Books bound in human flesh discovered in Harvard library
Update: New testing shows that one of the books really was covered in human skin, but the inscriptions in any of the books in question will make you squirm.
Thu, Jun 05, 2014 at 10:02 AM
There's something creepy and arcane about old books. But a discovery made amongst the Harvard University library's dusty shelves might rank as one of the creepiest library findings of all time. An ancient book with a peculiar-looking leather cover has been found to be bound with human flesh. It was one of three ancient books originally scrutinized earlier this year, according to Roadtrippers.
The meaty tomes were not the work of an old, depraved, Hannibal Lecter-like professor, but are the remnants of a tradition that was once relatively common in the 17th century. Yes, believe it or not, but there was a time when covering a book in human skin was fashionable.
The practice was referred to as "anthropodermic bibliopegy," and it was particularly common — appropriately enough — among anatomical textbooks. Medical professionals would often make use of the skin from cadavers they dissected for the book covers. Basically, it was just a way of avoiding letting anything go to waste.
The history of curious book bindings
The books thought to be covered in human skin were found at the Harvard library were not anatomical textbooks, as was traditionally the case, but were instead books on Roman poetry, French philosophy, and medieval Spanish law respectively.
In the most famous example, the Spanish law book titled Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias, researchers initially identified its cover as coming from a man who was flayed alive, but new testing shows it was actually covered in sheepskin.
A creepy inscription found on the book's final page would lead us to believe otherwise:
The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.
Modern technology unravels the mystery
A flurry of new testing at Harvard did prove that at least one book in question was bound in human flesh. According to Harvard librarian Heather Cole, the Houghton Library's copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame (or "Destiny of the Soul) "is without a doubt bound in human skin."
The books in question are probably not the only ones in the library covered in human pelts, according to director of university libraries, Sidney Verba. With further searching, he believes more of the gruesome volumes could be found. But such a search is unlikely. Library staff is making a point not to rummage around for any more skin-covered books, for fear of sensationalizing their jobs and having it get in the way of more important library work.
So for now, if you happen to find yourself in the Harvard library fingering through some ancient, rarely referenced old tomes, you'll just have to take your chances.
Editor's note: This story was originally written in early April and has been updated to reflect the latest news.
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