Lesson #351: On Books Bound in Human Skin

One of my MA thesis committee members posted an article to Facebook today that was right up my alley. It’s about the books in Harvard’s collection that are bound with human skin. Now, I like dark, but this is full on macabre. But it’s also fascinating!

There’s not really a lot to say here. The practice of using human leather to bind books, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, wasn’t common, but it also wasn’t uncommon. It was mostly practiced in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the earliest example is a 13th century French Bible and there are examples well into the 19th century. Human skin was used to bind a wide array of books, including prayer books, which I find funnier than I probably should, and anatomy texts, including one housed at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which includes the inscription, “The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.”

A number of the more interesting examples include:

Justine et Juliette by the Marquis de Sade, copies of which were bound using skin from female breasts sent from medical interns (who apparently later lost their internships).*

– The memoirs of notorious highwayman James Allen, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, who requested that after his execution, a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and presented to John Fenno, Jr. whom he shot during a robbery after the latter stood up to him. The cover of the Fenno book itself bears the words, Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est, which translates to “this book by [Allen] is bound in his own skin.”

– A copy of Éloge du sein des femmes by the French satirist, Claude-François-Xavier Mercier was reportedly bound in human skin for a private collector and included an intact nipple on the cover.**

– A copy of Camille Flammarion’s astronomy text, Terres du ciel,*** which was bound using a strip of skin from between the shoulders of a young woman, apocryphally called a countess, who admired Flammarion’s work and requested that he bind something after her death from tuberculosis.****

– A copy of the 17th century Spanish canon law textPracticarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, which includes the inscription, “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa 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.”

– A copy of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuit and his Confederates was bound in the skin of Father Henry Garnet, who was a Jesuit priest who, while not an active participant, heard confessions of conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Reports are that his face was used to bind the cover. This book was auctioned off to a private collector, for $11,000, in 2007.****** However (and this is a big however), this breakdown by a man who knows old books is a good examination of how the myth sounds better than the reality. This article points out all the failings with the supposition that the book is bound using Garnet’s skin at all, nevermind his facial skin.

So…yeah. Apparently, human leather has a distinct waxy smell, compared with other leathers, and a coarser grain.

Good stuff!

*see the bottom of page 98 of this article from the NIH entitled “Tanned Human Skin.”

**see the bottom of page 99 of “Tanned Human Skin.”

***If you think you’re seeing an awful lot of French titles, it’s because you are.

****see page 100 of “Tanned Human Skin,” which includes a description of the events from Flammarion himself.

*****see here and here

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.

Lesson #246: Herod’s Tomb

It’s been a while (since my holiday in the Middle East, in fact) since religious history made its way into the lessons. Religion seems to come up in waves in my life and I’m riding out one of those waves at the moment…the Durkheim discussion the other night, the Pew Research article and the premiere of the latest installment of Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary, Baseball* yesterday and today, I happened to stumble on information about Herod’s tomb.

Herod’s tomb was recently discovered (in 2007, which in archaeological terms is like if it happened this morning in the real world**) at the site of the Herodium, 8 miles south of Jerusalem. Archaeologists discovered an ornately embellished broken sarcophagus on the site — though no bones…it is suspected that the rebels may have removed them during the Jewish War — of Herod’s hilltop fortress, a site built up, quite literally — Herod built a mountain from a low hill —  in celebration of a victory over the Parthians in 40 CE and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE in response to rebels using it as a second base of operations.*** Ongoing excavations have also uncovered a theatre and frescoes at the Herodium.

A couple of related articles, here is a very interesting article about what killed Herod, as decided by modern doctors about ten years ago.  This is a really good examination of the legacy of Herod the Great that describes his career as “daring and bloodstained,” which, though flowery, is spot on.

*Lest you think that’s sacrilege, see the opening narration of the movie Bull Durham (it starts around 1:25). Also, this is at least the third time Bull Durham has been mentioned in this blog. Like with reading The Iliad, if you haven’t seen it, it’s time.

