Friday 27 April 2018

A new portrait of La Pérouse??

Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse,  1778.  
By Marie Renée Geneviève Brossard de Beaulieu/ Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Oil on canvas, 83.8cm x 66cm. 
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

This striking portrait is not quite a new acquisition, since it was given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2008, but it has only very recently appeared on the internet and does not seem to have been previously documented.  The image on Wikipedia was uploaded on 26th September 2017.  It was uploaded to "FineArtAmerica" on 30th October 2017 (so now you can buy a La Pérouse tote bag or yoga mat.....).

Sunday 22 April 2018

In search of La Pérouse.... in Albi

By an odd quirk of fate the main museum dedicated to La Pérouse in France is far from the sea, in La Pérouse's home town of Albi.  In the mid 18th-century Albi had a population of 9,000, a hundred or so of whom belonged to the nobility of Languedoc. The family Galaup de La Pérouse traced their pedigree back to the 16th century - the navigator's father had been consul of the town. Until the age of fifteen La Pérouse was educated by the Jesuits of Albi, on the site now occupied by the Lycée Lapérouse. The Château du Gô, where he was born, is still owned by his descendants:

The town has a central place Lapérouse with a bronze commemorative statue by Nicolas Raggi which dates from 1853. Bones from Vanikoro were ceremonially deposited in its base in 1988.

Saturday 21 April 2018

The La Pérouse's Voyage: the plates

The artists

He will direct the draughtsmen embarked on board the frigates, to take views of all remarkable places and countries, portraits of the natives of different parts, their dresses, ceremonies, games, buildings, boats and vessels, and all the productions of the sea and land, in each of the three kingdoms of nature, if he shall think that drawings of them will render the descriptions more intelligible.
Instructions to La Pérouse (Voyage, vol 1, p.38 of English translation):

Thursday 19 April 2018

La Pérouse's Voyage - publication history

French edition

Jean-François de Galaup, La Pérouse, comte de
Voyage de La Perouse autour du monde, publié conformément au Décret du 22 avril 1791 et rédigé par M.L.A. Milet-Mureau … A Paris, de L’lmprimerie de La République. An V [1797]

On Gallica:

The first edition was published in Paris in 1797 in four quarto volumes with an accompanying folio atlas containing 69 plates, maps and plans.

First edition in original pink leather binding
On sale for £17,500 with Shapero of Mayfair

Tuesday 17 April 2018

La Pérouse - highlights of the 2008 Expo

From 19th March to 20th October 2008, to coincide with the final expedition to Vanikoro, the musée de la Marine in Paris, in co-operation with the Association Salomon, staged an ambitious temporary exhibition Le mystère Lapérouse, enquête dans le Pacifique sud. As well as artefacts from the shipwrecks, the exhibition brought together a comprehensive set of paintings, maps  drawings and documents - 700 objects in all from a dozen different collections. Since the brochure and a few dossiers remain on the on the internet, I thought I would use the outline of the exhibition to pull together a few notes.

Saturday 14 April 2018

The mysterious end of La Pérouse

On 2nd March 1788 the two ships of the La Pérouse expedition, the most prestigous French voyage of exploration ever launched, left Botany Bay and were never heard from again. It was not until 1828 that it was discovered that they had been wrecked off the  remote island of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.   What had happen?  Were there survivors, and what was their ultimate fate?

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? Meudon

Jean-Baptiste Isabey, View of Meudon in 1791, Louvre

In Paris there were two further components to the allegations that human skins were being tanned for leather.  Firstly, the charge of wearing trousers or boots made from human hide was extended from the generals in the Vendée to their civilian colleagues in the Convention. Secondly there were persistent rumours, whether spontaneous or orchestrated, that a secret tannery had been set up at Meudon with the express purpose of processing human leather to equip the soldiers of the Republic.  Here we can afford to be more robust in our conclusions - there is no real evidence; it was all just nonsense, most of it malicious.

