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Bound & Preserved

The dignity of a leather-bound book is somewhat different. Even in the age of e-books, ownership of Leather-Bound books is considered to be a special sense of pride for book-lovers. People, involved in the book-binding industry, also consider binding books with animal leathers as an exquisite craft.

Usually, skins of various animals are used in the book-binding industry, but what about books bound in human skin? Such books would certainly give most of the readers shivers.

A look at the history of book-binding reveals that several books have been bound, using human skin. It is called Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. As per the Anthropodermic Book Project carried out in 2019, 50 books from various libraries across the globe are suspected of being bound in human skin, and doubts have been raised about 31 of them. After various experiments, experts have identified 18 of them as definitively bound in human skin.

In his 2020 publication ‘The Madman’s Library: The Greatest Curiosities of Literature‘, English author and researcher Edward Brooke-Hitching mentioned that Anthropodermic Bibliopegy had taken place in 18th and 19th Century Europe. Although there are possible instances before that, it is to be noted that it was the Era of Enlightenment! According to Brooke-Hitching, there were two types of books that were bound in human skin in Europe and the US at that period of time… Case Studies of various crimes and Medical books.

Edward Brooke-Hitching

During the 1789 French Revolution, a rumour was spread by a section of people who claimed that a tannery had been set up at Meudon near Paris to make human skins suitable for book-binding purposes. Perhaps, horrors of the Revolution prompted them to spread the rumour.

Fall of the Bastille Fortress during the French Revolution

One of such few books is bound in skin of John Horwood, a convicted murderer in Bristol, England, which narrates crimes committed by Harwood, his trials and execution in 1821.

Horwood & the book bound in his skin

The book, shown in the image below, is on medical science related to virginity. Written in the 17th Century, the book, titled ‘De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis’, also deals with pregnancy and childbirth. The book was rebound in a woman’s skin in 1865 under the supervision of a doctor, named Ludovic Bouland.

The book on virginity

In 1828, 16 consecutive murders, committed over a period of about 10 months in Edinburgh, shocked Scotland. Later, investigation revealed that William Burke and William Hare had committed those crimes, and sold the corpses to Dr Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures. Burke was hanged in 1829, and a book was bound in his skin. Both the death-mask of Burke, and the book bound in his skin are on display in Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

Deathmask of Burke & the book bound in his skin

De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem‘ is a set of seven books on human anatomy authored by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). Although the first volume was published in 1543, it was bound in 1863. Josse Schavye used human skin to bind a copy of the book. That copy is housed in the Special Collections Department of the John Hay Library, the second oldest library on the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Schavye had reportedly bound four books, using human skin, in his life.

An exhibition on book-binding was held at the Grolier Club in New York in 1903. Organisers showcased some bizarre books, including ‘Dance of Death’, at the event. Back in the 16th Century, one of the most popular books was a macabre tome about the ‘Dance of Death’. This allegory that personified death as an ever-present omen of the inevitable end for everyone was illustrated in a series of woodcuts by German painter and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger in 1526. First published in 1538, the publication became wildly popular, with 11 editions printed by 1562, and over 100 to date, including some even bound in human skin. To increase their morbid value, six known copies of the ‘Dance of Death’ were actually bound in tanned human skin.

One from Holbein’s series

An 1848 Arabic manuscript is preserved in the Newberry Library in Chicago. A note was found with the manuscript, which stated that the manuscript was bound in human skin. In his debut novel ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife‘ (2003), Audrey Niffenegger mentioned this manuscript, as the background of this novel was Newberry. There were rumours that Harvard University had three such books in its collection. However, experts examined those, and found that two of those three books were bound in sheep leather, while the third one was De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy has cast its shadow in the World of Literature and Culture, as well. In his 1922 short story ‘The Hound‘, American writer of weird, science, fantasy, and horror fiction Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) mentioned such a book in the collection of a grave-thief. As per the story, the thief claims to have seized a portfolio of human skin with some bizarre images. The thief also claimed that the paintings were made by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (March 30, 1746 – April 16, 1828). However, Goya never admitted this. It may be noted that Goya’s works were full of images of violence, despair, evil and desire.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799) by Goya

A book, titled ‘Necronomicon Ex-Mortis’ (also known as ‘The Book of the Dead’ and ‘Naturom Demonto’), has repeatedly been mentioned in the American horror film franchise Evil Dead. That book was not only bound in human skin, but was also written in human blood. Incidentally, Necronomicon is an imaginary book as mentioned by Lovecraft in his various works, and the author claimed that the book was written by a Sumerian black-magician.

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