Essays

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon

This October marks 300 years since the birth of French Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot. Although perhaps best known for co-founding the Encylopédie, Philipp Blom argues for the importance of Diderot's philosophical writings and how they offer a pertinent alternative to the Enlightenment cult of reason spearheaded by his better remembered contemporaries Voltaire and Rousseau. more

The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture

The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture

Why do we so seldom see people smiling in painted portraits? Nicholas Jeeves explores the history of the smile through the ages of portraiture, from Da Vinci's Mona Lisa to Alexander Gardner's photographs of Abraham Lincoln. more

Proving it: The American Provers’ Union Documents Certain Ill Effects

Proving it: The American Provers’ Union Documents Certain Ill Effects

What would induce physicians to ingest mercury to the point of vomiting and to painstakingly note down the effects of imbibing large amounts of cannabis tincture? Alicia Puglionesi explores the history of "proving", the practice of auto-experimentation which forms the cornerstone of homeopathic medicine. more

The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse

The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse

In contrast to today's rather mundane spawn of coffeehouse chains, the London of the 17th and 18th century was home to an eclectic and thriving coffee drinking scene. Matthew Green explores the halcyon days of the London coffeehouse, a haven for caffeine-fueled debate and innovation which helped to shape the modern world. more

Re-examining “the Elephant Man”

Re-examining “the Elephant Man”

Nadja Durbach questions the extent to which Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was exploited during his time in a Victorian “freakshow”, and asks if it wasn't perhaps the medical establishment, often seen as his saviour, who really took advantage of Merrick and his condition. more

Robert Baden-Powell’s Entomological Intrigues

Robert Baden-Powell’s Entomological Intrigues

In 1915 Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide Scouts movement, published his DIY guide to espionage, My Adventures as a Spy. Mark Kaufman explores how the book's ideas to utilise such natural objects as butterflies, moths and leaves, worked to mythologize British resourcefulness and promote a certain 'weaponization of the pastoral'. more

Lucian’s Trips to the Moon

Lucian’s Trips to the Moon

With his Vera Historia, the 2nd century satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote the first detailed account of a trip to the moon in the Western tradition and, some argue, also one of the earliest science fiction narratives. Aaron Parrett explores how Lucian used this lunar vantage point to take a satirical look back at the philosophers of Earth and their ideas of "truth". more

Sir Arthur and the Fairies

Sir Arthur and the Fairies

In the spring of 1920, at the beginning of a growing fascination with spiritualism brought on by the death of his son and brother in WWI, Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case of the Cottingley Fairies. Mary Losure explores how the creator of Sherlock Holmes became convinced that the 'fairy photographs' taken by two girls from Yorkshire were real. more

Mother Goose’s French Birth (1697) and British Afterlife (1729)

Mother Goose’s French Birth (1697) and British Afterlife (1729)

Christine Jones explores the early English translations of Charles Perrault's 1697 collection of fairy tales and how a change in running order was key to them becoming the stories for children which we know today. more

Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx

Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx

More than 170 years before Jean-François Champollion had the first real success in translating Egyptian hieroglyphs, the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was convinced he had cracked it. He was very wrong. Daniel Stolzenberg looks at Kircher's Egyptian Oedipus, a book that has been called “one of the most learned monstrosities of all times.” more

As a Lute out of Tune: Robert Burton’s Melancholy

As a Lute out of Tune: Robert Burton’s Melancholy

In 1621 Robert Burton first published his masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy, a vast feat of scholarship examining in encyclopaedic detail that most enigmatic of maladies. Noga Arikha explores the book, said to be the favorite of both Samuel Johnson and Keats, and places it within the context of the humoural theory so popular at the time. more

Vesalius and the Body Metaphor

Vesalius and the Body Metaphor

City streets, a winepress, pulleys, spinning tops, a ray fish, curdled milk: just a few of the many images used by 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius to explain the workings of the human body in his seminal work De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Marri Lynn explores. more

Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant

Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant

Patricia Fara traces the changing iconography of Joseph Banks, the English botanist who travelled on Captain Cook's first great voyage and went on to become President of the Royal Society and important patron for a whole host of significant developments in the natural sciences. more

Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

In late 1726 much of Britain was caught up in the curious case of Mary Toft, a woman from Surrey who claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. Niki Russell tells of the events of an elaborate 18th century hoax which had King George I's own court physicians fooled. more

The Redemption of Saint Anthony

The Redemption of Saint Anthony

Gustave Flaubert, best known for his masterpiece Madame Bovary, spent nearly thirty years working on a surreal and largely 'unreadable' retelling of the temptation of Saint Anthony. Colin Dickey explores how it was only in the dark and compelling illustrations of Odilon Redon, made years later, that Flaubert's strangest work finally came to life. more

Still Booking on De Quincey’s Mail-Coach

Still Booking on De Quincey’s Mail-Coach

Robin Jarvis looks at Thomas de Quincey's essay "The English Mail-Coach, or the Glory of Motion" and how its meditation on technology and society is just as relevant today as when first published in 1849. more

The Curious World of Isaac D’Israeli

The Curious World of Isaac D’Israeli

Marvin Spevack introduces the Curiosities of Literature, the epic cornucopia of essays on all things literary by Isaac D'Israeli: a scholar, man of letters and father of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. more

The Erotic Dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg

The Erotic Dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg

During the time of his "spiritual awakening" in 1744 the scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg kept a dream diary. Richard Lines looks at how, among the heavenly visions, there were also erotic dreams, the significance of which has been long overlooked. more

Simple Songs: Virginia Woolf and Music

Simple Songs: Virginia Woolf and Music

Last year saw the works of Virginia Woolf enter the public domain in many countries around the world. To celebrate Emma Sutton looks at Woolf's short story "A Simple Melody" and the influence which music had upon the writer who once wrote that music was "nearest to truth". more

The Forgotten Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Forgotten Tales of the Brothers Grimm

To mark the 200th year since the Brothers Grimm first published their Kinder-und Hausmärchen, Jack Zipes explores the importance of this neglected first edition and what it tells us about the motives and passions of the two folklorist brothers. more

Henry Morton Stanley and the Pygmies of “Darkest Africa”

Henry Morton Stanley and the Pygmies of “Darkest Africa”

After returning from his disastrous mission to central Africa to rescue a German colonial governor, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley was eager to distract from accusations of brutality with his 'discovery' of African pygmies. Brian Murray explores how after Stanley's trip the African pygmy, in the form of stereotype and allegory, made its way into late Victorian society. more

The Strangely Troubled Life of Digby Mackworth Dolben

The Strangely Troubled Life of Digby Mackworth Dolben

In 1911 the soon-to-be poet laureate Robert Bridges published the poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend who had drowned to death at the age of 19 almost half a century earlier. Carl Miller looks at Bridges' lengthy introduction in which he tells of the short and tragic life of the boy with whom fellow poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was reportedly besotted. more

Athanasius, Underground

Athanasius, Underground

With his enormous range of scholarly pursuits the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher has been hailed as the last Renaissance man and "the master of hundred arts". John Glassie looks at one of Kircher's great masterworks Mundus Subterraneus and how it was inspired by a subterranean adventure Kircher himself made into the bowl of Vesuvius. more

Trüth, Beaüty, and Volapük

Trüth, Beaüty, and Volapük

Arika Okrent explores the rise and fall of Volapük - a universal language created in the late 19th century by a German priest called Johann Schleyer. more