South Asia and Beyond

Harvard Library Removes Ancient French Book With Human Skin Binding

For decades, the book's macabre binding drew morbid attention, with reports suggesting it was used by students to haze others unaware of its gruesome origins..
 Harvard Library Removes Ancient French Book With Human Skin Binding

In 2014, Harvard University discovered that at least two books in their library (from the mid-1880s) were bound together using human skin. One of the books, named ‘Destinies of the Soul’ was written by Dr. Ludovic Bouland. In the book, Dr. Bouland wrote a note which explained, ‘A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering’.

Harvard Library has taken the unprecedented step of removing the human skin binding from a controversial book in its collection, “Des destinées de l’âme” (“Destinies of the Soul”), after decades of ethical concerns surrounding the book’s disturbing origins.

The French book, published in 1879 and written by Arsène Houssaye, is a study on the soul and life after death. However, the book’s binding is made from the skin of an unknown woman, taken by Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a physician who studied at a French psychiatric hospital. In a handwritten note, Bouland justified his actions, stating that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

Two other books at Harvard, one in the Law School Library, one in the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine, had inscriptions identifying them as examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the official term for book binding using human skin).

The book, a gift from Houssaye to Bouland, found its way to Harvard’s libraries in 1934 as a deposit from John B. Stetson, Jr., a Harvard alumnus and diplomat. It was later permanently donated to the university’s Houghton Library in 1954 by Stetson’s widow, Ruby.

For decades, the book’s macabre binding drew morbid attention, with reports suggesting it was used by students to haze others unaware of its gruesome origins. Harvard Library acknowledged its failure to meet ethical standards in its stewardship of the book, lending it out indiscriminately until recently and publishing sensationalistic blog posts about it in 2014 following forensic testing that confirmed the binding’s human origin.

Nitin A Gokhale WhatsApp Channel

Prompted by recommendations from the 2022 Report of the Harvard University Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections, the library has decided to remove the human skin binding and give it a respectful disposition, seeking to restore dignity to the anonymous woman whose remains were used.

Harvard Library apologized for its past actions, stating, “We apologize to those adversely affected by these actions.” The library is now conducting additional research into the book’s provenance and consulting with authorities in France and at the university to determine the best course of action for the human remains.

While the physical book is currently unavailable for consultation, the text can be studied online through the library’s search tool, HOLLIS.

Also See:

Related