The Human Skin Book: A Unique Artifact at Harvard

Harvard University is home to a unique artifact – a book bound in human skin. The book, titled “Des destinées de l’ame” (Destinies of The Soul), was confirmed to be bound in human skin after rigorous testing. This book, published in the 1880s, has been a part of Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s.

The Human Skin Book: A Unique Artifact at Harvard

A Unique Binding

The book’s donor left a note inside the book, explaining that he had the book bound in human skin. The note, translated from French by Harvard, reads: “This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.” For more on the history of bookbinding, check out our article on HistoryTimeMachine.com.

A Historical Practice

The practice of binding books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 15th century, according to Harvard’s curators. The skin used for “Des destinées de l’ame” is said to have been taken from the back of a female mental patient whose body was unclaimed after she died from a stroke. This practice, while macabre, is a part of our historical record. To learn more about unusual historical practices, explore our collection of articles at HistoryTimeMachine.com.

The Confirmation

Harvard researchers analyzed peptides within a sample of the book’s binding to identify proteins, which allowed them to rule out all sources but certain primates. Further analysis of how the peptides were constructed allowed the researchers to confirm a human origin for the binding. Bill Lane, director of the university’s Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, stated, “The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human.” For more on the history of scientific discovery, visit our section on scientific breakthroughs at HistoryTimeMachine.com.

A Unique Artifact

“Des destinées de l’ame” is now the only known book in all of Harvard’s libraries to be bound in human skin. Two other books were previously believed to be bound in human skin, but both have now been confirmed to actually be bound in sheepskin. For more fascinating insights into the world of rare books and unique artifacts, explore our other articles at HistoryTimeMachine.com.



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