All I’m In Is Just Skin

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.

Christmas Countdown: 21 More Sleeps!

The Carrow Psalter, folio 33 verso (the back-side of the 33rd leaf), c. 1250

I’d just like to point out that this image, while it’s big here, this picture is actually pretty small in the manuscript; it takes up less than a quarter of the 24.7 by 17.6 centimetre piece of parchment. That means it’s about 6 by 4 centimetres. If you’re having trouble imagining just how small 6 centimetres is, it’s about two paperclips long. TWO PAPERCLIPS. When you think of how much detail is in this image – the creases of the Magi’s robes, the thin white outline of what I assume to be myrrh, the teensy beard hairs – you’re forced to realize just how much skill a manuscript illuminator had to have. And this image isn’t unique; all of the Carrow Psalter’s illustrations are just as meticulously done. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, though. After all, if the book’s patron had enough money to get some major gold leaf in his book, I assume he had no financial difficulty hiring the best illuminator(s) in town.

Now, my thoughts. The interest part, right?

As much as I appreciate the detail in this image, I can’t help but be a little creeped out by what I’m seeing. Why are Jesus’ hands as big as Mary’s? Why does the frontmost Wise Man have such a prominent foot arch? Why is he wearing those oxfords I saw on sale at Forever 21 last month? And why, oh why, does everyone look like a Bratz doll?! Those dolls are creepy, man. Chucky’s got nothing on Meygan. Yes – one of the Bratz dolls is names Meygan. “Nicknamed ‘Funky Fashion Monkey’ by her friends because she has a wild sense of style!”

Excuse me while I go weep for Generation Z.