“Huge and menacing aqua-dogs, ready to go fetch Madagascar”

Gog and Magog

Gog and Magog (Psalter Map detail)

I’m only a couple chapters into The Island of Lost Maps, and I find myself simply floating along from one well-timed diversion to the next, smiling at some delightful turns of phrase (like the post title, referring to the imaginary creatures illustrating maps; another favorite is “the hellish spawn of Big Bird’s one-night stand with Jaws”). Harvey makes a virtue out of necessity: lacking the cooperation of his purported subject, Gilbert Bland, Jr., he is not restricted to ferreting out the “truth” (psychological or methodological) of the crimes in question. His map of Bland is in the mold of the medieval mappae mundi, diagrams of legends and perceptions and morality rather than objective geographic information. The comparison unfolds with such a practiced inevitability that I wonder how doggedly Harvey pursued Bland as a source, and how disappointed he was to be rebuffed. After all, flesh-eating denizens of Gog and Magog are much more interesting than anything in the vicinity of the Caspian. How could the prosaic life of a habitual criminal compare to a story woven around tantalizing details and the author’s own obsession?

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Bavarian tunnels

Here’s a fun article, found via BLDGBLOG (which I never read as regularly as I should). It’s about “twisty little passages,” underground warrens in Bavaria known as Erdstalls. More evocative monikers include goblin hole (Schrazelloch) and mandrake cave (Alraunenhöhle).

It’s also about the mysteries of the built environment. (Their creation is undocumented but attributed to elves, tattooed Scots-Irish monks, and local villagers. The Erdstalls were closed in the thirteenth century and explored in the nineteenth, their chaotic discovery owing much to construction crews and hapless cows.) It’s about conflicting theories. (Temples for cultists or hideouts for terrorized settlers?) It’s about romantic speculation and prosaic data analysis. (How effectively can one argue that a structure is Neolithic if the radiocarbon results point to the Middle Ages?) It’s about how written documentation can be a shout or a whimper, depending upon scarcity. (Explorer/archivist Weichenberger bolsters his hideout theory: “An old [written] account of a death tells the story of a woman who was so afraid of being discovered that she suffocated her screaming baby in an Erdstall.”) It’s about the legal impact of the builders’ material legacy. (Manaugh of BLDGBLOG wonders about the tax implications of Erdstalls discovered on private property.)

But mostly it’s about ancient secret passageways.

Medici Money by Tim Parks

Medici Money

Medici Money by Tim Parks

I recently read Medici Money* and found it informative and, on a couple axes, disconcerting.

Informative because I’m not particularly expert on fifteenth century Florence. Parks has a breezy style, packing a lot into a slender volume: banking, trade, mercenaries, politics, religion, and vividly sketched personalities pulled together for a coherent narrative. The book delivered the solid tidbits about banking practices that I was most looking for: bank organization, earnings of bank officials, the shifting goalposts of sumptuary laws, tax rates and prices for basic necessities and luxuries, and the semantic games by which one could earn interest-like money without technically being guilty of usury.

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