The binding material of the Spanish law book published in
1605-1606 was determined after an analysis of nine samples of its
front and back covers, binding and glue, Karen Beck, a rare books
curator at Harvard Law School Library, said on Friday.
The Harvard conservation scientist who conducted the testing used a
technique for identifying proteins called peptide mass
fingerprinting to differentiate the samples from other parchment
sources such as cattle, deer, goat and human skin, Beck wrote in a
post on the Harvard Law School Library blog. The glue was found to
consist of cattle and pig collagen.
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
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
The book — and its sheepskin binding — are being digitized and will
be available through the university's online library system later
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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 memorialized 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 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 leathers 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
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Shumaker)
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