A Field Guide to Strange Medieval Monsters

What should you do if you come across a manticore? Would you even know how to identify it? An unlikely occurrence, you say? Perhaps. But if you lived in Europe in the Middle Ages – and you were the type to believe such tales – you might expect to see one someday. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a field guide? You’d want it on paper (or parchment): no one’s carrying smartphones in misty 13th century York or over the rocky highlands of 15th century Lombardy. You could consult a reigning expert of the time, such as Sir John Mandeville, who either saw such things as blemmyae (headless humans with faces in their chests) near Ethiopia, or made them up. But this didn’t matter much. Truth and fiction didn’t have such rigid boundaries. Yet books were rare, and anyway, few people could read. If only there were YouTube….

“Medieval zoology is bizarre,” says the narrator of the video above — a brief “Field Guide to Bizarre Medieval Monsters” — “because half the creatures don’t even exist, and those that do look very, very strange.” Your average medieval European couldn’t visit zoos full of exotic animals (rare exceptions like the Tower of London Menagerie notwithstanding), nor could they travel the world and see what creatures thrived in other climes.


They were forced to rely on the garbled accounts, or outright lies, of sailors, merchants, and other travelers, and the odd illustrations found in illuminated manuscripts. These blended travelogue, native folk elements, the weird imaginings of alchemy and demonology, and the myths and legends of medieval romance to create “a world where mythology and biology blend together.”

Dragons, unicorns, dog-headed saints…. You’ll find these and many more in the video field guide at the top and others online from the Cleveland Museum of Art and Medievalists.net, which describes our friend the manticore as a creature “having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion.”

Many ancient and medieval monsters were hybrids of different animals, such as the Tarasque, which our field guide narrator explains lies “somewhere between a dragon and a tortoise.”

To find out its origins, you’ll have to keep watching. To read the original sources of this bizarre medieval zoology, see the British Library’s Medieval Monster’s collection, which includes aviaries, bestiaries, miscellanies, books of hours, and psalters, like the big page above from the Luttrell Psalter, a striking example of monstrous illustration. While we may never expect to see any of these creatures in the flesh, we can see more of them on the page (or screen) than anyone who lived in medieval Europe.

via Twisted Sifter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Brian Eno Creates a List of 20 Books That Could Rebuild Civilization

Creative Commons image via Wikimedia Commons

Artist and music producer Brian Eno wrote one of my very favorite books: A Year with Swollen Appendices, which takes the form of his personal diary of the year 1995 with essayistic chapters (the “swollen appendices”) on topics like “edge culture,” generative music, new ways of , pretension, CD-ROMs (a relevant topic back then), and payment structures for recording artists (a relevant topic again today). It also includes a fair bit of Eno’s correspondence with Stewart Brand, once editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and now president of the Long Now Foundation, “a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture” meant to “help make long-term thinking more common” and “creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”


It so happens that Eno now sits on the Long Now Foundation’s board and has had a hand in some of its projects. Naturally, he contributed suggested reading material to the foundation’s Manual of Civilization, a collection of books humanity could use to rebuild civilization, should it need rebuilding. Eno’s full list, which spans history, politics, philosophy, sociology, architecture, design, nature, and literature, runs as follows:

If you’d like to know more books that have shaped Eno’s thinking, do pick up a copy of A Year with Swollen Appendices. Like all the best diarists, Eno makes plenty of references to his day-to-day reading material, and at the very end — beyond the last swollen appendix — he includes a bibliography (below), on which you’ll find more from Christopher Alexander, a reappearance of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, and even Steward Brand’s own How Buildings Learn (on a television version of which the two would collaborate). You can find other writers and thinkers’s contributions to the Manual of Civilization here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Free Coloring Books from The Public Domain Review: Download & Color Works by Hokusai, Albrecht Dürer, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley & More

Did you somehow miss that the Public Domain Review has gotten in on the adult coloring book craze?

