Charles W. Eliot, cousin of Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot and a former president of Harvard University, once described books as the “quietest and most constant of friends.” That warm little expression becomes somewhat grisly when one considers how several books in Harvard’s library were bound.
A few years ago, Harvard librarians discovered that the covers of three of the books in their 15-million-volume collection were bound not with leather but with tanned, human flesh. One of the books contains Roman poetry, another presents French philosophy and the third is a treatise on medieval Spanish law.
According to an inscription in one of the skin-covered volumes, titled “Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias ... ,” the person from whom the cover was crafted was actually flayed while he was still alive. According to the Harvard Crimson, the inscription reads:
“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.”
We’d prefer the e-book edition, please.
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The Harvard Crimson reported on the findings back in 2006, but the story seems to have gained more traction over the past few days. Roadtrippers reported on the skin-bound books Monday, and included several photos of the grotesque literature (for more images, click the link in the following tweet).
— Roadtrippers (@Roadtrippers) March 31, 2014
“While it strikes us as macabre, it is honoring and memorializing this man,” David Ferris, one of the museum’s curators, told the Harvard Crimson, in regards to the book that was made from the skin of a man named Jonas Wright. “[It’s] a kind of memento mori, in the spirit of rings and jewelry made out of the hair of deceased in the 19th century.”
Librarians described one of the books as having a cover that was a subdued yellow with brown and black flecks in it.
Surprisingly, the act of binding a book in someone’s skin, a process called anthropodermic bibliopegy, wasn’t as uncommon as some of us would like to think. The technique has roots in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but its history probably goes back even further. One of the earliest examples of a book bound in human skin was a French Bible from the 1200s.
Historians say that many of the volumes they’ve encountered that were covered with human flesh were medical books.
“The hypothesis that I was suggesting is that these physicians did this to honor the people who furthered medical research,” Laura Hartman, a rare-book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland, told the Associated Press in 2006.
Since the books were found at Harvard, university librarians have been reluctant to make a big deal of their discovery.
“Given the many pressures on library purchasing these days, I wouldn’t want to prioritize this kind of book,” Ann Blair, a history teacher at the university, told the Harvard Crimson. “The text rather than the binding of a book is what matters to most students and scholars.”