852 RARE: Old Books, New Technologies, and “The Human Skin Book” at HLS

Practicarum Cover and SpineBaaaaaad news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy: Recent analyses of a book owned by the HLS Library, long believed but never proven to have been bound in human skin, have conclusively established that the book was bound in sheepskin.

The final page of the book includes an inscription which states,

“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.”

Intrigued by this inscription, curators, conservators, and dermatologists have studied the book for years, but results were inconclusive. Thanks to a technique for identifying proteins that was developed in the last twenty years, we recently have been able to answer the question once and for all.

At the request of HLS Library curators and Weissman Preservation Center staff, Daniel Kirby, a conservation scientist at the Harvard University Art Museums’ Straus Center, analyzed the parchment binding of Juan Gutiérrez’ Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae (Madrid, 1605-1606; HOLLIS no. 4317553). Kirby used a method called peptide mass fingerprinting to analyze nine samples of the front and back covers, binding, and glue. With peptide mass fingerprinting, the samples could readily be differentiated from other parchment sources including cattle, deer, and goat, as well as human skin. The glue was identified as a mixture of cattle and pig collagen.

If Jonas Wright was indeed a sheep, why would someone have written such an inscription? We’ll probably never know. Perhaps before it arrived at HLS in 1946, the book was bound in a different binding at some point in its history. Or perhaps the inscription was simply the product of someone’s macabre imagination.

In any event, we are indebted to Daniel Kirby’s analysis and are glad the question is finally settled. Score one for modern science! The volume (including the sheepskin binding) is being digitized and will be available online via HOLLIS in late 2014.

17 thoughts on “852 RARE: Old Books, New Technologies, and “The Human Skin Book” at HLS”

  1. The Mutter museum in Philadelphia has real human skin bound books
    just sayin

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  3. The whole story just became stranger. Why would Jonas even have a law book in the first place? Why would it be his most valuable possession. Who was this tribe?

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  5. Michael Schiffer

    It looks in any case as if the Wavuma are a Ugandan tribe with which the British first made contact in the 19th century. (Which seems as if it would have made the inscription suspect even before running the tests.)

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  16. Maybe “all that remains of my of my dear friende Jonas Wright” was his sheep… or the Wavuma decided they wanted to keep his skin and duped his friend by giving him a sheep’s skin instead

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