**Seriously, the guy who discovered it had been looking for it since 1972. 35 years just looking for something. This is why I’m not an archaeologist. I once told an archaeologist colleague of my mother’s that while I find the subject fascinating, I don’t have the patience to dig for five months just to find a few pottery sherds.

***For the historical dates and stuff, see Josephus’ The Jewish War.

Lesson #186: Van Gogh’s Suicide

I refuse to admit how this subject came up, so let’s just say I was reading up on Van Gogh today and leave it at that.

As everyone on the planet with a grade 3 education knows, Van Gogh cut off his ear and later committed suicide. He also painted things like sunflowers and villages with stars overhead and assorted other famous things, but those are secondary to his having cut off his ear and later committed suicide.

It turns out, he shot himself in the chest, which seems like a rather ignominious end for an artist. Even an unknown artist.*

Autobiographical note: A conversation about this piece of information between me and my friend in the Texas capital somehow moved onto Merriweather Lewis’ death and whether that was suicide, murder or syphilis which led us to James Wilkinson, which led us to the Burr/Wilkinson independent west conspiracy, which led us to a whole discussion about what happens if Burr and Wilkinson succeed including discussions on the War of 1812, the Spanish, the French and the Louisiana Purchase which led us to my disdain for and irrational anger towards people whose argument regarding either of the World Wars is “if it weren’t for XYZ, we’d all be speaking German now”** which led us to the USA Soccer, the World Cup and the Daily Show.

*I admit that I think this just because in my head suicidal artists should find more, well, artistic ways to off themselves. (Not that I think killing oneself  is a good thing, just that I hold artists to a higher standard.)  Like the English painter Robert Fagan who jumped out of a window in Rome. Or the myriad artists who drowned themselves or slit their wrists.  Or, best, like the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl who disemboweled himself after an affair with the wife of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

**A logically, but more importantly to me historically, preposterous statement.

Lesson #111: Necrophilia

This post is probably a bit sacrilegious given that today is Easter, but it’s what I learned today, so…

Apparently necrophilia was such a problem in antiquity that the Egyptians would let bodies decompose for three or four days before the embalming/mummification process began. This is not just some random nothing website saying this. It is recorded in Herodotus’ fifth century work The Histories.

Also, Herod the Great*, according to legend, continued to have sex with his (first) wife’s corpse for seven years after he had her murdered. I can’t find any verification for this (not that I would), but this website has an interesting interpretation of Herod’s life in general.

*Who despite all his crazy and general viciousness, was actually responsible for a tremendous number of architectural engineering feats in the ancient world. That’s just something I happen to know. If you want more about it, you’re on your own. There’s baseball on…I’m not doing research on things I already know.

Lesson #64: The Northern Lights

According to Inuit legends, the aurora borealis are created by the torches of the spirits of deceased friends and ancestors who are out to hunt and fish or seeking out the souls of the recently departed to lead them into the afterlife. Another tribe of Inuit thought the northern lights to be a game played between spirits (involving a walrus skull), and yet another Inuit tribe (specifically the Point Barrow Inuit) considered the auroras evil and armed themselves with knives.

More information on the native legends of the northern lights can be found here.

Lesson #14: Cadaver Effigies and Jane Austen Are Not as Unrelated as You Think

While trying to find information on something wholly unrelated (and failing at everything but learning the name of a long-dead bishop/scholar*), I discovered by accident that Jane Austen is interred in Winchester Cathedral in Winchester, England. People more well-read than I probably knew that; I suppose it’s not a secret. Then again, I’ve never been much of a Jane Austen fan. Mr. Darcy does nothing for me. I’m a philistine, I know — though I prefer to think of it as being a non-romantic.

An interesting post by the Jane Austen Society of Australia on why a (then) relative unknown is buried in the cathedral with Anglo-Saxon kings and medieval bishops can be found here.

*Dear internet, you are not the magical tool I thought you were. If you can teach me about astrophysics, why can’t I learn what is in the hand of the cadaver effigy of Richard Fox?