Accusations against the Deputies 

After Thermidor, it was an obvious strategy to associate the Jacobins in the Convention with military excesses by charging them with having worn clothing made from the skins of victims of the Terror.  According to Jean-Clément Martin, besides Barère, Vadier et Saint-Just, those implicated at one time or another included Billaud-Varenne, Drouet, Foussedoire, Javogues, Le Bas and Moulin (Un détail inutile, p. 61 et p. 144, note 103). The accusation was persistent and dogged surviving deputies for years to come.  It is difficult to pinpoint exact origins; the only written sources date from Restoration.  In later accounts the accusation is usually loosely associated with speculation concerning the tannery at Meudon.

"Cannibals are not capable of remorse" plate from Prudhomme's Dictionnaire des individus envoyés à la mort judiciairement (1796)

According to the journalist Prudhomme, one of the earliest and most quoted authorities, on the occasion of the Festival of the Supreme Being, 20 prairial Year II (8th  June 1794), the deputies wore their new ceremonial costume of "royal blue coats, with buckskin breeches"; but "several were dressed in breeches made of human skin, like those sent to Barère by a general in the Vendée". Prudhomme was a bitter opponent of the Terror and offers nothing to substantiate his observation.  It should also be noted that this passage does not come from Prudhomme's contemporary writings but from his Histoire impartiale which was only published in 1824.
Histoire impartiale des révolutions de France, vol.VIII (1824) p.390

Saint-Just, who was not around to defend himself, was often singled out.  A particularly nasty accusation, with overtones of sexual perversion, appeared in Harmand de la Meuse's memoirs of the Revolution, published in 1820:
A young woman, tall and shapely, had refused Saint-Just's advances; he had her taken to the scaffold. After the execution he wanted to have the corpse shown to him and the skin removed.   When this vile outrage had been committed, he had the skin  prepared by an oil tanner and wore it as breeches.  I heard this revolting fact from the actual person charged with these preparations, the man who actually satisfied the monster. He told me further details that I do not care to repeat, in my office in the Committee of General Security in the presence of two other people who are still living.
Jean-Baptiste Harmand de la Meuse, "Sur Saint-Just",  Anecdotes relatives à quelques personnes, et à plusieurs événements remarquables de la Révolution (1820)

This dubious tale has recently gained extra currency due to its appearance in Assassin's Creed: Unity, where it forms the basis of a discreet piece of gameplay, "Coat of Arms"; the tannery (in Paris rather than Meudon) is splendidly gory:

Jean-Baptiste Harmand de la Meuse  was Saint-Just's colleague in the National Convention in 1792-94, but the anecdote does not belong to his original work of 1814; it appeared only in the posthumous edition of 1820 which contained twelve new chapters "suppressed by the original censor".  Clearly by a different hand, the additions were  a literary embellishment  designed to make the work more sensationalist. Neither the name of the woman nor a definite date is given.  Later in the same section the author stretches his credibility by insisting that Revolutionaries produced oil from human corpses, which was sold for enamellers' lamps.

Anne Quenneday,  president of the Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just was so indignant that she was driven to quote the inventory from the sale of Saint-Just's personal effects in Year III: his wardrobe contained no human skin, just a blue cloth coat, and two pairs of  breeches, one in buckskin ("en peau de daim"), and the other again in blue cloth.

The tannery at Meudon

In November 1793 the Convention founded an establishment for munitions production and research in  the former château at Meudon.  It was controlled by a Commission of prominent scientists, engineers and military experts, who included such worthies as the chemists Fourcroy, Berthollet and Guyton de Morveau and the mathematician Claude Chappe, inventor of the optical telegraph. The work  - concerning gunpowder,cartridges, incendiary devices, aerostatics and such like - took place in strict military secrecy and there were large numbers of mysterious comings and goings, mostly the transport of munitions towards the frontier.

