Sheep-ish discovery: Secret of 400-year-old 'human skin' book finally uncovered

A 17th century book owned by Harvard Law School, supposedly bound in human skin because of an inscription, was scientifically proven to be of sheep and pig instead.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ so the adage goes. 

While most books are important for their content rather than their binding, some are exceptional – as in the case of the Spanish law book, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae by Juan Gutierrez, published sometime between 1605 and 1606, which experts had long thought was bound in human skin.

But after an analysis of nine samples of its front and back covers, binding and glue, it’s now proven that the book is not what it appears to be. Instead of human, the glue was found to consist of cattle and pig collagen.

Karen Beck, a rare books curator at Harvard Law School Library, disclosed the findings in a post on the library’s blog, as well as describing the testing process that uses a new technique for identifying proteins called peptide mass fingerprinting to differentiate the samples from other parchment sources such as cattle, deer, goat and human skin.

Curators, dermatologists and others had studied the book for years because of a suggestive inscription on its last page that 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.”

The book arrived at Harvard Law School in 1946, Beck said. It may have had a different binding at some point in its history, according to Beck, possibly explaining the mention of 1632 on a book published in 1605-06.

Beck questioned why anyone would have written such an inscription if Jonas Wright was actually the name of a sheep and said the inscription instead may have been the product of someone’s macabre imagination.

The book — and its sheepskin binding — are being digitised and will be available through the university’s online library system later this year.

Once a common practice

The practice of binding books in human skin, called anthropodermic bibliopegy, was once somewhat common and has been done since at least the 16th century, according to a Harvard library blog post.

Criminals’ confessions were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted or individuals may have asked to be memorialised for family or lovers in the form of a book bound in their skin, it said.

Harvard has two other books thought to be bound in human skin, including a meditation on the soul titled Des destinées de l’ame published by French writer Arsène Houssaye in the 19th century, and an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in the 16th century, said Heather Cole, an assistant curator at the university’s Houghton Library.

“There’s large pores on the front of it,” she said of the Houssaye volume, adding that books are typically bound in calf or sheep leather. “It looks different than the normal kinds of leather we use to bind books.”

Cole said the book contained a note from a doctor who was a friend of the author that said a book about the human soul deserves a human covering. The skin was from a female mental patient who had died of a stroke, she said, though it was unclear whether she was his patient. – Reuters

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