If so, don’t feel bad. There were probably a lot of other news items vying for your attention back in March of 2020, when the first volume was released “for diversion, entertainment and relaxation in times of self-isolation.”

By the time the second volume made its debut less than two months later, the first had been downloaded some 30,000 times.


Tell your scarcity mentality to stand down. You may be late to the party, but all 40 images can still be downloaded for free, “to ease and aid pleasurable focus in these oddest of times.”

It’s our belief that odd times call for odd images so we’re reproducing some of our favorites below, though be advised there are also plenty of calming botanical prints and graceful maidens for those craving a less challenging coloring experience.

Behold Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons by Martin Schongauer (c. 1470-75), above!

And below, the 13-year-old Michelangelo’s reproduction in tempera on a wood panel. Biographers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi both told how the young artist visited the fish market, seeking inspiration for the demons’ scales. Perhaps you will be inspired by the barely teenaged High Renaissance master’s palette, though it’s YOUR coloring page, so you do you.

In “Filling in the Blanks: A Prehistory of the Adult Coloring Craze“, historians Melissa N. Morris and Zach Carmichael recount how publisher Robert Sayer’s illustrated book, The Florist, “for the use & amusement of Gentlemen and Ladies” was published with the explicit understanding that readers were meant to color in its botanically semi-inaccurate images:


Comprised of pictures of various flowers, the author gives his (presumably) adult readers detailed instructions for paint mixing and color choice (including the delightful sounding “gall-stone brown”).

Perhaps you will bring some of Sayer’s suggested colors to bear on the above image from Parisian bookseller Richard Breton’s Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel (1565), a collection of 120 grotesque woodcut figures intended as a tribute to the bawdy writer (and priest!) François Rabelais, or a possibly just a canny marketing ploy.

Next, let’s color this perky fellow from Giovanni Battista Nazari’s famous alchemical treatise on metallic transmutation, Della tramutatione metallica sogni tre from 1599. 

The “winged pig in the world” by Dutch engraver and mapmaker Cornelis Anthonisz doesn’t look very cheerful, does he? He’s on top of the imperial orb, but he’s also an allegory of the corrupt world. Hopefully, this will get sorted by the time pigs fly.

As to Ambroise Paré’s 1598 rendering of a “camphur” … well, let’s just say THIS is what a proper unicorn should look like.

According to an annotated checklist that accompanied the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary exhibition Search for the Unicorn, Paré, a pioneering French barber surgeon, claimed that it live(d) in the Arabian Desert, and that its horn can cure various maladies, especially poisoning.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. Think about it as you color.

Hokusai, Albrecht Dürer, and Aubrey Beardsley, are among the artists whose work you’ll encounter, “arranged in vague order of difficulty — from a simple 17th-century kimono pattern to an intricate thousand-flowered illustration.”

Download Volume 1 of the Public Domain Review Coloring book in US Letter or A4 format.

And here is Volume 2 in US Letter or A4 format.

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The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel: 120 Woodcuts Envision the Grotesque Inhabitants of Rabelais’ World (1565)

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel: 120 Woodcuts Envision the Grotesque Inhabitants of Rabelais’ World (1565)

George Orwell lives on, to varying degrees of aptness, in the form of the word Orwellian. David Lynch has, within his lifetime, made necessary the term Lynchian. Though few of us will leave such adjectival legacies of our own, we should at least aspire to do so, and that task requires looking back to the original master: François Rabelais. Merriam-Webster defines Rabelaisian as “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism.” Rabelais expressed this sensibility at great length in La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, a pentalogy of elaborate satirical novels published from the 1530s to the 1560s — and more recently endorsed by Harold Bloom, Joseph Brodsky, Henry Miller, and Marilyn Monroe.

Rabelais died in the 1550s, hence the still-unresolved questions about the authorship of the fifth and final Gargantua and Pantagruel book: was it completed from his notes? Was it, in fact, a fabrication by another writer?