According to the 19th-century writer Georges Duval rumours of a secret tannery were rife at the time:
I can neither confirm or deny it... but I can tell you what everyone believed... that at Meudon the locals showed with strange terror the windows of the lower room of the old château where they claimed that horrible "manipulations" took place; each night they heard the rumbling of covered waggons, which brought the decapitated bodies  of the executed from the place de la Revolution to feed the tannery.
Georges Duval, Souvenirs de la Terreur, vol.4 (1842)  p.355

Unsurprisingly, the records of the Convention do not yield any corroboration.  After Thermidor, some initial concerns were raised about security at Meudon; Barras proposed to the Committee of Public Safety that two Representatives be sent to investigate but his proposal was not adopted;  Barère produced a report, calming fears and pointing out need for military secrecy. The Thermidoreans Bentabolle and Fréron exploited the establishment as a weapon to discredit the Terrorists;  Fréron in particular presented it as the centre of vast plot against public liberty -  but he made no reference to any illicit tannery.  Nor is there any mention in the denunciations or indictment of  Billaud, Collot, Vadier and Barère; their official defence commended  the "new machines and means of military defence" perfected at Meudon.

The accusations of the journalist Galletti

The first known published reference to the Meudon tannery appeared at the end of February 1795 to coincide with the initial moves against  Billaud, Collot, Vadier and Barère.  In number 872 of the Journal des Lois de la République,  dated 26th February 1795,  the Italian-born journalist Guglielmo Francesco Galletti  reported  in the section "Les on dit":
.... that our former leaders requisitioned the bodies of the guillotined, had them taken to Meudon,  had them flayed and their skins tanned, and that  Barère and Vadier wore boots made from the leather of their miserable victims.
The following issue explained that the skin from guillotined bodies had been used to make footwear for soldiers and that "the first trials of this new leather had been devoted to making boots for Saint-Just and Barère".  No wonder, he adds, that the government had taken such precautions to prevent anyone from entering the site! 
The accusation was immediately taken up in other journals and repeated with relish by the abbé Proyart in his La vie et les crimes de Robespierre which was published shortly afterwards  [1795, p. 279-80]

Galletti's key piece of evidence was the famous bookbinding belonging to Guillaume Villenave, now in the library of the Carnavalet. In an study published in 1872, the historian Louis Combes reproduced the text of a poster on blue paper  which was sold with the book when it was auctioned in 1864.  In it Galletti informs us that Barère and his colleagues  had denied his charge - also by means of a "big blue poster", plastered all over the walls of Paris. He complains that he had been singled out for attack, even though he was not the first to make the allegations.  If the tannery did not exist at Meudon, "it certainly existed elsewhere", since one of his subscribers has sent him a copy of the Constitution of 1793 printed in Dijon, chez Causse, and bound in human skin in imitation of natural calfskin  (le veau fauve).  It is a little suspicious to say the least that a book should  suddenly be produced when all the other references are to trousers or boots.  In all probablility Villenave, who was chief editor of Galletti's journal, orchestrated the whole episode;  as Louis Combes observes, the only reason he would have wanted such a relic was as a confirmation of Republican atrocities. (Combes, "Les tanneries de peau humaine", p.22-23). Hopefully, the Anthropodermic Book Project  will soon be allowed to examine the binding and we will know one way or another whether it is genuine human skin.

In the Convention Galletti was given short shrift.  The only response was a  letter from the Representatives at Meudon which denied "a malicious rumour, placed in several journals, that, under the former tyranny, human skins were tanned at Meudon to make leather". (Moniteur 11 ventôse , 2 March 1795)  The Thermidorean Merlin de Thionville, stated categorically: "We are not in a century where human skins are tanned" (12 ventôse; Journal des Débats et décrets, no.890, cited Combes, p.15-16)

A bogus report of August 1794

This is a superficially much more impressive source: the text of an official report, delivered on 14th August 1793, to the Commission des Moyens Extraordinaire pour la défense du pays by no less a personage than Saint-Just. It comes as no real surprise to learn that there never was such a report and that a Commission des Moyens Extraordinaire never really existed. The origin is a passage in the Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy, a dubious confection first published in 1834-5 with many subsequent additions.  The wording follows closely the abbé de Montgaillard's Histoire de France of 1827:

In the present climate of poverty and shortages, we must commend as an appreciable achievement,  the discovery of a method for tanning, in a few days, leathers which had previously required several years of preparation. At Meudon human skin is tanned and the production leaves nothing to be desired either in quality or preparation.  It is well known that Citizen Philippe-Égalité wears breeches of this sort, the material taken from the finest bodies of the executed.  The skin that comes from men is of a consistency and quality superior to chamois.  That of female subjects is more supple, but it lacks firmness due to the softness of the tissues.
Report of the Commission etc. 14th August 1793
Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy (really by Cousin de Courchamps (1783-1849)): vol.7

