Harvard University removes human skin binding from historic book

An edition of Arsène Houssaye's “Des destinées de l'ame” in the Harvard library will finally no longer have the human skin binding that came from a woman who died in a psychiatric hospital in France

After years of controversy and criticism, Harvard University has made the significant decision to remove a human skin-bound book from its library collection, a move that has ignited ethical debates and reflections on the treatment of human remains within historical collections.

This book, an edition of Arsène Houssaye‘s Des destinées de l’ame, had been a subject of curiosity and controversy for decades. The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, which spread in the seventeenth century, is known only in a few dozen volumes.

In recent years, advances in genetic material analysis techniques have made it easier to confirm the human origin of these bindings. In the specific case of the Harvard book, it was discovered that the human skin used came from a woman who had died in a psychiatric hospital in France, raising ethical and moral questions.

Despite the library having sometimes presented the volume humorously in the past, the growing debate on human dignity led the university to make a radical decision. Following pressure from some academics and a working group formed to study the issue, Harvard decided to remove the human skin binding and replace it with a new one.

This decision, according to the Harvard Library officials, was deemed necessary “due to the ethically complex nature of the book’s origins and its history.” Harvard has acknowledged the importance of this matter and apologized for objectifying and compromising human dignity.

The book housed in the Harvard Library is an edition of Des destinées de l’ame by nineteenth-century French writer and poet Arsène Houssaye. It was acquired and brought to the library by American diplomat John B. Stetson in the 1930s.

The binding was carried out by its first owner, a French doctor, who inserted a note in the volume claiming that “a book on the human soul deserves to have a human binding.”

The library also announced that the book will now be accessible online and physically through a new binding, while the original binding will be the subject of further discussions to decide what to do with it.

Source: Harvard Library

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