Such was the public’s hunger for the Rabelaisian that multiple different “fifth books” were published. The satisfaction of that same insatiable demand seems also to have motivated the publication of Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel ou sont contenues plusieurs figures de l’invention de maitre François Rabelais. This slim volume, writes the Public Domain Review’s Adam Green, “is made up entirely of images — 120 woodcuts depicting a series of fantastically bizarre and grotesque figures, reminiscent of some of the more inventive and twisted creations of Brueghel or Bosch.”

There is no main text, just a preface wherein publisher Richard Breton writes that “the great familiarity I had with the late François Rabelais has moved and even compelled me to bring to light the last of his work, the drolatic dreams of the very excellent and wonderful Pantagruel.” Yet, as Green explains, “the book’s wonderful images are very unlikely to be the work of Rabelais himself — the attribution probably a clever marketing ploy.” You can view these amusing and grotesque images at the Public Domain Review, and in the context of the book as preserved at the Internet Archive. “Be warned,” says Intriguing History, the artist “seems to enjoy the use of a lot of phallic imagery, along with frogs, fish and elephants.” But who is the artist?

“The creator of the prints is now widely thought to be François Desprez,” writes Green, “a French engraver and illustrator” who published a couple of similarly imaginative sets of images with Breton in 1567. Whoever made them, these Rabelaisian woodcuts remained surreal enough through the centuries to catch the eye of none other than Salvador Dalí, who in 1973 paid tribute to them with a set of lithographs of his own. (You can see more examples at the Lockport St. Gallery.) As far as the title, an exegesis at Poemas del río Wang offers a clarification: “Drolatic is an adjective of dream,” and so “we must ask what kind of dream is this. It is certainly the dream of reason, as it gives birth to monsters” — monsters, as a satirist like Rabelais well understood, not altogether unlike ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Medieval Masterpiece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Digitized and Put Online

If you know nothing else about medieval European illuminated manuscripts, you surely know the Book of Kells. “One of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures” comments Medievalists.net, “it is set apart from other manuscripts of the same period by the quality of its artwork and the sheer number of illustrations that run throughout the 680 pages of the book.” The work not only attracts scholars, but almost a million visitors to Dublin every year. “You simply can’t travel to the capital of Ireland,” writes Book Riot’s Erika Harlitz-Kern, “without the Book of Kells being mentioned. And rightfully so.”

The ancient masterpiece is a stunning example of Hiberno-Saxon style, thought to have been composed on the Scottish island of Iona in 806, then transferred to the monastery of Kells in County Meath after a Viking raid (a story told in the marvelous animated film The Secret of Kells). Consisting mainly of copies of the four gospels, as well as indexes called “canon tables,” the manuscript is believed to have been made primarily for display, not reading aloud, which is why “the images are elaborate and detailed while the text is carelessly copied with entire words missing or long passages being repeated.”


Its exquisite illuminations mark it as a ceremonial object, and its “intricacies,” argue Trinity College Dublin professors Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, “lead the mind along pathways of the imagination…. You haven’t been to Ireland unless you’ve seen the Book of Kells.” This may be so, but thankfully, in our digital age, you need not go to Dublin to see this fabulous historical artifact, or a digitization of it at least, entirely viewable at the online collections of the Trinity College Library. The pages, originally captured in 1990, “have recently been rescanned,” Trinity College Library writes, using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.”

What makes the Book of Kells so special, reproduced “in such varied places as Irish national coinage and tattoos?” ask Professors Moss and Ryan. “There is no one answer to these questions.” In their free online course on the manuscript, these two scholars of art history and theology, respectively, do not attempt to “provide definitive answers to the many questions that surround it.” Instead, they illuminate its history and many meanings to different communities of people, including, of course, the people of Ireland. “For Irish people,” they explain in the course trailer above, “it represents a sense of pride, a tangible link to a positive time in Ireland’s past, reflected through its unique art.”

But while the Book of Kells is still a modern “symbol of Irishness,” it was made with materials and techniques that fell out of use several hundred years ago, and that were once spread far and wide across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the video above, Trinity College Library conservator John Gillis shows us how the manuscript was made using methods that date back to the “development of the codex, or the book form.” This includes the use of parchment, in this case calf skin, a material that remembers the anatomical features of the animals from which it came, with markings where tails, spines, and legs used to be.

