A strange question rolled through the support queues at Biblio a few years ago: “Do you have any books bound in human skin?”
Well, then. Were they serious? Was this a trick? How should one respond to such a query? A quick search online gave me a clue on how to reply in a professional manner. “While we do offer books in a range of unusual bindings, none of our booksellers list any extant copies for sale.” They seemed satisfied enough.
So, why would anyone choose to bind books in human skin? Gather round, children. Let’s talk about anthropodermic bibliopegy.
One of the (thankfully) few books verified to be bound in human skin includes De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, translated as On the Fabric of the Human Body. It was authored by Andreas Vesalius in 1543. It is a beautiful and haunting work.
On the Fabric of the Human Body is a work of science and art, and it is one of the most important scientific achievements of the Renaissance. Vesalius dedicated the first edition to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and even became part of his court, cementing the book’s cultural and monetary value for centuries to come. It was so well received that Vesalius published a second edition in 1555, and more than 700 copies still exist. (And a digitized version here: http://vesaliusfabrica.com/en/original-fabrica/the-art-of-the-fabrica/newly-digitized-1543-edition.html…)
Which brings us to the human skin part of the thread. Josse Schavye used human skin to bind a copy of On the Fabric of the Human Body to present at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. The provenance of the skin itself is unknown.
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.
Even more interesting is that the library has three other books bound in human skin. They tested the books in 2015 and they confirmed the binding material as either human or a closely related primate. Naturally, access to these books is restricted to those using them for scholarly research to keep the books and their bindings safe. If you have an invisibility cloak, it may come in handy.
The origins of the human skin used for binding can be hard to confirm and it is likely that the people whose skin was used did not give their consent. Of the confirmed human-bound books, most “donors” were soldiers, hospital patients, or executed inmates.
We do know of one book bound in the author’s skin with their enthusiastic consent. A copy of Narrative of the Life of James Allen, bound in the skin of James Allen, can be found in the Boston Athenæum. The book itself is his deathbed confession of a life of crime and Allen asked it to be presented to a man he tried to rob who had impressed him. James Allen sounds like a really weird dude. Here’s a non-human skin bound copy of that item to check out.
But let’s turn our attention back to On the Fabric of the Human Body. Many copies still exist that you can own without fainting every time you look at it. Facsimiles can be found at reasonable prices, and if you find yourself in the market for an original, yeah, we’ve got you covered. Raptis Rare Books has a first edition listed on Biblio.
The practice of bookbinding is fascinating and intricate, and an art unto itself. For the less hardcore bibliophiles, you can find books bound in leather, vellum, and even sealskin (Here’s our guide to leather bindings). And of course, for those who aren’t morbidly fascinated by such things as we are, you can always find books bound in simple, good, old-fashioned paper. Get your read on!
Amber is the marketing coordinator at Biblio. A lifelong love of the written word brought her to Biblio and she happily spends her days talking about books and delving into the wide world of antiquarian books.