It would seem that it was the historian Émile Gabory, writing in 1927, who was responsible for the final part of the jigsaw, the reference to Saint-Just.   Careful reading shows that Gabory simply juxtapositioned the general question, "Did Saint-Just not propose to use the hides of the dead?", with a quote from the report, without relating the two.  Anne Quenneday expresses her surprise that he was taken in:  "One must marvel that an archivist trained in the École des Chartes in the critical analysis of documents did not realise so crude a forgery as the report of the "Commission des moyens etc." (art. cit., note 8)

An industrial process?

A final element to the myth of Meudon, was the idea that the Revolutionaries dehumanised their victims to the extent of making the tanning of human skin into an industrial process.  A certain Séguin, so the story goes, came to the Convention with a proposal for a new method of tanning and was set up at Meudon to process human hides on an industrial scale.  

What people in Europe does not dismiss as a fable the establishment of a tannery of human skin at Meudon?   However, it might be remembered that a man came to the bar of the Convention to announce a new and simple procedure for preparing an abundance of leather; that the Committee of Public Safety (of Carnot) granted him a site at the château of Meudon, whose doors were carefully closed, and finally that Barrère, Vadier and others were the first to wear boots made of human  hide. 
Auguste Danican,  Les brigands démasqués (1796) p.186

See also: Joseph-François-Nicolas Dusaulchoy de Bergemont, "Tannerie de peau humaine" in Mosaique historique, littéraire et politique, vol. 1 (1818), p.145

Like all the best tall tales, this one only slightly distorts the truth. The events took place not in the Terror but after Thermidor, when the Committee of Public Safety charged Berthollet with rectifying the Republic's chronic shortage of leather.  After many experiments Armand Séguin succeeded in using extracted tanin to speed up the production of leather and, by a decree of the Convention dated 14 Nivôse III,  was made director of a new State tannery.  The works was located not in the château of Meudon, but close by, on the Île-de-Sèvres (now Île Seguin) in the Seine - later well known as the site of the Renault car factoryLouis Combes  gives short shrift to the idea that Séguin, who was soon tanning  fifty thousand hides a year to supply the armies of the Empire, really bothered to experiment with human skins.  (Combes p.19-20)


Louis Combes, "Les tanneries de peau humaine", Épisodes et curiosités révolutionnaires (1872), p.1-31

Henri Allorge, "Tanneries de peau humaine", Le Courrier d'Epidaure. Revue médico-littéraire.... 1934/01, p.39-48

Anne Quennedey, "Saint-Just dans Assassin's Creed Unity: une mise en point",  Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just [website]

Sunday 8 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? An incident in Colmar

 Morel, portrait by JJ. Casimir Karpff
One further incident suggests the tanning of human skin could be entertained - if only as a crass scientific experiment - in the Revolutionary period.

The episode in question took place not in the Vendée but in Colmar in Alsace. On 5 Thermidor an II (23rd July 1794), the  Revolutionary Commission of Haut-Rhin ordered the arrest of a certain doctor Gabriel Morel, together with the tanner, Jean Ziegler and the trouser-maker, Jacques Maus.   Morel, ouvrier de santé in the military hospital at Colmar, had "removed the skin from a guillotined man and had it tanned to be made into trousers". Maus had reportedly kept the skin in his shop for several months where he had shown it to anyone who asked to see it. (He testified that he had found it impossible to work and tried to return it to Morel but had never found him at home.) 

