best of essays

Essays

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law

Murderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal - theoretical psychologist and author Nicholas Humphrey* explores the strange world of medieval animal trials. more

An Unlikely Lunch: When Maupassant met Swinburne

An Unlikely Lunch: When Maupassant met Swinburne

Julian Barnes on when a young Guy de Maupassant was invited to lunch at the holiday cottage of Algernon Swinburne. A flayed human hand, pornography, the serving of monkey meat, and inordinate amounts of alcohol, all made for a truly strange Anglo-French encounter. more

Lost Libraries

Lost Libraries

In the latter half of the 17th century the English polymath Thomas Browne wrote Musaeum Clausum, an imagined inventory of 'remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living'. Claire Preston explores Browne's extraordinary catalogue amid the wider context of a Renaissance preoccupation with lost intellectual treasures. more

Richard Dadd’s Master-Stroke

Richard Dadd’s Master-Stroke

Nicholas Tromans, author of Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, takes a look at Dadd's most famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. 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

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

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

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 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

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

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

Olaus Magnus’ Sea Serpent

Olaus Magnus’ Sea Serpent

The terrifying Great Norway Serpent, or Sea Orm, is the most famous of the many influential sea monsters depicted and described by 16th-century ecclesiastic, cartographer, and historian Olaus Magnus. Joseph Nigg, author of Sea Monsters, explores the iconic and literary legacy of the controversial serpent from its beginnings in the medieval imagination to modern cryptozoology. more

Frederik Ruysch: The Artist of Death

Frederik Ruysch: The Artist of Death

Luuc Kooijmans explores the work of Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch, known for his remarkable ‘still life’ displays which blurred the boundary between scientific preservation and vanitas art. more

Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synesthesia

Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synesthesia

Grounded in the theory that ideas, emotions, and even events, can manifest as visible auras, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s Thought-Forms (1901) is an odd and intriguing work. Benjamin Breen explores these “synesthetic” abstractions and asks to what extent they, and the Victorian mysticism of which they were born, influenced the Modernist movement that flourished in the following decades. more

"O, Excellent Air Bag": Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide

"O, Excellent Air Bag": Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide

The summer of 1799 saw a new fad take hold in one remarkable circle of British society: the inhalation of "Laughing Gas". The overseer and pioneer of these experiments was a young Humphry Davy, future President of the Royal Society. Mike Jay explores how Davy's extreme and near-fatal regime of self-experimentation with the gas not only marked a new era in the history of science but a turn toward the philosophical and literary romanticism of the century to come. more

Black on Black

Black on Black

Should we consider black a colour, the absence of colour, or a suspension of vision produced by a deprivation of light? Beginning with Robert Fludd's attempt to picture nothingness, Eugene Thacker reflects* on some of the ways in which blackness has been used and thought about through the history of art and philosophical thought. more

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, explore the wonderful history of made-up musical contraptions, including a piano comprised of yelping cats and Francis Bacon's 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. more

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End

At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality. Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how in this turn to the unseen in the face of mystery there exists a parallel to quantum physics today. more

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Defecating ducks, talking busts, and mechanised Christs — Jessica Riskin on the wonderful history of automata, machines built to mimic the processes of intelligent life. more

"For the Sake of the Prospect": Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century

"For the Sake of the Prospect": Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century

The first essay in a two-part series in which Lily Ford explores how balloon flight transformed our ideas of landscape. We begin with a look at the unique set of images included in Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia (1786) — the first "real" overhead aerial views. more

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

Sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry, the curious image of Wound Man is a rare yet intriguing presence in the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts. Jack Hartnell explores this enigmatic figure's journey through the centuries. more

Woodcuts and Witches

Woodcuts and Witches

Jon Crabb on the witch craze of early modern Europe, and how the concurrent rise of the mass-produced woodcut helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone — complete with cauldron and cats — so familiar today. more

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Amongst the assorted curiosities described in Olaus Magnus' 1555 tome on Nordic life was the morse — a hirsute, fearsome walrus-like beast, that was said to snooze upon cliffs while hanging by its teeth. Natalie Lawrence explores the career of this chimerical wonder, shaped by both scholarly images of a fabulous North and the grisly corporeality of the trade in walrus skins, teeth, and bone. more

Out From Behind This Mask

Out From Behind This Mask

A Barthesian bristle and the curious power of Walt Whitman’s posthumous eyelids — D. Graham Burnett on meditations conjured by a visit to the death masks of the Laurence Hutton Collection. more

Defining the Demonic

Defining the Demonic

Although Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal, a monumental compendium of all things diabolical, was first published in 1818 to much success, it is the fabulously illustrated final edition of 1863 which secured the book as a landmark in the study and representation of demons. Ed Simon explores the work and how at its heart lies an unlikely but pertinent synthesis of the Enlightenment and the occult. more

Illustrating Carnival: Remembering the Overlooked Artists Behind Early Mardi Gras

Illustrating Carnival: Remembering the Overlooked Artists Behind Early Mardi Gras

For more than 150 years the city of New Orleans has been known for the theatricality and extravagance of its Mardi Gras celebrations. Allison C. Meier looks at the wonderfully ornate float and costume designs from Carnival's "Golden Age" and the group of New Orleans artists who created them. 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

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

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

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