Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death.

The Knight.

The Knight.

The Dance of Death by the German artist Hans Holbein (1497–1543) is a great, grim triumph of Renaissance woodblock printing. In a series of action-packed scenes Death intrudes on the everyday lives of thirty-four people from various levels of society — from pope to physician to ploughman. Death gives each a special treatment: skewering a knight through the midriff with a lance; dragging a duchess by the feet out of her opulent bed; snapping a sailor’s mast in two. Death, the great leveller, lets no one escape. In fact it tends to treat the rich and powerful with extra force. As such the series is a forerunner to the satirical paintings and political cartoons of the eighteenth century and beyond. For example, Death sneaks up behind the judge, who is ignoring a poor man to help a rich one, and snaps his staff, the symbol of his power, in two. A chain around Death’s neck suggests he is taking revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those they have wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to come to the aid of the poor ploughman, by driving his horses for him and releasing him from a life of toil; the glowing church in the background implies this old man is on his way to heaven.

Holbein drew the woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, while in his twenties and based in the Swiss town of Basel.

The Miser.

The Miser.

The Monk.

The Monk.

These woodcuts are beautiful and highly detailed. In Holbein’s hands, Death makes its feelings known; Death is quite gentle in the cases of the old woman and old man, poor folk, and those of the peasant class. On the other side, Death is more than a little rude, as in the violin playing as Death drags the Duchess out of her bed. Death is not kind when it comes to the abbot, the abbess, or the monk.

One notable thing makes these beautiful woodcuts all the more astonishing, the size of them:

Holbein’s achievement is the greater because of the miniature scale he was drawing in. Reproductions obscure just how tiny the wooden blocks were — no bigger than four postage stamps arranged in a rectangle. The blocks were cut by Hans Lützelburger, a frequent and highly skilled collaborator of Holbein’s. Lützelburger had cut forty-one blocks and had ten remaining when Death surprised him too. The blocks were then sold to creditors, and eventually printed and published for the first time in Lyons in 1538 as Les simulachres and historiees faces de la mort.

You can read and see much more at The Public Domain.

The Book of Exposition: The Secrets of Oriental Sexuology.

15th Century erotica! Oh my. This looks to be very interesting, and I do plan on reading it. Unfortunately I can’t do that right away, the day before chemo is always a busy one.

A decade or so after the famed Orientalist Richard Burton translated Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight (1886), an anonymous translator became the first to critically assess and introduce for Anglophone audiences another of the Middle East’s more controversial and enigmatic texts — Kitab al-Izah Fi’ilm al-Nikah b-it-Tamam w-al-Kamal, or The Book of Exposition — a collection of fifteenth-century erotica. Despite there being much dispute over the authorship of the work, from both Western and Middle Eastern scholars over the centuries, The Book of Exposition is nowadays credited to a fifteenth-century Egyptian polymath called Jalal ad’Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505). Although perhaps best known for his co-authorship of Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Tafsir of the Two Jalals), a classical Sunni exegesis of the Quran, al-Suyuti was also a prolific erotologist, writing at least twenty-three treatises on various aspects of the sexual arts.

The two dozen stories he presents in The Book of Exposition are an exploration of promiscuity and sexual taboos under the societal constraints of the Arab-Islamic world. In “The Strange Transformation that Befell a Certain Believer’s Prickle” a man is granted a “Night of Power” in which he is given three wishes to be fulfilled by Allah.


In his opening essay and commentary, An English Bohemian sets out to dispel Victorian attitudes to sexuality through the idolisation of the Oriental — setting up “Oriental Sexuology” as a mystical alternative for aspiring libertines/hedonists. He doesn’t just limit himself to the Orient in his examination of sexuality. He offers an insight into the sexual customs of other lands he claims to have travelled and researched extensively as a former practitioner of medicine: from Loango to the Aztecs, Paraguay to Samoa, Europe to Arabia. Despite his intentions, we perhaps end up learning more about Western attitudes to sex than the those of the non-European cultures he examines. His assertions, in their elevation of Orient over the Occident, appear to be motivated more by a desire to rebel against the prevailing establishment of his own culture than offering a nuanced picture of a foreign culture’s attitudes to sex.

You can read more at The Public Domain Review (the book is also available there), or go straight to the book here.

Word Wednesday.



1: an ornamental tuft (as of feathers) especially on a helmet.

2: dash or flamboyance in style and action: verve.

[Origin: Middle French pennache, from Old Italian pennacchio, from Late Latin pinnaculum small wing, related to pinnacle.]


“Potential enemy?” Ponce de Leon made a face. “It lacks panache. I prefer to be called ‘rogue’ or ‘outlaw’.” – Unbound, Jim C. Hines.

Idioms & Expressions.

Have you ever been happily reading, and come across an idiom, expression, or turn of phrase you’re familiar with, and suddenly the absurdity of it strikes you? Came across one yesterday in one of Jim C. Hines’s Princess series, The Mermaid’s Madness. (Re-reading, they have become comfort reads).

“That earned another chuckle. “He’s prince of Lorindar. He’s not used to feeling powerless.” He climbed to his feet.”

Climbed to his feet. That means to stand up, but it’s a damned silly expression. The more I think on it, the sillier it becomes. I used to have a bunch of these absurdities in my head, but naturally I can’t think of any of them now. Out of curiosity, does anyone else have favourite absurdities of expressions? Or peeves?

Word Wednesday.



1: obsolete a: a small hook or hooked instrument b: Brooch.

2a: a highly individual and usually eccentric opinion or preference b: a peculiar trick or device.

3: quarter note syn, see caprice.

[Origin: Middle English crochet, from Anglo-French crochet, croket.]

{14th Century).

“It had occurred to Jakob that he’d left his beloved tobacco back at the house. A few puffs would perhaps have helped his mood a bit, but then he remembered, Johann Lechner, despised tobacco. If Schongau had not been a Catholic town through and through, the secretary could have been viewed as a crotchety, pleasure-hating Protestant.” – The Play of Death, Oliver Pötzsch.

Word Wednesday.

Meretricious / Vapid / Poppycock



1: of or relating to a prostitute: having the nature of prostitution, meretricious relationships.

2a: tawdrily and falsely attractive. b: superficially significant: pretentious.

-meretriciously, adverb.

-meretriciousness, noun.

[Origin: Latin, meretricius, from meretric-, meretrix prostitute, from merēre to earn.]


“I’ll say you’re right,” said Mark. “Unfortunately, Miss Marple, we didn’t realize that. We wondered what the old boy saw in that rather insipid and meretricious little bag of tricks.”


Adjective: lacking liveliness, tang, briskness, or force: Flat, Dull.

-vapidly, adverb.

-vapidness, noun.

[Origin: Latin vapidus flat-tasting; akin to Latin vappa flat wine and perhaps to Latin vapor steam.]


“His face grim, Conway Jefferson lay remembering and thinking. Before his eyes he saw again the pretty, vapid face of Ruby.”


Noun: empty talk or writing: nonsense.

[Origin: Dutch dialect pappekak, literally, soft dung, from Dutch pap pap + kak dung.]


“And she didn’t care tuppence for Mr. Jefferson. All that play of affection and gratitude was so much poppycock.”

All quotes from The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie.

Word Wednesday.



1: of, relating to, or resembling twilight: Dim.

2: occurring or active during twilight: Crepuscular insects.

[Origin: Latin crepusculum, from creper dusky.]


“The Arcadian hated this time of day. That crepuscular transition between the dying day and the not-yet-born night. It was the heavy trudge home, the missed opportunities of the day, the optimism that had arrived with morning now transformed into failure and sadness. Or maybe it was just him. Maybe everyone else liked it. Thought it contained the possibility of fun, adventure. Looked forward to seeing what the night brought.

Maybe.” – The Doll’s House, Tania Carver.

Word Wednesday.



1: having the character of a synonym; also: alike in meaning or significance.

2: having the same connotations, implications, or reference.

-synonymously, adverb.


“I had decided that if there was a God, he was a cruel sonofabitch to allow the things he allowed. Especially since he claimed his name was synonymous with love. It seemed to me that he was little more than a celestial Jack the Ripper, offering us, his whores, rewards with one hand, smiling and telling us he loved us, while with the other hand he held a shiny, sharp knife, the better with which to disembowel us.” – The Complete Drive-In, Joe R. Lansdale.

Word Wednesday.



1: biting and caustic in thought, manner, or style: incisive.

2: acting as a mordant.

3: burning, pungent.

-mordantly, adverb.

[Origin: Middle French, present participle of mordre to bite, from Latin mordēre; perhaps akin to Sanskrit m dnāti he presses, rubs.]

(15th Century)

Mordant, noun:

1: a chemical that fixes a dye in or on a substance by combining with the dye to form an insoluble compound.

2: a corroding substance used in etching.


Mordant, transitive verb: to treat with a mordant.


“Neither of us was pleased to leave Bancroft behind. There was always a chance that he might decide he’d recovered sufficiently to be interviewed while our backs were turned. Maitland, of course, didn’t have an evening with Maeve as consolation, and he was mordant company all the way back to the nick.” – The Reckoning, Jane Casey.

Seductive Sins: 100 Years of Ads.

In this catalog of twentieth-century advertisements, Taschen has drawn together examples of advertorial seduction that were employed by liquor and tobacco companies over the past 100 years.

This colorful tome showcases an undeniably vibrant chapter of advertising history: highlighting trends — from the kitsch to the cliché and the classy — in drinking and smoking in America. 20th Century Alcohol and Tobacco Ads is as much a lesson in popular culture and pseudo-science as it is in advertising: see the pages dedicated to doctors testifying that smoking soothes the throat and liquor bring social success! With contemporary legislation in many countries moving cigarettes to plain packaging and alcohol advertisements to after hours on TV, the images in this publication seem almost closer to caricature than they do to real life.

You can see several more ads at iGNANT, and buy the book here.

The Medieval Method of Cooking Octopus.

Grilled octopus – photo by Alpha / Flickr.

Grilled octopus – photo by Alpha / Flickr.

“This is a vile fish of no value; therefore cook it the way you want.” ~ Liber de Coquina, a 14th century cookbook.

I’ll admit upfront that I’m a fan of octopuses, when they are alive. I don’t care for them in the least when dead, regardless of the cooking method.

Platina’s Right Pleasure and Good Health, a 15th-century work from Italy, offers these thoughts:

On octopus – The polypus has been named because it has many feet. It uses its gills as feet and hands, and its tail, which is two-pronged and is pointed, while mating. They are very pleased with smell, and they eat the flesh of shellfish. They carry everything into their house and then separate the shells from the red meat. It hunts the small fish which are swimming near the shells. You season a cooked octopus with pepper and asafetida.

Platina also has this to add: Whatever way you cook it, you will say it is bad. Doesn’t seem to much point with such a conclusion.

Meanwhile, The Book of Sent Sovi, a 14th-century Catalan text, gives this recipe:

To Stuff Octopus – If you want to stuff octopus or squid, take the octopus and wash it well, boil it, cut off the arms, and take out what is inside. Chop the arms all together with parsley, mint, marjoram and other good herbs. You can chop another kind of fish if the tentacles are not enough. Put in the best spices that you can find. Make sure that the octopus is cleaned well. Put in the stuffing, and put in raisins and scalded garlic and fried onion. Then make almond milk with the broth that has boiled the fish, and put it in a bowl or a casserole together with the octopus; in the milk you can put a little verjuice and good spices, the best you might have, and oil. You can cook it in the oven or on iron trivet with live coals beneath.

If you’re just dying for medieval cooked octopus, that sounds like an interesting recipe to work out.

Via Medievalists.

In exciting news, the Newberry has opened up access to 1.7 million historical images!

The Newberry has announced a major revision to its policy regarding the re-use of collection images: images derived from collection items are now available to anyone for any lawful purpose, whether commercial or non-commercial, without licensing or permission fees to the library.

You can read much more here.

Medieval Courses Online.

There is now a unique range of medieval and Tudor courses which can be downloaded or followed online, complete with the full text from www.medievalcourses.com – once registered students have unlimited access to study at their own pace, and can complete online quizzes at the end of each module. The courses are professionally produced in thirty minute lessons and include up to 11 hours of teaching, plus bonus materials, reading lists and links to other resources. The tutors are all established experts in their field.

The courses are all very reasonably priced. You can read much more, including a summary of the offered courses here.

Word Wednesday.

Penumbra / Brio / Multifarious / Inexorable

Penumbra, noun. Plural -brae.

1 a: a space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light. b: a shaded region surrounding the dark central portion of a sunspot.

2: a surrounding or adjoining region in which something exists in a lesser degree: fringe.

3: a body of rights held to be guaranteed by implication in a civil constitution.

4: something that covers, surrounds, or obscures: shroud.

-Penumbral, adjective.

[Origin: New Latin, from Latin paene almost + umbra shadow.]


The allure and glamour of radical surgery overshadowed crucial developments in less radical surgical procedures for cancer that were evolving in its penumbra.

Brio, noun.

1: enthusiastic vigor: vivacity, verve.

[Origin: Italian.]


Yet, even lacking such targets, Frei and Freireich had cured leukemia in some children. Even generic cellular poisons, dosed with adequate brio, could thus eventually obliterate cancer.

Multifarious, adjective.

1: having or occurring in great variety: diverse.

-multifariousness, noun.

[Origin: Medieval Latin multifarius, from Latin multifariam in many places.]


The biological characteristics of tumors were described as so multifarious as to defy any credible organization. There seemed to be no organizing rules.

Inexorable, adjective.

1: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped: relentless.

-inexorability, noun.

-inexorableness, noun.

-inexorably, adverb.

[Origin: Latin inexorabilis, from in– + exorabilis pliant, from exorare to prevail upon, from ex– + orare to speak.]


For an oncologist in training, too, leukemia represents a special incarnation of cancer. Its pace, its acuity, its breathtaking, inexorable arc of growth forces rapid, often drastic decisions; it is terrifying to experience, terrifying to observe, and terrifying to treat.

All quotations from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.


The Hazel Wood is the debut novel of Melissa Albert, and it is a fine story. This is the story of Alice, and Alice-Three-Times. Alice is a young woman who is very angry, she is prickly all over, and with more reason than she knows. It’s a very nice change from goody two shoe and syrupy sweet protagonists. This is a fairy tale about fairy tales, and if you prefer your fairy tales on the moderately twisted side, this one is for you. It’s not full dark and twisted, but there are seriously dark moments, and a couple sprayed in gore. There’s a pleasant mystery twining through, which isn’t a terribly tough puzzle for those who enjoy the challenge of unraveling ahead of time, and it’s a story full of doors. All in all, a delightful tale, well told.