According to the procès-verbal of his interrogation preserved in the muncipal archives, when asked whether he had found treating a human hide repulsive, Ziegler had replied that "it was no more repugnant to tan the skin of a man than that of a dog". He was then asked what he would charge to tan a dog's hide, to which he replied 4 livres; but added that he had not charged Morel, who was his doctor.
(La Nouvelle revue,1920/05,

The chief culprit, Gabriel Louis François Anaclet Morel (1769-1842) was a young man of precocious talent.  The son of a hospital director and demonstrator of anatomy in Colmar, he had become doctor of medicine and surgery at the age of eighteen.  At the start of the Revolution he had been studying in Paris, but returned to Colmar where he was given a commission as a military surgeon.   Until his departure for the army in 1792 Morel had led a batalliion of National Guard.  He and his co-accused were active members of the Jacobins of Colmar.  At the time of the arrest order he was assigned to the military hospital in Mainz, where he was responsible for 5,000 wounded and sick soldiers.  

According to the minutes of the Popular Society of Colmar, at the session of 16 thermidor, the two official defenders, Blanchard and Jacques Klimrath asked members to affirm Morel's "civisme";  he was supported by his colleagues Vivot and Metzger, but Chausse-Loup, a member of the Commission,  was of the opinion that he had exhibited "a profound immorality"  from earliest infancy.  Vivot, a  doctor at the military hospital,  defended his patriotism and his talent as a doctor and anatomist: far from being reprehensible his action was "necessary for the instruction of artists of this genre";  tanned human skins were commonplace  in the cabinets de curiosités of Paris, and  the body in question had been abandoned by the public prosecutor, who had jurisdiction over it.  He also answered previous accusations of immoral behaviour by Morel, that he had ferretted in the entrails of his dead father (the father had ordered a postmortem) and killed his mother by a cure on her leg ("not all interventions are fortunate").  On 18 thermidor the Society reiterated the need for Morel's services in the hospital.  The Commission acceded and the seals were removed from his surgical instruments, and from the skin itself,which had been impounded. The Revolutionary Commission was subsequently disbanded and the charges against the three men dropped.  Morel appeared before the Society to express his gratitude and was given a "fraternal accolade".
Les Jacobins de Colmar: procès-verbaux des séances de la Société populaire (1791-1795)

The National Archives in Paris, preserves a letter from Morel's co-accused asking for their case to be considered: these robust working men still seemed oblivious to the gravity of their offence.

Citizens Jean Ziegler, chamoiseur, and Jean-Jacques Maus, culottier, to Citizen Garnerin, agent of the Committee of Public Safety.


We have been deprived, for several days, of our liberty. We are going to explain to you the cause.
About ten décades ago, citizen Morel, doctor of this commune, arrived at the premises of one of us, Ziegler, with a request to tan a human skin. 

 The consideration Morel enjoyed in his profession decided me not to refuse.  I thought he wanted it for his cabinet of anatomy.  Once it was tanned, he went to Maus, also one of us, whom he engaged to make him a pair of breeches.  I agreed to his request, because I thought I could do no better than to carry out the wishes of so well-considered a citizen.

Since by this action we have neither compromised the public good, nor hampered its progress, we have reason to hope that you will help us; we are both fathers of families useful to the Fatherland.

Ziegler has at this moment 500 hides all destined to supply the cavalry, which are at danger of spoiling.

Maus would be occupied in clothing our brave defenders.  Hasten our release or expedite our judgment

Maus, culottier
Ziegler, chamoiseur 
Archives nationales, dossier 8, piece 60.quoted in Adolphe Guillot, Paris qui souffre : la basse geôle du Grand-Châtelet et les morgues modernes (1888) p,69-70.

The Revolutionary authorities bowed before realism and necessity.  However, the records of the Commission make it quite clear that, even in the middle of the Terror, the violation of a human corpse was considered totally unacceptable: "These three individuals can only be regarded as reprehensible and counter-revolutionary; the mere idea of their action brings a shudder to republicans, for whom humanity is the first duty..."

Recently auctioned portrait Morel & his wife, by JJ. Casimir Karpff

Morel was not a real criminal. The affair gives the impression of a thoughtless young man, too full of professional arrogance to consider the implications of his amusement de laboratoire.  He was to go on to enjoy a long and illustrious career.  He was founder and professor at the Maternity Hospital of the Haut-Rhin, deputy, conseiller général, and from 1813 to 1815 mayor of Colmar.  The consensus was that his later good deeds more than redeemed his reputation.


