Harvard University’s library has been in the news. It turns out that Harvard has discovered that two of its leather-bound books are actually bound not in animal skin, but in human skin.
Surprise! That’s your great, great, great, great, great uncle Joey you’re holding!
Okay, that was morbid. I apologize.
In all seriousness, though, I don’t know why the librarians at Harvard felt inclined to look into these particular covers. Some sources say that the librarians thought the covers were “strange-looking,” but they’re not – these covers look pretty unspectacular. Indeed, a third “human” skin binding at Harvard was recently proven to actually be made of sheepskin. You know why people got confused? BECAUSE HUMAN AND SHEEPSKIN BINDINGS LOOK THE SAME. I mean, of course the pore sizes are going to differ, but I doubt any regular librarian’s “ability” to tell right-off-the-bat that a binding is made of human skin.
Well, despite what motivated the research, I’m excited that this stuff is actually considered newsworthy.
When this news broke a few weeks ago (although it was initially featured in a 2006 edition of The Crimson), my inbox was flooded with emails (I got at least five or six!) from friends telling me that I just had to hear about what happened at Harvard. But you know what my reaction was?
According to The Crimson: “Delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges, the skin’s coloring is a subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana. The skin is not covered in hair or marked by tattoos… Nothing about it shouts ‘human flesh’ to the untrained eye.” Boring!
Plus, binding using human skin isn’t anything new. Apparently the earliest known example of human skin binding is a 13th century French Bible. The practice is thought to have gained momentum by the late 16th century, becoming a common-ish practice by the 17th century, and even becoming somewhat popular among French elite by the 19th century. Human skin binding even has a name: anthropodermic bibliopegy. Drop that one at your next cocktail party.
There are quite a few stories about human skin bindings, and about the people who donated their skin. Check out this link here if you’re interested.
What’s my favourite human skin binding story? One dirty book publisher, Isidore Lisieux, claimed to have seen a binding for the Marquis de Sade‘s Justine et Juliette bound in female breasts. Getting even more extreme, someone later claimed to have seen a binding of the Marquis’ L’eloge des seins with two intact nipples on the front cover. I don’t know if these stories are true, but they’re fun, and oh-so-very fitting for such sadistic and boobtastic books.