Podcast 11: Medieval Cosmological Diagrams and Opicinus de Canistris

In our most recent podcast Sarah Griffin (DPhil in Art History) talks to us about the enigmatic diagrams of Opicinus de Canistris, a cosmologist, cartographer, theologian, and writer, who worked in the Avignon papacy in the fourteenth century. He made elaborate and complex diagrams, like this one, and some scholars believe that he was insane, leading some to categorise his work as ‘outsider art’:


Diagram with Crucifixion, 1335-50. Public Domain.

Listen to the podcast to find out more about him!

Trained as an illuminator in Genoa, Opicinus drew diagrams and wrote journals that contained calendars and autobiographical, geographical, cosmological, and theological details. Most of his works are kept in the Vatican and you can see the diagram that we discuss here, in images 53 and 54 (fol. 14r). The Vatican has also digitised some of his journals, which are also available on their website. 


Podcast 10: Modernist Friendships and Rivalries

This week Kristin Grogan, a D.Phil student in English at Exeter College, talks to us about modernist writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot and Richard Wright. Should Ezra Pound have learned how to box? Did Gertrude Stein love her ceramic pig’s eyes or tail more? How do you tell if a modernist is too capitalist to read? And why did Ernest Hemingway think F. Scott Fitzgerald would feel better about himself if he took a stroll around the classical statuary galleries in the Louvre?

You can listen here:

Podcast 9: Death Masks

We’re back from a hiatus this week with Emily Knight, DPhil student in Art History, who came to talk to us about the morbidly fascinating world of posthumous portraiture, particularly death masks, from 1760-1832. Emily tells us about how death masks were made, why they were made, what they were used for, and why they prove to be so intriguing.


Of particular interest is the death mask of Sir Walter Scott, which was both commemorative and honourific, almost a secular relic. The one below is cast in bronze and is placed on a bronze cushion. Frustratingly for phrenologists, who wished to ascertain an individual’s personality through the lumps and bumps on his or her skull, Scott’s death mask bears a giant scar across his head from when his brain was taken out after his death.


The Death Mask of Sir Walter Scott

Part of the interest in phrenology was to determine what made someone a genius or a criminal, so these casts could help (pseudo-)scientists to assess facial features to come to their conclusions.

Podcast 8: Emma Hamilton and her ‘Attitudes’

This week we were joined by Dr Helen Slaney, who talked to us about Emma Hamilton (1765-1815). You can listen here:

While living in Naples with her husband, William, Emma Hamilton developed a series of classical poses known as her ‘Attitudes’, in imitation of poses she had seen on the vases collected by her husband. Helen has kindly shared some images of Emma Hamilton from her research with us.

Here is Emma as a young woman, painted by George Romney:


George Romney, Emma Hart in a Straw Hat, c.1782-4, Huntington Library

Romney painted Emma as a number of classical figures:


Emma Hamilton as Circe, by George Romney, c.1782, Waddesdon Manor

Podcast 7: The Whole Earth Catalog, Ecology, and the Early Internet

Dr. Courtney Traub, Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, joined us this week to tell us about an off-beat, counter-cultural publication from the 1960s and 70s, the Whole Earth Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog is the brainchild of Stewart Brand and was a compendium of sustainable and self-sufficient living resources, new technologies, and reviews of books on widely esoteric topics from cybernetics to population crises. It derived its title from NASA’s famous image of the earth from space, which was featured on its initial cover page:


Podcast 6: How to ‘say’ things in Old English

Have you ever wanted to speak Old English? Or say things in Anglo-Saxon?

Can you tell the difference between those two questions?

This week we were joined by Myriam Frenkel, who specialises in verbs for speech in Old English poetry. As it turns out, ‘to say’ (‘secgan’), ‘to speak’ (‘sprecan’), and ‘to tell’ (‘tellan’) were all used rather differently in Old English (spoken in England from around 450CE – 1150ish, when it crossed the boundary into what we now called Early Middle English).


The word ‘secgan’, for instance, seems to have often been used in assertions of truth. This  has possibly carried on into modern English in the form of ‘sooth sayer’ – soð (the ð is pronounced -th) being the OE word for truth.

‘Tellan’ is an Old Norse loan word, which originally had to do with counting. We still get it in words like ‘bank teller’ and telling cattle.

Podcast 5: Blood-Filled Cucumbers, Honour, and Spanish Epics

Last week we promised you bloody cucumbers, and we’ve done our best to deliver. Danielle Bishop, who recently finished her MPhil in Medieval Spanish Literature, joined us to talk about ways of besmirching honour in medieval Spanish epic narratives, one of which was to fill a hollowed out cucumber with old pig’s blood and throw it at someone who has insulted you or your family. The stain it creates is a stain on your honour.

In particular we focused on Los Siete Infantes de Lara, or the seven princes of Lara. This is one of the earliest Spanish epics or cantares de gesta, and traces the legendary history of the  Lara family. As you can see from this illustration, things don’t end well for the eponymous characters:


Illustration of Los Siete Infantes de Lara. Engraving by Otto van Veen (17th century)

Podcast #4 – Pope v Mongol Emperor, micronations and international law

This week we were joined by Rowan Nicholson, a Ph.D student working on a thesis in international law at the University of Cambridge. Listen here:


Rowan told us about the exchange between Innocent IV and Güyük Khan in 1246. Here is an illustration showing Pope Innocent sending the Dominican and Franciscan monks on their dangerous mission:


Illumination from Le Miroir Historial, vol.4 by Vincent of Beauvais (c.1400-10), now in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands)

Podcast #3 – The Politics of the Eurovision Song Contest

For our third podcast we were lucky enough to be joined by Adam Ward, who is writing a thesis on state legislatures in the United States. Today Adam turned his mind to an even more complex political scene: the Eurovision Song Contest. You can listen here.

This article discusses the controversal flag ban at this year’s contest. Banned flags include those of Wales, Palestine, the Basque country, Northern Cyprus, Crimea and Isis. The rainbow flag can still be waved, but not in a ‘political’ way…

Here is Ukraine’s potentially controversial entry, Jamala’s ‘1944’:


You can read another take on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest here, including a terrifying story about voters within Azerbaijan who had voted for Armenia (with whom Azerbaijan disputes the Nagorno-Karabakh region) being tracked down by their country’s secret police.

Podcast 2: Cannibals, Crustaceans, and Classics

We hope you enjoyed our second podcast! We started with mosaics, detoured via nineteenth-century cannibalism, and ended up with a dog-headed saint, and a mythical race of headless men.

First, Rachael’s favourite mosaic, which illustrates an episode in Homer’s Odyssey. The Sirens lure men onto the rocks with their song; to avoid this fate, Odysseus orders the crew of his ship to stop up their ears with wax, while he is tied to the mast, so that he alone can hear the song without danger. The mosaic, from the collection of the Bardo Museum in Tunis, shows Odysseus with his hands bound, while alluring sirens beckoning on his right. The mosaic is usually cropped, and shows only Odysseus with the sirens, like this:


Mosaic of Ulysses and the Sirens, second century AD, Bardo Museum, Tunis