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Harvard University apologized for possessing a French book from the 1880s that was bound with human skin, which has now been removed from the volume.

In a statement released last Thursday, the library service of the oldest university in the United States announced that they had “removed the human skin from the binding of a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s book Des destinées de l’âme (1880s) held by the Houghton Library.” The Harvard libraries acknowledged their failures in this matter, which they said affected the dignity of a human being whose remains had been used to bind the book. They apologized to those who have been affected by this revelation.

The university, founded in 1636 in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, deplored that these “practices do not conform to the ethical standards it has set for itself.” Arsène Houssaye (1814–1896) was a French writer, journalist, literary critic and collector whose work Des destinées de l’âme is a reflection and meditation on life after death.

In 2014, Harvard’s library service revealed, after scientific tests, that this book, which they had acquired in 1934 from a former student of the early 20th century, was covered and bound with the flesh and skin of a human being. A decade ago, Harvard explained that the French writer had shown his book to a doctor and bibliophile, Ludovic Bouland (1839–1933). The latter then had the idea of binding the book with the skin of a patient suffering from mental disorders who had died suddenly, without “any consent,” as Harvard specified.

Experts call this practice “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” The doctor, Bouland, left a note reproduced in the press in 2014, “This book is bound in parchmented human skin (…) By looking at it carefully, one can easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book on the human soul deserved to be given a human garment.”

Harvard stated that its “library is now researching the provenance and biographical elements of the book, on Bouland and the anonymous patient, and consulting with relevant authorities at the university and in France to find out how to dispose of these human remains in a respectful manner.” The New York Times recalls that Harvard, which maintains libraries and museums, had completed a large inventory in 2022 of more than 20,000 human remains in its collections of books and works of art, as a way of acknowledging its role in slavery and colonialism from the end of the 17th century, according to the newspaper.

This disturbing discovery raises important ethical questions about the treatment of human remains and the practices of institutions in the past. It is a stark reminder of the dark history of colonialism, slavery and the exploitation of marginalized individuals, even in the realm of academia and art. Harvard’s decision to remove the human skin from the book and to investigate the origins of this macabre practice is a step towards addressing this troubling legacy.

With AFP