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“Collections/Images: Cosmography Manuscript (12th Century)”, Review 2020

“Collections/Images: Cosmography Manuscript (12th Century)”⁠, The Public Domain Review (2020-02-07; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

This wonderful series of medieval cosmographic diagrams and schemas are sourced from a late 12th-century manuscript created in England. Coming to only 9 folios, the manuscript is essentially a scientific textbook for monks, bringing together cosmographical knowledge from a range of early Christian writers such as Bede and Isidore⁠, who themselves based their ideas on such classical sources as Pliny the Elder⁠, though adapting them for their new Christian context. As for the intriguing diagrams themselves, The Walters Art Museum⁠, which holds the manuscript and offers up excellent commentary on its contents, provides the following description:

The twenty complex diagrams that accompany the texts in this pamphlet help illustrate [the ideas], and include visualizations of the heavens and earth, seasons, winds, tides, and the zodiac, as well as demonstrations of how these things relate to man.

Most of the diagrams are rotae, or wheel-shaped schemata, favored throughout the Middle Ages for the presentation of scientific and cosmological ideas because they organized complex information in a clear, orderly fashion, making this material easier to apprehend, learn, and remember. Moreover, the circle, considered the most perfect shape and a symbol of God, was seen as conveying the cyclical nature of time and the Creation as well as the logic, order, and harmony of the created universe.

“Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn”, Lawrence 2019

“Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn”⁠, Natalie Lawrence (2019-09-19; ; similar):

When the existence of unicorns, and the curative powers of the horns ascribed to them, began to be questioned, one Danish physician pushed back through curious means—by reframing the unicorn as an aquatic creature of the northern seas. Natalie Lawrence on a fascinating convergence of established folklore, nascent science, and pharmaceutical economy.

“"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed With the Wombat”, Trumble 2019

“"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat”⁠, Angus Trumble (2019-01-10; ⁠, ; similar):

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…the Pre-Raphaelites were not the first English to become enamoured by the unusual creature. Wombats captured the attention of English naturalists as soon as they found out about them from early settlers, explorers, and naturalists at the time of first contact. The Aboriginal word wombat was first recorded near Port Jackson, and though variants such as wombach, womback, the wom-bat and womat were noted, the present form of the name stuck very early, from at least 1797. Beautiful drawings survive from the 1802 voyages of the Investigator and Le Géographe. Ferdinand Bauer, who sailed with Matthew Flinders, and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who was in the rival French expedition of Nicolas Baudin, both drew the creature. These were engraved and carefully studied at home. Wombats were admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners, and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations are out of step with the majority of 19th-century opinion.

“Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial”, Laukaityte 2018

“Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial”⁠, Urte Laukaityte (2018-11-20; ⁠, ; similar):

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…By a lucky coincidence, Benjamin Franklin was in France as the first US ambassador with a mission to ensure an official alliance against its arch nemesis, the British. On account of his fame as a great man of science in general and his experiments on one such invisible force—electricity—in particular, Franklin was appointed as head of the royal commission. The investigating team also included the chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, and the doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It is a curious fact of history that both Lavoisier and Bailly were later executed by the guillotine—the device attributed to their fellow commissioner. The revolution also, of course, brought the same fate to King Louis XVI and his Mesmer-supporting wife Marie Antoinette. In a stroke of insight, the commissioners figured that the cures might be affected by one of two possible mechanisms: psychological suggestion (what they refer to as “imagination”) or some actual physical magnetic action. Mesmer and his followers claimed it was the magnetic fluid, so that served as the experimental condition if you like. Continuing with the modern analogies, suggestion would then represent a rudimentary placebo control condition. So to test animal magnetism, they came up with two kinds of trials to try and separate the two possibilities: either the research subject is being magnetised but does not know it (magnetism without imagination) or the subject is not being magnetised but thinks that they are (imagination without magnetism). The fact that the trials were blind, or in other words, the patients did not know when the magnetic operation was being performed, marks the commission’s most innovative contribution to science…Whatever the moral case may be, the report paved the way for the modern empirical approach in more ways than one. Stephen Jay Gould called the work “a masterpiece of the genre, an enduring testimony to the power and beauty of reason” that “should be rescued from its current obscurity, translated into all languages”. Just to mention a few further insights, the commissioners were patently aware of psychological phenomena like the experimenter effect, concerned as they were that some patients might report certain sensations because they thought that is what the eminent men of science wanted to hear. That seems to be what propelled them to make the study placebo-controlled and single-blind. Other phenomena reminiscent of the modern-day notion of priming⁠, and the role of expectations more generally, are pointed out throughout the document. The report also contains a detailed account of how self-directed attention can generate what are known today as psychosomatic symptoms. Relatedly, there is an incredibly lucid discussion of mass psychogenic illness, and mass hysteria more generally, including in cases of war and political upheaval. Just 5 years later, France would descend into the chaos of a violent revolution.

“Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia”, Elkind 2018

“Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia”⁠, Daniel Elkind (2018-05-16; ⁠, ; similar):

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…painting in wood is in many ways more complicated than painting on wood. Rather than fabricating objects from a single source, the art of intarsia is the art of mosaic, of picking the right tone, of sourcing only properly seasoned lumber from mature trees and adapting materials intended for one context to another. Painting obscures the origins of a given material, whereas intarsia retains the original character of the wood grain—whose knots and whorls are as individual as the islands and deltas of friction ridges that constitute the topography of a fingerprint—while forming a new image. From a distance, the whole appears greater than the sum of its parts; up close, one can appreciate the heterogeneity of the components…

Inspired by the New Testament and uninhibited by Mosaic proscription, craftsmen in the city of Siena began to introduce flora and fauna into their compositions in the 14th century. Figures and faces became common by the late 15th century and, by the early 16th century, intarsiatori in Florence were making use of a wide variety of dyes in addition to natural hardwoods to mimic the full spectrum from the lightest (spindlewood) to medium (walnut) and dark (bog oak)—with the tantalizing exception of an aquamarine color somewhere between green and blue which required treating wood with “copper acetate (verdigris) and copper sulfate (vitriol).”8

…Furnishings that featured slivers of griinfaule or “green oak” were especially prized by master cabinetmakers like Bartholomew Weisshaupt and coveted by the elite of the Holy Roman Empire.10 Breaking open rotting hardwood logs to reveal delicate veins of turquoise and aquamarine, craftsmen discovered that the green in green oak was the result of colonization by the green elf-cup fungus, Chlorociboria aeruginascens, whose tiny teal fruiting bodies grow on felled, barkless conifers and hardwoods like oak and beech across much of Europe, Asia, and North America. Fungal rot usually devalues wood, but green oak happened to fill a lucrative niche in a burgeoning luxury trade, and that made it, for a time at least, as precious as some rare metals. During the reign of Charles V, when the Hapsburgs ruled both Spain and Germany, a lively trade in these intarsia pieces sprang up between the two countries.

“Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London”, Breen 2018

“Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London”⁠, Benjamin Breen (2018-04-18; backlinks; similar):

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…Who was this man?

The available facts remain surprisingly slim. Despite hundreds of years of research by everyone from the father of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to contemporary scholars at Penn and the National Taiwan University, we still don’t even know Psalmanazar’s real name or place of origin (although he was likely from southern France). We know that elite figures ranging from the scientists of the Royal Society to the Bishop of London initially believed his claims, but he eventually fell into disgrace as competing experts confirmed that he was a liar.

Beyond this, we move into the fictional realms that “Psalmanazar”, like a Borges character come to life, summoned into existence with his voice and pen…Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.

“Visions of Algae in 18th-Century Botany”, Feigenbaum 2016

“Visions of Algae in 18th-Century Botany”⁠, Ryan Feigenbaum (2016-09-07; ⁠, ; similar):

Although not normally considered the most glamorous of Mother Nature’s offerings, algae has found itself at the heart of many a key moment in the last few hundred years of botanical science. Ryan Feigenbaum traces the surprising history of one particular species—Conferva fontinalis—from the vials of Joseph Priestley’s laboratory to its possible role as inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom”, Jay 2014

“Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom”⁠, Mike Jay (2014-11-12; ; similar):

Mike Jay recounts the tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a former peace activist of the Napoleonic Wars who was confined to London’s notorious Bedlam asylum in 1797 for believing that his mind was under the control of the “Air Loom”—a terrifying machine whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into revolution, terror, and war.

