Harvard is Home to Book Bound in Human Flesh

If you thought books bound in human skin were only found in the Evil Dead franchise, you would be wrong.


A flesh-bound book titled Des destinees de l’ame, which translates to Destinies of the Soul, has resided at Harvard University’s Houghton Library for over eight decades. The book, which is about the destiny of the soul in the afterlife, was gifted by writer Aresene Houssaye to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland in the mid-1880s. In the 1930s, Dr. Bouland donated the book to the library with a note stating that he bound the book with the skin of an unclaimed female patient. According to Bouland, “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

Binding books with human skin is a practice known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, and it was actually once rather common. Reports of this practice date all the way back to the 16th century. The confessions of executed criminals were often bound in their skin, and families would occasionally bind books with the skin of deceased loved ones as a memorial to them.

The skin came from the back of the patient, who died of “apoplexy,” according to Bouland’s note. Apoplexy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “stroke” or “gross hemorrhage into a cavity or into the substance of an organ.” Bouland’s note goes on to say that he preserved this piece of flesh, though it is uncertain whether he harvested it with the knowledge of using it to bind the book or if he simply decided to save it for a special occasion.

Des destinees de l’ame, Photo courtesy of The History Blog

In 2014, with the use of several testing methods, experts were able to confirm that the book is indeed bound with human skin. One of the methods used is called peptide mass fingerprinting, and according to Bill Lane, the diector of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteonics Resources Labratory, this particular method was able to clearly distinct that Des destinees de l’ame was not other parchment sources like sheep, cattle or goat. Although it matched the human reference, Harvard scientists cannot rule out that the book could be bound in skin from another closely related primate like great apes and gibbons. Guess we’ll have to take Bouland’s word for it.

A page of Bouland’s note, photo courtesy of The History Blog

The book is believed to be the only example of anthropodermic bibliopegy at Harvard.


Featured photo courtesy of crienglish.com

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