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Renaissance Ruffs and Roman Aromas
In an age of mountebanks, salt was tested by touch, perfumes by
smell and glass by the sound it made.
Of all of the senses, we rely most heavily on sight when discussing the testimony of the past. We
talk about historical “observers,” prize the analytical “lens” of history and are driven by the
Enlightenment desire for “perspective.” See my point? This is hardly surprising. After all, we are
heirs to processes and technologies that have privileged sight over the other senses. The
invention of print trained us to read silently, with the eye becoming more important than the ear
as a receiver of information. Think too of photographs, telescopes, spectacles. The idea that
seeing is believing is embedded deeply in our culture.
Over the past couple of decades, sensory historians have been working to correct this
overreliance by restoring the other senses of taste, touch, smell and hearing to our understanding
of the past. Some of the dividends of this approach are on display in the six highly engaging and
authoritative volumes that have been gathered together as “A Cultural History of the Senses,”
under the general editorship of historian Constance Classen. The collection is broad, with
volumes covering Antiquity (500 B.C.-A.D. 500), the Middle Ages (500-1450), the Renaissance
(1450-1650), the Age of Enlightenment (1650-1800), the Age of Empire (1800-1920) and the
Modern Age (1920-2000). The editor of each volume has selected and arranged essays by
experts in each era, and each volume examines sensory culture in one of nine major areas: social
life, the urban environment, the marketplace, religion, philosophy and science, medicine,
literature, art, and media.
A Cultural History of the Senses
Edited by Constance Classen
Bloomsbury, six volumes, $495
Antiquity, to take one example, was not a world in which the five senses had distinct registers.
Instead, people muddled them, producing “synesthesia,” a mixing up of the senses: Homer’s
famous descriptions of the “wine-dark sea” braid sight, taste and smell. Literature was also a
different type of sensory experience from the one we know today. With perhaps less than 10% of
people functionally literate, writers wrote to be heard and strove to evoke the sensate. As Silvia
Montiglio puts it in her essay: “Greek literature caresses not only the ears. Verbal persuasion
could be felt to work through other senses as well, to have an impact on sight and even touch as
well as hearing.” Certainly the Roman world was a highly visual one, where colors indicated
social standing: White was the cheapest color, followed by red, then yellow; blue and black were
reserved for great rooms in villas. But other senses were critical for other reasons, with statuetouching and incense-burning essential to connecting with the divine.
In the Middle Ages, the relationship between the sensory world and faith became especially
pronounced. “We should turn our gaze from evil sights, our hearing from evil speech, our taste
from prohibited aliments, our noses from harmful smells, our hands and whole body from foul
and sinful contacts, if we are desirous of coming to the delicacies of the eternal refection,”
admonished one English abbot. Nascent advances in the physical sciences and medicine were
driven not only by theory but also by sensory experimentation: Physicians felt pulses, smelled
plague, and used taste and tongue to diagnose disease.
Nor were the senses static or even wholly reliable. The understanding of sensory experience in
the Renaissance included the inner senses (common sense, the imagination and memory) in
addition to the customary five. In this period, uncertainty about one’s surroundings prevailed,
thanks to emerging urban environments and the growth of the marketplace. Mountebanks were
everywhere and “early modern men and women needed all their senses to discern the good from
the bad on offer and the true from the false,” as the cultural historian Herman Roodenburg puts
it. Salt was tested by touch; ears verified the quality of glass; noses sniffed the legitimacy of
Even the hyper-visual age of the Enlightenment was awash with sensory experience. This age
witnessed encounters with new people and new parts of the world, notably what some European
settlers called the “howling wilderness” of early America and all of the gustatory, auditory,
visual and tactile experiences of the New World. Food, at least for elites and the emerging
middle classes, included heavily spiced food, coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate and increasing
amounts of sugar. So potent were these new stimuli that the period had a quality of sensory
overload, inducing a sort of nervous sensibility from feeling too much. This was reminiscent of
what historian Peter Burke describes as “the hyper-stimulation of the senses” in the urban
environments of the Renaissance world.
Smells, tastes, touches, sights and sounds help define modernity too. It is impossible to
understand the emergence of empires, the rise of industrialism, large-scale urbanization, and a
host of other 19th- and 20th-century developments without taking into account the new noises
and sounds of factory and city and the new sights and ways of seeing (the ability to see from
above; the ability to see at night). The modern era also introduced new smells. Cities and bodies
were increasingly deodorized, courtesy of sewer systems and soap, often at the behest of elites
who feared the association between fetor, disease and the working classes. Automobiles,
electricity, radio, television, the widespread use of plastics and synthetic fabrics—all changed
what people saw, heard and felt.
Despite the many ways in which sensory experience and understanding change, the continuities
are worth noting. Physicians today, like their medieval forebears, use touch and hearing to help
diagnose, and the urban Renaissance practices of testing goods by using the senses is hardly alien
to today’s shoppers. Moreover, as Ms. Classen writes: “The social order of 19th-century Europe
was marked by a continuation of many of the sensory stereotypes which had been used to
characterize social groups since the Middle Ages,” and even before. In antiquity, for example,
touch was a way to differentiate between social groups: Slaves were branded, and their flesh
scarred; elites were spared the whip. This was also the case well into the 19th century in
slaveholding societies. Similarly, complaints from Roman elites about the poor, who, they
claimed, made “a disgusting sound by drawing back their breath into their nostrils,” as
Ammianus Marcellinus claimed were echoed about immigrants to modern Europe and America,
who were often depicted as noisy and raucous.
These impressive volumes enable us to venture beyond the credo that “seeing is believing” and
to better appreciate the original iteration of that phrase as it was used in the medieval period:
“Seeing is believing but feeling’s the truth.” For the same reason, “A Cultural History of the
Senses” reminds us that histories of smell, sound, taste and touch—as well as of sight—are
remarkably useful in helping us remember that the truth is more complex than it might first
appear. Thinking that history stinks is not necessarily a bad thing.
—Mr. Smith, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of “The
Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War” and general editor of
Studies in Sensory History (Illinois).‐review‐a‐cultural‐history‐of‐the‐senses‐edited‐by‐