Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Garnet Book Images

By way of follow-up to yesterday's post regarding the rare book up for auction on Sunday which may bear the image of its subject, the good folks at Wilkinson's Auctioneers in Doncaster have sent me some further information about the book and some images, which are used here with permission.

There are two key issues here from the original press report: is the book bound in human skin, and does the front cover bear the image of a man's face? Wilkinsons' description of the book reads that the volume is "believed to be bound in human skin, possibly that of the aforementioned Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet."

I have some concerns on both points. First, the classic article on the use of human skin in bookbinding, "Tanned Human Skin" (1946) notes that the practice was quite uncommon until the time of the French Revolution, though not entirely unknown before that time, as some seventeenth-century examples have been found. Also, Dr. John Stockon-Hough, who experimented with anthropodermic binding during the late nineteenth century reported that most human skin is fairly coarse-grained; he had managed to obtain a sample which was "almost indistinguishable" from pigskin, but that came from a woman's thigh. The material used to bind the Garnet book appears quite fine-grained from the photographs, and without evidence to the contrary it seems just as likely that it's a standard form of vellum rather than treated human skin. I suppose a close examination would answer this question, so if any experts in vellum bindings near Doncaster have a go at it, I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Further, I have been unable to discover any evidence that Garnet's skin was removed from his body following his execution (unlike his head, which was placed atop a pole near London Bridge and shocked people by remaining lifelike and refusing to rot; contemporaries reported crowds of up to 500 people coming to stare at the macabre object). Such things are generally kept quite close track of (witness the bloody cornhusk which supposedly bore Garnet's image - that was kept in a crystal case and smuggled out of England!), so the fact that no mention can be found of Garnet's skin being used to bind a copy of the account of his trial is rather telling. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I would certainly like to see more evidence before I accept it.

To the second question, of whether a face appears on the unbacked front cover of the book, I'll let the pictures speak. There are clear areas of discoloration on the cover, which appear from the second picture to be the result of thinner vellum there (notice how more light shines through the "face" area when the cover is held open). Grisly supernatural phenomenon, or not? You'll have to be the judge of that.

Regardless, the auctioneers have played this up well, and certainly gotten some attention for the sale of this book. Whether or not it's bound in human skin (let alone that of Garnet), and whether or not bears a ghostly image, A True And Perfect Relation Of The Whole Proceedings Against The Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet A Jesuit And His Confederates is a rare title by any measure, and an interesting copy like this should sell strongly. After Sunday's bidding I'll pass along the results.

[Update: Sky News' article on the book contains some comments from the volume's current (anonymous) owner, including a translation of the Latin inscription on the front cover: "
severe penitence punished the flesh." The owner "believes that marks on the leather are evidence of torture" (Garnet is not known to have been tortured, although he was certainly threatened with the rack as part of extensive interrogations). The owner also told Sky that he hopes the book will go to a museum so that it can be viewed by the public (if that's the case, why he decided to have it sold rather than donating it he doesn't say).]

[Further update: Sales info here]