Look, if you ever feel so inclined to give me a book that’s a meditation on the soul and life after death, please understand that it is not necessary (nor would it be appreciated) that said book be bound in human skin. Okay? We clear? And that works both ways, if I give you a book, just let it be.
You might not think that’s something you’d have to tell a friend, but apparently Bouland did not get the memo because in the mid-1880’s, Arsene Houssaye gave his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a medical doctor and lover of books, his book titled Des destinées de l’ame. Bouland bound the book in skin from an unclaimed female mental patient that died from a stroke. (Ew!)
The book resides today in Harvard’s rare-book library, Houghton Library, after being deposited there in 1934. It was donated to the library in 1954. (Because, really, who wants to have dead skin lying around? My house is dusty enough as it is!)
Inserted in the book is hand-written note from Bouland:
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. 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 is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pineaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.
The other book that Bouland refers to, Severin Pineau’s De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis (Amsterdam, 1663), is in the Wellcome Library.
And in case there was any doubt left that the book was bound in human skin, Harvard conservators and scientists have conducted tests using several different methods. They have come to the conclusion that Bouland was indeed insane. No, I kid… maybe. Anyway, they came to the conclusion that, yes, they can confidently say that they are 99% sure the book is bound in skin from a human.
The practice of binding books in human skin, has occurred often enough that it even has a damn name – anthropodermic bibliopegy. Though extremely uncommon in modern times (thank you) the practice dates back to the late 16th century.
Congratulations to Harvard on the confirmation that Des destinées de l’ame is indeed an anthropodermic book.
( I’m going to go read about kittens and unicorns…online.)