Essays

Loos, Lewdness, and Literature: Tales from the Boghouse

Loos, Lewdness, and Literature: Tales from the Boghouse

In the early 1730s, a mysterious editor (known only as "Hurlothrumbo") committed to print a remarkable anthology: transcriptions of the graffiti from England's public latrines. For all its misogynistic and scatological tendencies, this little-known book of "latrinalia" offers a unique and fascinating window into Georgian life. Maximillian Novak explores. more

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

Of all the things described in William of Rubruck's account of his travels through 13th-century Asia, perhaps none is so striking as the remarkably ornate fountain he encountered in the Mongol capital which — complete with silver fruit and an angelic automaton — flowed with various alcoholic drinks for the grandson of Genghis Khan and guests. Devon Field explores how this Silver Tree of Karakorum became a potent symbol, not only of the Mongol Empire's imperial might, but also its downfall. more

Vernon Lee’s Satan the Waster: Pacifism and the Avant-Garde

Vernon Lee’s Satan the Waster: Pacifism and the Avant-Garde

Part essay collection, part shadow-play, part macabre ballet, Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy (1920) is one of Vernon Lee's most political and experimental works. Amanda Gagel explores this modernist masterpiece which lays siege to the patriotism plaguing Europe and offers a vision for its possible pacifist future. more

Audubon’s Haiti

Audubon’s Haiti

An entrepreneur, hunter, woodsman, scientist, and artist — John James Audubon, famous for his epic The Birds of America, is a figure intimately associated with a certain idea of what it means to be American. And like many of the country's icons, he was also an immigrant. Christoph Irmscher reflects on Audubon's complex relationship to his Haitian roots. more

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th century. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game. more

Filling in the Blanks: A Prehistory of the Adult Coloring Craze

Filling in the Blanks: A Prehistory of the Adult Coloring Craze

Its dizzy heights may have passed, but the fad for adult coloring books is far from over. Many trace the origins of such publications to a wave of satirical colouring books published in the 1960s, but as Melissa N. Morris and Zach Carmichael explore, the existence of such books, and the urge to colour the printed image, goes back centuries. more

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Rebecca Rego Barry on David Hosack, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton to his duel (and death), and creator of one of the first botanical gardens in the United States, home to thousands of species which he used for his pioneering medical research. more

"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat

"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat

Angus Trumble on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and company's curious but longstanding fixation with the furry oddity that is the wombat — that "most beautiful of God's creatures" which found its way into their poems, their art, and even, for a brief while, their homes. more

Rambling Reflections: On Summers in Switzerland and Sheffield

Rambling Reflections: On Summers in Switzerland and Sheffield

In the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Philipp Moritz — from the peace of Lake Biel to the rugged Peaks — Seán Williams considers the connection between walking and writing. more

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of "animal magnetism" in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomised placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today. more

Elephants, Horses, and the Proportions of Paradise

Elephants, Horses, and the Proportions of Paradise

Does each species have an optimal form? An ideal beauty that existed prior to the Fall? These were questions that concerned both artists and breeders alike in the 17th century. Dániel Margócsy on the search for a menagerie of perfect prelapsarian geometry. more

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Said to be spawn of the devil himself and possessed with great powers of prophetic insight, Mother Shipton was Yorkshire's answer to Nostradamus. Ed Simon looks into how, regardless of whether this prophetess witch actually existed or not, the legend of Mother Shipton has wielded great power for centuries — from the turmoil of Tudor courts, through the frictions of civil war, to the spectre of Victorian apocalypse. more

Grandville, Visions, and Dreams

Grandville, Visions, and Dreams

With its dreamlike inversions and kaleidoscopic cast of anthropomorphic objects, animals, and plants, the world of French artist J. J. Grandville is at once both delightful and disquieting. Patricia Mainardi explores the unique work of this 19th-century illustrator now recognised as a major precursor and inspiration to the Surrealist movement. more

Eric, Count Stenbock: A Catch Of A Ghost

Eric, Count Stenbock: A Catch Of A Ghost

With his extravagant dress, entourage of exotic pets, and morbid fascinations, Count Stenbock is considered one of the greatest exemplars of the Decadent movement. David Tibet on the enigmatic writer’s short and curious life. more

The Poetry of Victorian Science

The Poetry of Victorian Science

In 1848, the mineralogist, pioneer of photography, and amateur poet Robert Hunt published The Poetry of Science, a hugely ambitious work that aimed to offer a survey of scientific knowledge while also communicating the metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic aspects of science to the general reader. Gregory Tate explores what the book can teach us about Victorian desires to reconcile the languages of poetry and science. more

The Dancing Plague of 1518

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Five hundred years ago in July, a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundred became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days, until unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Ned Pennant-Rea on one of history's most bizarre events. more

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the "ocean garden" that gripped Victorian Britain. more

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Expensive and laborious to produce, a single woodcut could be recycled to illustrate scores of different ballads, each new home imbuing the same image with often wildly diverse meanings. Katie Sisneros explores this interplay of repetition, context, and meaning, and how in it can be seen a parallel to meme culture of today. more

Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia

Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia

The technique of intarsia — the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images — has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship. Daniel Elkind explores the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from a most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus. more

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Characterised as manipulative, power-hungry, and even an alter rex, Henry VIII's right-hand man Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been typically depicted with a body mass to rival his political weight. Katherine Harvey asks if he was really the glutton of popular legend, and what such an image reveals about the link between the body, reputation, and power in Tudor England. more

Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London

Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London

Benjamin Breen on the remarkable story of George Psalmanazar, the mysterious Frenchman who successfully posed as a native of Formosa (now modern Taiwan) and gave birth to a meticulously fabricated culture with bizarre customs, exotic fashions, and its own invented language. more

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

When birds of paradise first arrived to Europe, as dried specimens with legs and wings removed, they were seen in almost mythical terms — as angelic beings forever airborne, nourished by dew and the "nectar" of sunlight. Natalie Lawrence looks at how European naturalists of the 16th and 17th centuries attempted to make sense of these entirely novel and exotic creatures from the East. more

Pens and Needles: Reviving Book-Embroidery in Victorian England

Pens and Needles: Reviving Book-Embroidery in Victorian England

Fashionable in the 16th and 17th century, the art of embroidering unique covers for books saw a comeback in late 19th-century England, from the middle-class drawing room to the Arts and Crafts movement. Jessica Roberson explores the bibliomania, patriotism, and issues around gender so central to the revival. more

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