The desire to touch, taste and smell, to see and to hear, appears to be instinctive. At first glance it seems probable that these responses to our environments and the people around us are an intrinsic part of human nature and have seen little change. Or, are our sensory responses today radically different from those of the people who lived in the thousands of years before us? Historians are keen to explore just how gender, class, aesthetics and religious sensibilities were affected by sensory experiences for people living across the ages, from 500 BCE right up to the present day.
At a time when new religions such as Christianity developed new ways of using the senses to create spiritual communities and interact with the Divine, the period of Antiquity saw the senses being employed in a range of social fields, from everyday etiquette to medicinal ‘cures’ to literary notions of romance. Gourmet shops provided luxury foods for the elite. Colour was a visual tool, used by wealthy Romans to celebrate their status in yellows, blues and reds (black was for the most luxurious of rooms), and sounds of Homeric verse were aimed to elevate the senses. The interpretation of the senses in Antiquity established distinctions between social classes, men and women and the immoral and the moral. This system of sensory distinctions can still be seen in the modern age, when such things as personal appearance, music and the preferences of the taste palate continue to be used as an indicator of the cultural status of an individual.
The Renaissance period is closely associated with visual imagery and the aestheticisation of environments. The décor of palaces, for example, aimed to discipline the ‘lower-order senses’. Niall Atkinson writes: “Not only was beauty thought to induce good behaviour, it signified moral virtue and could not be present without it.” The period gave rise to the senses becoming increasingly important to the society of manners at the same time as the Protestant Reformation restricted their use in religious piety. Notions of the senses were closely connected with spirituality, however; while Catholics made full-bodied use of incense, music, imagery and the touching of relics in their worship, Protestants preferred a starker aesthetic of sensory restraint.
Fast forward to the twentieth century and visions of skyscrapers and virtual worlds, which similarly feed into ideas of class, society, religion and the arts. Whilst commercial aesthetics and the carefully constructed opportunities for sensory experiences in places such as Disneyland have replaced the traditional bazaar, there are undoubtedly similarities with the past. The people of the Middle Ages considered sight, smell, taste and sound to perform an important role in the formation of individual identity. In the Enlightenment the five senses were held to be the basis for our knowledge of the world. Information, ideas and sensations have multiplied and intertwined at a faster pace than ever before, yet we still form our daily understanding through the things we hear, taste, smell and touch. As Tim Edensor notes: “Buildings, industries, fashions and policies have emerged and crumbled throughout the twentieth century, and huge human and cultural flows have moved through and across space, transforming the sensescapes of everyday life and providing unfamiliar, often disturbing, and frequently exciting sensations.”
For anyone interested in the nuances of sensory experiences, visual culture and the history of religion, art and literature, the newly published A Cultural History of the Senses set is the perfect reference work. The pack contains six volumes, each dealing with a distinct period:
- The Middle Ages
- The Renaissance
- The Age of Enlightenment
- The Age of Empire
- The Modern Age
Readers have the option of gaining a broad overview of all periods, or selecting elements that they are most interested in, as each book is structured around themes of social life, urban sensations, the marketplace, religion, philosophy and science, medicine, literature, art and sensory media. Essays have been written by leading scholars in the field, including such prestigious historians as Peter Burke, Alain Corbin and Chris Woolgar. With a large number of fantastic illustrations scattered throughout, this pack presents a new and exciting approach to exploring cultural history.