Essays
Culture & History

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. Dr 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

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

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

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

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 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

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

Mrs Giacometti Prodgers, the Cabman's Nemesis

Mrs Giacometti Prodgers, the Cabman's Nemesis

Heather Tweed explores the story of the woman whose obsessive penchant for the lawsuit struck fear into the magistrates and cabmen of Victorian London alike. more

The Lancashire Witches 1612-2012

The Lancashire Witches 1612-2012

Not long after ten Lancashire residents were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in August 1612, the official proceedings of the trial were published by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Four hundred years on, Robert Poole reflects on England's biggest witch trial and how it still has relevance today. more

Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade

Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade

When an exhausted Dorando Pietri was helped across the finishing line in the 1908 Olympics marathon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was there to write about it for the Daily Mail. Peter Lovesey explores how the drama and excitement of this event led Conan Doyle to become intimately involved with the development of the modern Olympics as we know it. more

The First Olympic Protest

The First Olympic Protest

Rebecca Jenkins looks back to when London first hosted the Olympic Games and how a mix up with flags gave birth to the first Olympic protest. more

John Martin and the Theatre of Subversion

John Martin and the Theatre of Subversion

Max Adams, author of The Prometheans, looks at the art of John Martin and how in his epic landscapes of apocalyptic scale one can see reflected his revolutionary leanings. more

The Polyglot of Bologna

The Polyglot of Bologna

Michael Erard takes a look at The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, a book exploring the extraordinary talent of the 19th century Italian cardinal who was reported to be able to speak over seventy languages. more

The Krakatoa Sunsets

The Krakatoa Sunsets

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon - letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive. more

The Assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval

The Assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval

Only once has a British Prime Minister been assassinated. Two hundred years ago, on the 11th May 1812, John Bellingham shot dead the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval as he entered the House of Commons. David C. Hanrahan tells the story. more

Painting the New World

Painting the New World

In 1585 the Englishman John White, governor of one of the very first North American colonies, made a series of exquisite watercolour sketches of the native Algonkin people alongside whom the settlers would try to live. Benjamin Breen explores the significance of the sketches and their link to the mystery of what became known as the "Lost Colony". more

The Unsinkable Myth

The Unsinkable Myth

This week sees the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, one of the deadliest peacetime disasters at sea. Richard Howells, author of The Myth of the Titanic, explores the various legends surrounding the world's most famous ship. more

Remembering Scott

Remembering Scott

A century on from his dramatic death on the way back from the South Pole, the memory of the explorer Captain Scott and his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition is stronger than ever. Max Jones explores the role that the iconic visual record has played in keeping the legend alive. more

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