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame (FC8.H8177.879dc), bound in human skin.

In the mid-1880s, Houssaye (1815-1896) presented his recent book, a meditation on the soul and life after death, to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839-1932), a noted medical doctor and prominent bibliophile. Bouland bound the book with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke.

Inserted in the volume is an autograph manuscript note written by Bouland:


“Ce livre est relié en peau humaine parcheminée, c’est pour lui laisser tout son cachet qu’a dessein on n’y a point appliqué d’ornement. En le regardant attentivement on distingue facilement les pores de la peau. Un livre sur l’Ame humaine méritait bien qu’on lui donnait un vetement humain: aussi lui avais je réservé depuis longtemps ce morceau de peau humaine pris sur le dor d’une femme. Il est curieux de voir les aspects différents que prend cette peau selon le mode de préparation au quel elle est soumise. La comparer par exemple avec le petit volume que j’ai dans ma bibliothèque, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis qui lui aussi est relié en peau humaine mais tannée au sumac.”

“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. 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.”

The other volume to which Bouland refers, Séverin Pineau’s De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis (Amsterdam, 1663), bound by distinguished Paris binder Marcellin Lortic, is now in the collection of the Wellcome Library.

Des destinées de l’ame was deposited at Houghton in 1934 by book collector John B. Stetson, Jr., and given to the library by Stetson’s widow in 1954.

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.

Although this is the only known example of an anthropodermic book in Houghton’s collection, Harvard libraries hold one other example: the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine holds a French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Lyon, 1597) which may have an anthropodermic binding.

(Practicarvm qvaestionvm circa leges regias Hispaniæ primæ partis nouæ collectionis regiæ (Madrid, 1605-1606) in the collections of the Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections, used to be considered a third example; it has since been proven to be sheepskin.)

[Thanks to Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts, for contributing this post]