Harvard University believes a 19th-century French book it owns about the human soul and the afterlife is bound in human skin.
Scientists examined the university’s rare-book library copy of Arsene Houssaye's "Des destinees de l'ame" (On the Destiny of the Soul) and concluded that the binding material came from a human, the prestigious American college said on its blog.
The author presented his book to a friend, Ludovic Bouland, in the mid-1880s. Bouland, a doctor and bibliophile, had it bound with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke, according to blog posts by a Harvard library curator. Inserted in the volume is a note written by Bouland.
“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,” it said.
(Here is an image of the orginal text from the book as well as a translation into English from The Harvard Blog)
The Harvard blog noted that binding books in human skin – anthropodermic bibliopegy is the technical term – was once a relatively common practice and dates back to at least the 16th century.
“The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book,” the curator wrote.
The book by Houssaye is the only work bound by human skin in libraries at Harvard. The university in April announced that a 17th-century Spanish tome it owns was covered in sheepskin and not human flesh as was initially suspected.
Researchers then took another look at Houssaye’s book and used several techniques, including peptide mass fingerprinting, which identifies proteins, to test the cover and eliminate other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat.
The tests were unable to exclude the possibility that the book cover from the skin of a great ape or a gibbon, but scientists said that additional analysis made that extremely unlikely.
By Rory Mulholland