…Over the ten years they had spent together in Bedlam, Matthews revealed his secret world to Haslam in exhaustive detail. Around the corner from Bedlam, in a dank basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting him with a machine called an “Air Loom”. Matthews had even drawn a technical diagram of the device, which Haslam included in his book with a sarcastic commentary that invited the reader to laugh at its absurdity: a literal “illustration of madness”. But Matthews’ drawing has a more unnerving effect than Haslam allows. Levers, barrels, batteries, brass retorts and cylinders are rendered with the cool conviction of an engineer’s blueprint. It is the first ever published work of art by an asylum inmate, but it would hardly have looked out of place in the scientific journals or enyclopaedias of its day.

The Air Loom worked, as its name suggests, by weaving “airs”, or gases, into a “warp of magnetic fluid” which was then directed at its victim. Matthews’ explanation of its powers combined the cutting-edge technologies of pneumatic chemistry and the electric battery with the controversial science of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. The finer detail becomes increasingly strange. It was fuelled by combinations of “fetid effluvia”, including “spermatic-animal-seminal rays”, “putrid human breath”, and “gaz from the anus of the horse”, and its magnetic warp assailed Matthews’ brain in a catalogue of forms known as “event-workings”. These included “brain-saying” and “dream-working”, by which thoughts were forced into his brain against his will, and a terrifying array of physical tortures from “knee nailing”, “vital tearing” and “fibre ripping” to “apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater” and the dreaded “lobster-cracking”, where the air around his chest was constricted until he was unable to breathe. To facilitate their control over him, the gang had implanted a magnet into his brain. He was tormented constantly by hallucinations, physical agonies, fits of laughter or being forced to parrot whatever words they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

The machine’s operators were a gang of undercover Jacobin terrorists, who Matthews described with haunting precision. Their leader, Bill the King, was a coarse-faced and ruthless puppetmaster who “has never been known to smile”; his second-in-command, Jack the Schoolmaster, took careful notes on the Air Loom’s operations, pushing his wig back with his forefinger as he wrote. The operator was a sinister, pockmarked lady known only as the “Glove Woman”. The public face of the gang was a sharp-featured woman named Augusta, superficially charming but “exceedingly spiteful and malignant” when crossed, who roamed London’s west end as an undercover agent.

The operation directed at Matthews was only part of a larger story. There were more Air Looms and their gangs concealed across London, and their unseen influence extended all the way up to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, whose mind was firmly under their control. Their agents lurked in streets, theatres and coffee-houses, where they tricked the unsuspecting into inhaling magnetic fluids. If the gang were recognised in public, they would grasp magnetised batons that clouded the perception of anyone in the vicinity. The object of their intrigues was to poison the minds of politicians on both sides of the Channel, and thereby keep Britain and revolutionary France locked into their ruinous war.

“The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse”, Green 2013

“The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse”⁠, Matthew Green (2013-08-07; ; similar):

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.

“Bugs and Beasts Before the Law”, Humphrey 2011

“Bugs and Beasts Before the Law”⁠, Nicholas Humphrey (2011-03-27; ⁠, ; similar):

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.

…Such stories, however, are apparently not news for very long. Indeed the most extraordinary examples of people taking retribution against animals seem to have been almost totally forgotten. A few years ago I lighted on a book, first published in 1906, with the surprising title The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E. P. Evans, author of Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Bugs and Beasts before the Law, etc., etc. The frontispiece showed an engraving of a pig, dressed up in a jacket and breeches, being strung up on a gallows in the market square of a town in Normandy in 1386; the pig had been formally tried and convicted of murder by the local court. When I borrowed the book from the Cambridge University Library, I showed this picture of the pig to the librarian. “Is it a joke?”, she asked.

No, it was not a joke. All over Europe, throughout the middle-ages and right on into the 19th century, animals were, as it turns out, tried for human crimes. Dogs, pigs, cows, rats and even flies and caterpillars were arraigned in court on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. The trials were conducted with full ceremony: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid—a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defence.

…Evans’ book details more than two hundred such cases: sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in Church, a pig executed for stealing a communion wafer, a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg. As I read my eyes grew wider and wider.

“The Snowflake Man of Vermont”, Heidorn 2011

“The Snowflake Man of Vermont”⁠, Keith C. Heidorn (2011-02-14; ⁠, ):

Keith C. Heidorn takes a look at the life and work of Wilson Bentley, a self-educated farmer from a small American town who, by combining a bellows camera with a microscope, managed to photograph the dizzyingly intricate and diverse structures of the snow crystal.

“Christopher Smart’s "Jubilate Agno"”, Key 2011

“Christopher Smart’s "Jubilate Agno"”⁠, Frank Key (2011-01-31; ⁠, ⁠, ; similar):

The poet Christopher Smart—also known as “Kit Smart”, “Kitty Smart”, “Jack Smart” and, on occasion, “Mrs Mary Midnight”—was a well known figure in 18th-century London. Nowadays he is perhaps best known for considering his cat Jeoffry⁠. Writer and broadcaster Frank Key looks at Smart’s weird and wonderful Jubilate Agno

It was not until 1939 that his masterpiece, written during his confinement in St Luke’s, was first published.

Jubilate Agno is one of the most extraordinary poems in the English language, and almost certainly the reason we remember Christopher Smart today. It has been described as a vast hymn of praise to God and all His works, and also as the ravings of a madman. Indeed, that first edition was published under the title Rejoice In The Lamb: A Song From Bedlam, clearly marking it as a curio from the history of mental illness. It was W. H. Bond’s revised edition of 1954 which gave order to Smart’s surviving manuscript, restoring the Latin title Jubilate Agno, bringing us the poem in the form we know it today.

Christopher Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry⁠. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr. Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last”. Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the 21st century than when it was written…one of the great joys of Jubilate Agno is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions. The “my cat Jeoffrey” passage is justly famous, but the poem is cram-packed with similar wonders, and must be read in full to appreciate its inimitable genius.

“The Model Book of Calligraphy (1561–1596) [image Gallery]”, Review 2022

“The Model Book of Calligraphy (1561–1596) [image gallery]”⁠, The Public Domain Review (; similar):

Pages from a remarkable book entitled Mira calligraphiae monumenta (The Model Book of Calligraphy), the result of a collaboration across many decades between a master scribe, the Croatian-born Georg Bocskay, and Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. In the early 1560s, while secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Bocksay produced his Model Book of Calligraphy, showing off the wonderful range of writing style in his repertoire. Some 30 years later (and 15 years after the death of Bocskay), Ferdinand’s grandson, who had inherited the book, commissioned Hoefnagel to add his delightful illustrations of flowers, fruits, and insects. It would prove to be, as The Getty, who now own the manuscript, comment, “one of the most unusual collaborations between scribe and painter in the history of manuscript illumination”. In addition to the amendments to Bocksay’s pages shown here, Hoefnagel also added an elaborately illustrated section on constructing the letters of the alphabet which we featured on the site a while back.

“Alexander Graham Bell’s Tetrahedral Kites (1903–9) [image Gallery]”, Review 2022

“Alexander Graham Bell’s Tetrahedral Kites (1903–9) [image gallery]”⁠, The Public Domain Review (⁠, ; similar):

The wonderful imagery documenting Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments with tetrahedral box kites…the Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell is also noted for his work in aerodynamics, a rather more photogenic endeavour perhaps, as evidenced by the wonderful imagery documenting his experiments with tetrahedral kites.

The series of photographs depict Bell and his colleagues demonstrating and testing out a number of different kite designs, all based upon the tetrahedral structure, to whose pyramid-shaped cells Bell was drawn as they could share joints and spars and so crucially lessen the weight-to-surface area ratio.

…Bell began his experiments with tetrahedral box kites in 1898, eventually developing elaborate structures comprised of multiple compound tetrahedral kites covered in maroon silk, constructed with the aim of carrying a human through the air⁠. Named Cygnet I, II, and III (for they took off from water) [cf. AEA Cygnet] these enormous tetrahedral beings were flown both unmanned and manned during a 5 year period from 1907 until 1912.

“The Public Domain Review: About”, Review 2022

“The Public Domain Review: About”⁠, The Public Domain Review (; similar):

Founded in 2011, The Public Domain Review is an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to the exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas.

In particular, as our name suggests, the focus is on works which have now fallen into the public domain, that vast commons of out-of-copyright material that everyone is free to enjoy, share, and build upon without restriction. Our aim is to promote and celebrate the public domain in all its abundance and variety, and help our readers explore its rich terrain—like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond. With a focus on the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful, we hope to provide an ever-growing cabinet of curiosities for the digital age, a kind of hyperlinked Wunderkammer—an archive of content which truly celebrates the breadth and diversity of our shared cultural commons and the minds that have made it.

…Some highlights include visions of the future from late 19th century France, a dictionary of Victorian slang and a film showing the very talented “hand-farting” farmer of Michigan…from a history of the smile in portraiture to the case of the woman who claimed to give birth to rabbits.

Miscellaneous