Unethical Endings: Harvard Removes Human Skin Binding from 19th-Century Book

In a recent discovery that has sparked discussions about historical ethics and respectful treatment of human remains, Harvard University announced the removal of human skin from the binding of a 19th-century book. This news has garnered significant attention, raising questions about the past practice of “anthropodermic bibliopegy” and the importance of ethical stewardship in libraries and museums.

A Book About the Soul in Unethical Attire

The book in question, titled “Des Destinées de l’âme” (Destinies of the Soul) by French author Arsène Houssaye, was published in the early 1880s. The unsettling detail lies in the material used for its binding – human skin. Harvard acquired the book in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 2014 that scientific analysis confirmed the disturbing truth about the binding’s origin.

Further investigation revealed that the book’s first owner, a physician named Ludovic Bouland, was responsible for the morbid modification. Bouland obtained the skin from an unnamed deceased female patient at a hospital where he worked, without her consent. In a handwritten note found within the book, Bouland attempted to justify his actions with a macabre inscription: “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

Ethical Awakening: Why Now?

While the presence of human skin bindings in historical collections has been acknowledged for some time, Harvard’s recent decision to remove the material signifies a shift in ethical considerations. Several factors likely contributed to this decision:

  • Increased Scrutiny of Provenance: There’s a growing emphasis on understanding the origin and ownership history of artifacts in museums and libraries. This heightened awareness ensures institutions are accountable for the ethical acquisition and handling of cultural heritage.
  • Respect for Human Remains: The treatment of human bodies, even after death, is a sensitive subject. The unauthorized use of human skin for bookbinding disrespects the deceased and raises ethical concerns about bodily autonomy.
  • Transparency and Openness: Harvard’s acknowledgment of the book’s disturbing history demonstrates a commitment to transparency and fosters public trust in the institution’s handling of sensitive materials.

This incident highlights the importance of ongoing research and reevaluation of historical collections. As ethical standards evolve, institutions have a responsibility to re-examine their holdings and ensure they are managed with respect and sensitivity.

The Legacy of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, though uncommon, was a documented phenomenon in Europe and the United States from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Several factors contributed to its prevalence:

  • Scarcity of Parchment: Prior to the widespread availability of paper, animal skin (parchment) was the primary material used for bookbinding. In some cases, human skin may have been seen as a suitable substitute, particularly when dealing with smaller items.
  • Medical Curiosity and Display: The medical field in the 18th and 19th centuries exhibited a fascination with human anatomy. Skin, due to its durability and unique properties, might have been used for anatomical models or even bookbinding as a way to showcase medical knowledge.
  • Morbid Sentimentalism: In rare instances, individuals might have requested the use of human skin for bookbinding as a morbid token of affection or remembrance for a deceased loved one.

However, the vast majority of anthropodermic bindings likely originated without the deceased’s consent, blurring the lines between morbid curiosity and ethical transgression.

The Fate of “Des Destinées de l’âme” and its Unethical Binding

Following the removal of the human skin, Harvard is currently determining the future of “Des Destinées de l’âme.” The university is collaborating with French authorities to identify a respectful and ethical way to dispose of the human remains.

The book itself, with its ethically sourced replacement cover, will likely be preserved in the library’s special collections for research purposes. This decision allows scholars to study the book’s historical and literary significance, while acknowledging the disturbing nature of its original binding.

The story of “Des Destinées de l’âme” serves as a potent reminder of the ethical complexities associated with historical artifacts. It compels institutions to continuously review their collections and engage in open conversations about provenance, respectful treatment of human remains, and the importance of ethical stewardship.

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