Imagine opening a prayer book each evening in your bare hands, knowing it was bound in actual human skin.
It’s something that Clare Gervasoni, curator at the Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre at Federation University could do if she so chose.
The book, marvellously titled Touching the Full Redemption of Mankind by the Death and Blood of Christ Jesus, is part of the collection and was the most requested item for History Week, which finished on Friday.
Ms Gervasoni said the centre posed a challenge on social media for the public, asking staff to find something in the collection that's of interest or very rare.
“We decided to highlight our collections by selecting what the curator and the volunteers considered to be treasures,” Ms Gervasoni said.
“Other people may not consider them treasures, but we got an eclectic range of things out for people to have a look; the laughter was quite raucous. They were looking at the tubes used to supposedly prevent VD for WWI soldiers, so that usually makes people laugh.”
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The book bound in human skin (which has been DNA tested and found genuine) dates from 1599. It's a book of religious sermons and texts, printed in English with passages in Latin, Ms Gervasoni says, and about the size of a regular Bible. She says the centre was alerted to the possibility of the book being bound in the skin of a person by Federation University’s bio-med unit, who said it looked exactly like what they might expect to see on a mortuary slab.
And… where exactly was it taken from someone’s body?
“It would have to be from the back,” Ms Gervasoni says.
“Look, it’s been tanned. We don’t exactly know how we came to have the book in the collection, we have had a museum since the 1870s, so it’s either come from the remains of that, or over time people bring curios in and don’t take them home.”
Some of the other requested information was about the work of famed Ballarat architect Henry Caselli; the number of orphanages and children's home in Ballarat through history (answer: over 20); the leather strap used on students at Ballarat Junior Technical School as punishment; and the existence of mythical creatures such as wild pumas in the region.
By the way, the practice of binding books in human skin is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy.