The image above is a version of Sebastian Münster’s 16th-century chart of sea monsters, starring all kinds of fantastical denizens of the deep: from ship-eating serpents and giant lobsters to some kind of seal-octopus hybrid. Featured in the opening essay on the history of sea serpents, the image is one of ninety-nine illustrations to adorn the pages of The Public Domain Review’s wonderful new book of selected essays.
That the collection should begin with this most elusive of snakes is perhaps particularly appropriate. Representing as it does the very idea of terra incognita, the sea serpent is a figure which echoes on in so many of the essays which follow, if we see these “lands unknown” to be not merely geographical but to refer also to the lesser known realms of knowledge. All manner of oft-overlooked histories are explored in the book. We learn of the strange skeletal tableaux of Frederik Ruysch, pay a visit to Humphry Davy high on laughing gas, and peruse the pages of the first ever picture book for children (which includes a wonderful table of Latin animal sounds). There’s also fireworks in art, petty pirates on trial, brainwashing machines, truth-revealing diseases, synesthetic auras, Byronic vampires, and Charles Darwin’s photograph collection of asylum patients. Together the fifteen essays chart a wonderfully curious course through the last five hundred years of history, taking us on a journey through some of the darker, stranger, and altogether more intriguing corners of the past.
You can find out more about the book through The Public Domain Review’s website. If you want it before Christmas (and we think it’d make an excellent present for that history-loving relative!), then make sure to order by midnight on Wednesday 18th November. Orders before this date will also benefit from a special reduced price.
–Adam Green is the co-founder and editor of The Public Domain Review.