 "Culottes en peau humaine", La Nouvelle revue, 1920/05

Jacques Betz, "Gabriel-Louis-Francois-Anaclet Morel, 1769-1842, medicin et maire de Colmar"  Annuaire / [Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Colmar], vol.27, 1778, p.27-

The account of the incident in L’intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux for 30th March 1936 embellishes the story by supplying a named victim:  Joseph Thomas, a saintly priest from Guebwiller in Alsace who was guillotined on 11th December 1793 at Colmar:
In the Haut-Rhin, the memory is preserved  of a macabre and odious incident which took place in Colmar during the Revolution. After the execution of the saintly abbé Thomas of Guebwiller, who was condemned to death for emigration, the executioner sold to doctor Moret the flayed skin of the victim. The doctor had it tanned and had made from it a pair of trousers which he wore proudly, telling the tale of their origin.  The people of Colmar were so outraged that the authorities had to intervene: the trousers were seized and the executioner and tanner condemned for theft.  Doctor Morel himself was not troubled and even became to mayor of the town.  He subsequently showed himself more humane and redeemed himself by numerous acts of generosity and by his irreproachable administration of the town and civil hospital.
 F. Schaedelin, "Peau humaine tannée",ICC, 30 mars 1936,

 (The 1978 article by Jacques Betz, on the other hand identifies the victim as "the mayor of Soultzbach, who was accused of murder and guillotined - what's the story there, I wonder?)

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? An war crime in the Vendée

The charge that French Revolutionaries tanned the hides of executed prisoners to make boots and trousers seems extravagant, but it has been surprisingly persistent.  Repeated throughout the 19th century, it has recently taken on a whole new lease of life on the internet.  Sometimes the interest is merely ghoulish;  but the allegation has also been used, most conspicuously by Reynald Secher,  to support  the idea of a "genocide" in the Vendée. 

In 2014 Jean-Clément Martin devoted a whole book  to "establishing the truth about flaying human skins and tanning them", in which  he reviewed the documentary evidence and explored the cultural context.  He entitled his book, "Un detail inutile?". Useless detail?  No indeed;  when viewed superficially, the cumulative weight of evidence seems impressive, but its limitations are soon revealed under the searching gaze of "la microhistoire".

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Books bound in human skin....

"Anthropodermic bibliopegy", the art of binding books in human skin,  has always excited a macabre interest, and the French are often said to have been particular exponents.  A handful of bindings, with highly variable claims to authenticity, are scattered in libraries and museums around the world, but until recently there has been  no reliable way to verify them.  The "Anthropodermic Book Project", based in the States, has now come up with the science to put them to the test.  The technique, called Peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), makes it  possible to distinguish between different mammalian species (including humans) using very small samples of collagen-based materials such as leather or parchment.  So far (as of August 2017) the team has identified forty-eight potential bindings and  tested thirty-two, of which eighteen - just over half - have been verified as genuine human skin.  The real ones are mostly 19th-century and are usually very specific novelty items.

For the moment the Project has been confined to US collections and most, though not all,  the bindings are Anglo-Saxon in origin; that said, the few 17th and 18th-century French books tested have come off particularly badly......


A book on the Huguenots 

This tome, held by the University of Memphis Libraries, is a  copy of L’Idolatrie Huguenote by the Jesuit Louis Richeome, published in Lyon 1608.  It was originally bought by a Memphis cotton merchant Berry Brooks, in antiquarian bookshop in Paris on the understanding that it was bound in human skin, presumably that of an unfortunate Protestant.  It was acquired by UML in 1986.
Tested by Dan Kirby of the Anthropodermic Book Project in 2015; verdict: "Sheepskin".

Gerald Chaudron, "It's not human!": another example of anthropodermic bibliopegy discredited", RBM, Vol 18, No 1 (2017).

Book from the library of the abbé Bignon

This little book, which once belonged to Louis XIV's librarian, the abbé Bignon, was said by the bibliophile JimThompson to be the earliest authentic example of an anthropodermic binding.  It is a copy of  Relation des mouvemens de la ville de Messine printed in 1675, containing a manuscript.note "À la Bibliothèque de M. Bignon. Reliure en peau humaine"  It is now  in UCLA Library.  In 2017 Dan Kirby was invited to put it to the test;  the verdict?  "Sheepskin".