The Book of Kells has weathered the centuries fairly well, thanks to careful preservation, but it’s also had perhaps five rebindings in its lifetime. “In its original form,” notes Harlitz-Kern, the manuscript “was both thicker and larger. Thirty folios of the original manuscript have been lost through the centuries and the edges of the existing manuscript were severely trimmed during a rebinding in the nineteenth century.” It remains, nonetheless, one of the most impressive artifacts to come from the age of the illuminated manuscript, “described by some,” says Moss and Ryan, “as the most famous manuscript in the world.” Find out why by seeing it (virtually) for yourself and learning about it from the experts above.

For anyone interested in getting a copy of The Book of Kells in a nice print format, see The Book of Kells: Reproductions from the manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The New Herbal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Botanical Illustrations Gets Republished in a Beautiful 900-Page Book by Taschen

We’ve all have heard of the fuchsia, a flower (or genus of flowering plant) native to Central and South America but now grown far and wide. Though even the least botanically literate among us know it, we may have occasional trouble spelling its name. The key is to remember who the fuchsia was named for: Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and botanist of the sixteenth century. More than 450 years after his death, Fuchs is remembered as not just the namesake of a flower, but as the author of an enormous book detailing the varieties of plants and their medicinal uses. His was a landmark achievement in the form known as the herbal, examples of which we’ve featured here on Open Culture from ninth- and eighteenth-century England.

But De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, as this work was known upon its initial 1542 publication in Latin, has worn uncommonly well through the ages. Or rather, Fuchs’ personal, hand-colored original has, coming down to us in 2022 as the source for Taschen’s The New Herbal. “A masterpiece of Renaissance botany and publishing,” according to the publisher, the book includes “over 500 illustrations, including the first visual record of New World plant types such as maize, cactus, and tobacco.”


Buyers also have their choice of English, German, and French editions, each with its own translations of Fuchs’ “essays describing the plants’ features, origins, and medicinal powers.” (You can also read a Dutch version of the original online at Utrecht University Library Special Collections.)

Naturally, some of the information contained in these nearly five-century-old scientific writings will be a bit dated at this point, but the appeal of the illustrations has never dimmed. “Fuchs presented each plant with meticulous woodcut illustrations, refining the ability for swift species identification and setting new standards for accuracy and quality in botanical publications.” Over 500 of them go into the book: “Weighing more than 10 pounds,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert, “the nearly 900-page volume is an ode to Fuchs’ research and the field of Renaissance botany, detailing plants like the leafy garden balsam and root-covered mandrake.”

Taschen’s reproductions of these works of botanical art look to do justice to Leonhart Fuchs’ legacy, especially in the brilliance of their colors. It’s enough to reinforce the assumption that the man has received tribute not just through fuchsia the flower but fuchsia the color as well. But such a dual connection turns out to be in doubt: the color’s name derives from rosaniline hydrochloride, also known as fuchsine, originally a trade name applied by its manufacturer Renard frères et Franc. The name fuschine, in turn, derives from fuchs, the German translation of renard. The New Herbal is, of course, a work of botany rather than linguistics, but it should nevertheless stimulate in its beholders an awareness of the interconnection of knowledge that fired up the Renaissance mind.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Haruki Murakami’s Five Favorite Books

Image bySociety for Culture, Art and International Cooperation Adligat, via Wikimedia Commons

You could say that Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. And given that he was born in Japan to Japanese parents, grew up in Japan, and lives in Japan still today, you’d have geography, culture, and biology on your side. Yet Alfred Birnbaum, one of Murakami’s own English translators, has called him “an American writer who happens to write in Japanese.” To understand how this could be requires a consideration of not just Murakami’s writing, but the writers whose books inspired him. Take the hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler, whose The Long Goodbye appears on the list of Murakami’s five favorite books just posted at Literary Hub.

