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Amelia Soth

Amelia Soth

Amelia Soth is a Chicago-based writer and recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. More of her writing can be found at ameliasoth.com.

From a poster for Charles Frohman’s dramatic production, The Hand of Destiny by Pierre Decourcelle, 1896

Why Did “Thieves’ Cant” Carry an Unshakeable Allure?

If thieves’ cant—a language known only to criminals—was the Devil’s cabinet, bourgeois society couldn’t help but peep inside.
Pope Formosus and Stephen VI by Jean Paul Laurens, 1870

The Cadaver Synod: Putting a Dead Pope on Trial

Why did Pope Stephen VI go to such great lengths to destroy an enemy who was already dead?
Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer by Michiel van Mierevelt

Public Dissection Was a Gruesome Spectacle

Renaissance-era anatomists taught people to “knowe thyself” by reading the books of bodies.
Tarantella dancers, 1828

When Dancing Plagues Struck Medieval Europe

The tarantella is named for a peasant woman from southern Italy whose tarantula bite started a contagious dancing fever!
Image from Livre des profits ruraux (late 15th century France)

The Landlord Asks for a Christmas Rose

Bizarre customs of landholding—from demands for flowers to ritualized flatulence—reflect the philosophy that developed under the feudal system.
A contraption used to extract the silk from a spider

The Tangled History of Weaving with Spider Silk

Spider silk is as strong as steel and as light as a feather, but attempts to industrialize its production have gotten stuck, so to speak.
Otto Marseus van Schrieck - Stilleben mit Insekten und Amphibien, 1662

A Recipe for Flies and Frogs

And other wonders of spontaneous generation.
creepy old house at night

There’s Someone Buried under the Floor!

The story of a building that will not stand until a living human being is imprisoned in its foundations is so common as to form it own genre.

A Book of Divination for the End of the World

The Falnama, or Book of Omens, combined apocalyptic representations from many sources. Say a prayer, ask your question, and flip to a random page.
bezoar goat

From the Belly of a Goat to the Mouth of a King

Bezoars, a strange lump formed in the belly of a goat, once were considered a panacea, and worth more than their weight in gold.
aristotle and phyllis

That Time a Woman Rode Aristotle Around Like a Horse

In the Middle Ages, the legend of Aristotle and Phyllis exemplified the “Power of Women” trope.
trial by combat

Trial by Combat? Trial by Cake!

The medieval tradition of deciding legal cases by appointing champions to fight to the death endured through 1817, unlike its tastier cousin.
Ploughman painting

The Toadmen, Masters of Equine Magic

A strange initiation ritual involving a toad was required for members of a secret caste of nineteenth-century horse mystics.
Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber

How to Create a Human Being

The Book of Stones, a central alchemical text, contained formulae with the power to create living tissue from ordinary matter, supposedly.
Engraved Illustrations of Various Castles and Fortified Structures

The Medieval Castle That Pranked Its Visitors

At Hesdin, in France, the idyllic beauty of the grounds met the sadistic slapstick of the castle’s “engines of amusement.”
a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari

The Marvelous Automata of Antiquity

Centuries before the computer, whimsical automata pushed the uncanny boundary between human and machine.
Charles I royal touch

The Divine Power of Kings to Heal by Touch

Healing ceremonies showed that monarchs ruled by God’s will, as divine power worked through anointed hands.
Bedridden King Charles VI

The French King Who Believed He Was Made of Glass

King Charles VI of France was the most exalted representative of a rash of "Glass Men," who appeared throughout Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Iskander Miscellany

The Ultimate Bespoke Manuscript

In The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan, sections of text stack on top of one another, interlaced like fretwork. Bursts of flowers and tangles of vines fill the empty spaces.
Alexander The Great mosaic

The Other Alexander the Great

Stories emerged in the centuries after Alexander the Great’s death. They revolved around Alexander's failures, not his victories. The portrait that emerges is strangely poignant.
Topkapi Gate of Felicity

The Secret Sign Language of the Ottoman Court

Deaf servants were favored companions of the Ottoman sultan, and their facility in nonverbal communication made them indispensable to the court.
Book of Curiosities

Ancient Maps Are Mirrors for the Ancient Psyche

The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences, and Marvels for the Eyes, an eleventh-century Arabic geography, is still a wonder.