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Library's special collections home to a skin-crawling read

By Michelle Corbet
On October 28, 2011

As the special collections curator carefully handled the book bound with human skin, he talked about the distinct waxy smell of the 400 year old skin covering the outside of the book.  

The cover of the book has visible human pores. There are no pictures or words, just the tanned leather that used to be the skin off someone's back.  

The Ned McWherter Library's special collections section is home to the book titled, "Idolatrie Huguenotre" which translates to "Huguenots Idolatry." The author, Louis Richeome, a Catholic controversialist, wrote the text as testimony to his belief that Huguenots, or Protestants, are not "real Christians," said Ed Frank, curator of special collections.    

There are several theories about how this copy of Richeome's book became bound in human skin. Walter Brown, associate professor of history, believes this is a rare example of a religious fanatic.  

"I believe it was bound in the skin of a Protestant in the religious wars by a Catholic. It was a statement of religious conviction," he said.  

The University of Memphis acquired the book on Oct. 29, 1986. This Saturday will mark the 25th anniversary of special collections housing the book.

The University bought it from Burke's Book Store in Midtown for $500, who got it from the estate of Barry Brooks, a wealthy member of the Brooks family, for whom the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is named.

The oral tradition is that Brooks was traveling in France in the early 1950s when he went into a bookstore. He began speaking with the clerk about his love of collecting rarities. The clerk brought out the book bound with human skin and Brooks had to have it.    

"The University paid to have three different tests done in a lab to determine if the skin was actually human," Frank said.

The book, more than 700 pages, is filled with rag paper, typical of the time. Rag paper is literally made from old rags and won't age as quickly as modern paper, Frank said.  

Archivists refer to books bound in human skin as "anthropodermic bibliopegy." The first word, "anthropos" is a Greek term translated as a human being, plus "derma," meaning skin or hide. The second word consists of "biblion," or book, and "pegnunai," which means to fix.  

The technique of binding books with human skin dates back to the 17th century. Examples include anatomy books bound with the skin of deceased surgical patients, wills covered in the skin of the person who wrote them and records of judicial proceedings bound in the skin of the murderer.

Bounding books with human skin was very uncommon during the 17th century. When human skin is used, it comes with the intention to make a statement about a person or group, said Walter Brown, associate professor of history.

"The same reason people were burned at the stake, making a statement about an erroneous or dangerous religious sect, this is the way Catholics saw Protestants and Protestants saw Catholics," Brown said. "It is an act of religious intolerance."

Orientation guides mention the "human skin book" when they lead incoming freshman into the lobby of the library, often receiving astonished gasps.

"We mention that neat fact that students would be interested in, so students will want to come back to check it out and become interested in the resources the library has to offer," said Lindsey Widick, senior electrical engineering major.

The book is rarely handled and kept in a clamshell box in a temperature and humidity controlled room.  

"We make sure to say that it is not available for the public to view, you must see it by appointment, they need to supervise who is in the room with it," Widick said. 

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