It’s one thing to want a unique book cover for your favorite journal or volume of literature… but it’s quite another to use human skin to bind your book together. Yet, during the 18th century, this wasn’t altogether an uncommon practice…
In 2006, a 300-year-old ledger was found in the area of Leeds in England, dropped by a burglar as he fled – which is quite fortunate, as skin-bound books are rather rare to come by these days. During the French Revolution however, it was not out of the ordinary to have a skin book or two in one’s collection, which may explain why this particular book was written in French.
The practice of binding a book in human skin is called “anthropodermic bibliopegy”, and some scholars would assert that this was commonly done with things like trial proceedings, where the account of the trial would be bound in a killer’s skin, or in cases where individuals would request that their memoirs be bound in their own skin after they passed away.
The truth is, binding a book in human skin isn’t all that different from creating a leather binding – which was why, historically, it could be easily done. The Bancroft Library in California has a book that was bound in human skin during the Revolution in the 1790s, which is actually a tome of prayers that had been published a century earlier – someone wanted a new cover on their prayer book and apparently decided that human skin would suit it best.
Brown University Library in Rhode Island has three of these ancient skin volumes – one is an anatomy text, presumably bound in the skin of a dissected cadaver, while the other two are editions of a Medieval morality tale from the 1800s called “The Dance of Death”. One of the copies from 1816 – rebound in skin in 1893 – has a clear separation where it is visible that the binder didn’t have enough skin to go all the way around the volume and had to split it in two. The front cover was bound with an outer layer of human skin, which feels like soft sandpaper to touch. The back cover and the spine were made from the inner layer of skin, resulting in a fine, suede-like texture.
Whereas the first volume was then left plain to show off the binding material, the second volume of the Medieval tale had elaborate leather inlays and a goldwork skull on the cover – however, when examined up close, the pores of the former skin’s owner are still clearly visible.
The Athenaeum Library in Boston has a copy of a highway robber’s memoirs that was wrapped in his own skin, dating to 1837; the College of Physicians in Philadelphia has four volumes bound by the doctor John Stockton Hough, who became famous for diagnosing the first case of trichinosis in the city – after which, he used the patient’s skin to bind three of his four books.
One of Harvard University’s libraries also contains a treaty on Spanish law from 1605 with an inscription on the inside, which reads:
“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the 4th day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas’ chief possessions, together with ample of his skin to bind it.”
As disturbing as it may be to modern sensibilities, it turns out that some of the world’s best libraries have copies of books that were bound in human skin!
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Tomorrow: Ghosts in Ancient Rome and Greece!