HistoryofScience.com Blog

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Kinky Side of Book Collecting: Bindings in Human Skin

During the past 40+ years of my experience in the book trade I have only seen two books bound in human skin, and I have never actually bought and sold such a volume. Books bound in this way are very rare, and hardly ever appear on the market. My favorite of the two I have seen is a volume of rare anatomical pamphlets by Albinus, including the first color-printed anatomical illustrations by Jan Admiral. One of these pamphlets by Albinus is on human skin, and presumably for this reason its early twentieth century owner, Hans Friedenthal, thought it would be appropriate in 1910 to have it bound in human skin. This before Friedenthal appears to have perished in the Holocaust. His volume is preserved in the Lane Medical Library at Stanford.

To some, just the thought of a book bound in human skin connotes evil like lampshades made of human skin in SS concentration camps. Or perhaps the idea of having books bound in human skin suggests gruesome behavior like cannibalism. Yet the two books bound this way that I saw over the decades were innocuous in their appearance, and were we not told from notes inside the books that the bindings were made from human skin, we might not even notice, as the tanned leather made from human skin can look similar to bindings made from calf or goat.

Recently I happened to be rummaging through a reference volume on my shelves entitled Bibliologia Comica or Humorous Aspects of the Caparisoning and Conservation of Books by the former FBI Special Agent, Librarian, and Professor of Classics, Lawrence S. Thompson. Thompson's misuse of Caparisoning in the title was probably an "in" joke. As the final chapter of that book, Thompson issued perhaps the definitive English language account of books bound in human skin, with a suitably obscure Latin title, Religatum de pelle humana. As Thompson recounts, the practice has a long and arcane history. For the curious we have posted Thompson's complete essay in the Traditions section of our website.

Regarding the binding of rare anatomical books I pose the question, "Would it be appropriate to bind a rare book on human dissection in the skin of a dissected cadaver, after it had been appropriately tanned, of course?"

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 12:57 PM   46 Comments

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