Medieval menagerie: the battle between knight and snail

In a lot of medieval manuscripts, there are depictions of knights fighting snails. No one seems to know why this is. There are some theories, but so far nothing really conclusive. It might look like some sort of insider thing, maybe among scribes or illuminators. I love that sort of thing: mysteries in plain sight. Delightful. Bizarre.

The British library

Hunting for snails


You know you want one: science nerd merit badges

Out of the generosity of the Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique I have been allowed to recreate their science nerd merit badges. You can find the indexed list here, or you can go directly to my Cafépress profile. No, this will not in any way make me rich and/or famous, but it might just pay for a few buttons for myself.

I do take requests, should you have a smashing idea.

The destroyer of quackery-badge:

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 14.25.40

Dress to impress: Sexual selection and birds of paradise

There are an estimated 42 species of bird of paradise in New Guinea, and they all look completely different.

Females choose mates based on the condition and colour of the males’ plumage, so males puff their feathers, vibrate and buzz to attract their attention. Some even transform their bodies into strange, geometrical abstractions. If successful, these aesthetically pleasing features will be passed down to the next generation, process known as sexual selection.

On an island with very few predators, you don’t compete for resources. You compete for mates.

The majority of birds of paradise are sexual dimorphic and polygamous (males with the spectacular plumage that has come to typify the Paradisaeidae family, and females with a more conservative look of lackluster grays and browns). But not all of them look as surprisingly different, and those that don’t tend to be monogamous. Apparently, their diets are not as rich as those of the colourful species, so male and female must both help finding food. This leaves no time for complex courtships.

The dances the male birds of paradise perform evolve over time according to the tastes of the females. Unfortunately, there are trends as well: If a dance routine becomes too commonplace, females lose interest.

Some quick facts about birds of paradise:

  • Carola’s Parotia bird of paradise performs some of the most complex courtship dances in the animal kingdom.
  • The Greater bird of paradise was named Paradisaea apoda (“footless bird-of-paradise”) because feet had been removed from the first specimens that arrived in 16th-century Europe.
  • There are a number of hybrid birds of paradise due to crossbreeding between distinct species.
  • A male Raggiana bird of paradise is featured on the New Guinean national flag.

Photograph by Tim Laman, from National Geographic’s Paradise Found collection (more photos and videos here):


Colour guide anno 1692

A dutch artist – known only as A. Boogert – created a book of colours in 1692. Describing the use of colour in painting, s/he created an 800-page book with instructions on how to create hues and tones. It blows my mind, actually. The work, the meticulousness, the systematics, and not least: a book like that would not really be possible to reproduce back then. So this tremendous amount of work… for a prototype. I doff my hat to you, A. Boogert. (You can see the entire book here.).

colors-6 colors-1colors-4colors-2


Illuminating letter D



gilders cushion

gilders cushion

As mentioned in a previous post, I have dragged out some old tools and materials and started gilding again. In my previous life as a bookbinder, I bought a very old gilders cushion that actually sits on top of a drawer. I have not seen this anywhere else; it seems a well spent USD30. Supposedly, a bookbinder needed one, and made it himself.

I ordered some gesso and a burnisher from an online calligraphy shop, but had everything else. It is a good thing, that gold will keep for decades :) (not so with silver leaf or other metals, obviously. You get some amazing cool metal foils and leaves. Problem is that you need to seal them to prevent corrosion.).

So. I sketched out a Romanesque D, outlined it with a Faber Castell pitt dark sepia, as Indian black gets a little too harsh. I am just posting images of the process without comments on how. If you have questions, feel free to use the comment field. Questions like “are you insane?” are also entirely valid.






Of Jokers, Fools and Margins

“A joker is a little fool who is different from everyone else. He’s not a club, diamond, heart, or spade. He’s not an eight or a nine, a king or a jack. He is an outsider. He is placed in the same pack as the other cards, but he doesn’t belong there. Therefore, he can be removed without anybody missing him.” ― Jostein Gaarder, The Solitaire Mystery

Jokers. Living in apparent harmony with the rest of the cards, yet utterly different, and always surrounded by mystery. I have collected them for years, and I probably always will.

Nobody knows for sure how jokers came to be, they are actually not that old -the first one registered is from around 1860 and it was used as the highest trump. They might come from the tarot Fool, sometimes depicted as a beggar, or a vagabond. Experts say he might also be a wild man, or Woodwose, due to his unruly beard and feathers.

There are many fascinating details about this little character. In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck (used for cartomancy), the Fool is shown as a young man walking unknowingly toward the brink of a precipice.  The tarot Fool is almost always unnumbered, and when it has a number, it’s a zero. He is believed to represent holy madness or ‘crazy wisdom’, a lover of beauty represented by the flower in his hand, and a free spirit, like the dog that sometimes accompanies him. 

The joker is both the beginning and the end, an insider and an outsider. He inhabits the margins, and winks at us holding a secret we always fail to grasp.