Perhaps more interesting than our now definitive answer to the species of bookbinding material for this book, is the question of why anyone would ever write in the first page of their book that it was bound in human skin. Romantic, macabre, increase the market value? Some books in other libraries have revealed, after testing, to indeed be bound in human skin -- clearly our curiosity about this uncommon bookbinding practice remains.
Consuela Metzger, "Human skin binding at UCLA?" UCLA Library blog, 20.03.2017.

A book from the Revolution at Bancroft Library

This 17th-century prayerbook, in the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, was reported to have been bound during the Revolution in the skin of a guillotined priest.  It was tested in December 2015.  This one wasn't real either: the catalogue entry has now been amended to read: "bound in horsehide, resembling black pebble-grained morocco".

Cody Hennesy, "Book bound in human skin?""What's New". Bancroft Library, post of 16.06.2016


Copy of the Constitution of 1793, in the musée Carnavalet

The book in question,  a tiny copy of the Jacobin Constitution, printed in Dijon, chez Causse  was (and still is) the central piece of evidence supporting the existence of  a tannery of human skin at Meudon during the Terror.  It was originally in the collection of Guillaume de Villenave. After several sales, it was purchased by the Carnavalet in 1889 from the estate of the marquis de Turgot; it is accompanied by a manuscript note indicating that the binding is of human skin; the museum's register also identifies it as the"famous binding in duodecimo having belonged to Villenave and passing for human skin imitating calf".  Its authenticity was said to have been verified by a certain doctor Robin.

Writing in Le monde illustré for 16th April 1898, Lenotre described it as "miniature book covered in soft, yellowish leather"(quoted by Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, Histoires d'os et autres illustres abattis (2012),p.191-2)  A contributor to  L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux who had seen a similar copy of the 1793 Constitution in Lyon at the Palais des Arts, said the binding was no different to "the ordinary dark tint of the faun colour" (1882, p.446, cited by Jim Chevalier - see ref. below)

The book doesn't feature in the Carnavalet's online collections - possibly because it is in the library rather than the museum - but it is still there:  Megan Rosenbloom, a librarian at the University of Southern California  and a member of the Anthropodermic Book Project, saw it in 2016 and described it as bound in a rich, deep camel brown leather, with gold tooling and marbled endpapers. She reported that the Project was hoping to negotiate access.

Megan Rosenbloom, "A book by its cover: the strange history of books bound in human skin" Lapham's Quarterly Round table, 19.10.2016


The Anthropodermic Book Project website

Megan Rosenbloom, "A book by its cover: the strange history of books bound in human skin" Lapham's Quarterly Round table, 19.10.2016

Jim Chevalier, "The Macabre: Human skin" in Sundries: an eighteenth century newsletter, no.26 15 April 2006   [translates extracts from L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux (ICC)]
The ICC, a French Notes and Queries, was an indefatigable source of rumours about suspect book bindings. In reality they didn't amount to much. In addition to the books discussed, Jim Chevalier lists:
A copy of the abbé Nollet's Essai sur l'electricité des corps (1746) in possession of the library of Macon, which according to an old note was bound in human skin.  This skin was said to be "without grain....extraordinarily fine and lightly soapy to the touch". 
A set of the 1765 edition of the Encyclopédie, said by the Courier bound in human skin in 1793:"This kind of binding was widely used; there were factories where human skin was tanned absolutely like the leather of cattle or horses, and handsome volumes were made from it which sold at insane prices"  (both referred to in ICC 1910-12, p.771).  

Lawrence Sidney Thompson, "Religatum de Pelle Humana" in Bibliologia comica; or, Humorous aspects of the caparisoning and conservation of books (1966)
Thompson couldn't find much from 18th-century France either: see p.129:

Sherry Lochhaas, "The Macabre Of Bookbinding: Anthropodermic Bibliopegy", American Bookbinders Museum, post of 24.10.16.

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