“I have translated all the novels of Raymond Chandler,” Murakami once said. “I like his style so much. I have read The Long Goodbye five or six times.” He must have read it for the first time in Kobe, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and whose bookstores offered an abundance of pulp fiction left behind by departing U.S. military personnel. Chandler’s would have been one of the literary voices he internalized before sitting down to write his own first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, using the highly unusual method of beginning the story in English, or what English he commanded. He then translated this Philip Marlovian experiment back into Japanese, beginning a literary career of four decades and counting.


A translator when not writing his own fiction, Murakami has also rendered in his native language F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, perhaps the most symbolically American novel of them all. Literary Hub quotes him as saying that “had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here or there).” His prose is also the medium through which many Japanese readers have experienced J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed when I was young.”

None of Murakami’s top five books are Japanese, but not all of them American. The list also includes Franz Kafka’sThe Castle, another book he encountered as a Kobe teenager: “It gave me a tremendous shock. The world Kafka described in that book was so real and so unreal at the same time that my heart and soul seemed torn into two pieces.” Though the two writers have their stylistic differences, “so real and so unreal at the same time” could just as well describe whatever genre it is that Murakami has invented and continues to advance today. “Most writers get weaker and weaker as they age,” he once said, “but Dostoevsky didn’t. He kept getting bigger and greater. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov in his late fifties.” Murakami is now in his early seventies, but who — even among those familiar with his inspirations — would dare predict what sort of novel he’ll give us next?

via Literary Hub

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Dune Encyclopedia: The Controversial, Definitive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Masterpiece (1984)


When David Lynch’s Hollywood version of Dune opened in theaters in 1984, Universal Studios distributed a printed a glossary to keep its audiences from getting confused. They got confused anyway, in part because of the film’s having been hollowed out in editing, and in part because the sheer elaborateness of Frank Herbert’s alternate reality poses potentially insurmountable challenges to faithful adaptation. Even many of the original Dune novels’ readers needed more help than a couple pages of definitions could offer. Luckily for them, the same year that saw the release of Lynch’s Dune also saw the publication of The Dune Encyclopedia, authorized by Herbert himself.

“Here is a rich background (and foreground) for the Dune Chronicles, including scholarly bypaths and amusing sidelights,” Herbert writes in the book’s introduction. “Some of the contributions are sure to arouse controversy, based as they are on questionable sources.” He couldn’t have known how right he was. Today The Dune Encyclopedia stands as what Inverse’s Ryan Britt calls “the most controversial Dune book ever”; long out of print, it may well also be the most expensive, with a current Amazon price of $1,300 in hardcover and $833 in paperback. (You can also find it online, at the Internet Archive.)


Still, The Dune Encyclopedia has its appreciators, not least the director of the latest (and most successful) cinematic attempt to realize Herbert’s vision. As Brit tells it, “an anonymous (though previously reliable) source stated that Denis Villeneuve is a big fan of The Dune Encyclopedia. But when he tried to plant references to the book in the new film, his ‘hand was slapped by the estate.'” The reason seems to involve the Encyclopedia‘s conflicts with the novels: not those written by Herbert himself but, according to the Dune Wiki, “the later two prequel trilogies and sequel duology written after Frank Herbert’s death by Brian Herbert (Frank Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson, which they state complete the original series.”

Though co-signed by the The Dune Encyclopedia‘s main author, literary scholar Willis E. McNelly, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s letter declaring the work’s de-canonization omits the fact “that the Encyclopedia is and always was a fallible in-universe document that openly misrepresents known history and adds historical embellishments.” It is, in other words, a book about Dune as well as a part of Dune. Not every book in our reality offers a perfectly true account of history, of course, and the same holds for the reality Frank Herbert created. This form implies the continuing possibility of expanding Dune‘s literary universe by writing the books that exist within it, not just encyclopedias and scripture but, say epic sci-fi novels as well. What fan, after all, wouldn’t want to read the Dune of Dune?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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