Carol Symes

title.none: Kleinschmidt, Perception and Action in Medieval Europe (Carol Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0707.015 07.07.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champagne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Kleinschmidt, Harald. Perception and Action in Medieval Europe. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2006, 2005. Pp. viii, 198. $90.00 (hb) 1-84383-146-5 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.07.15

Kleinschmidt, Harald. Perception and Action in Medieval Europe. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2006, 2005. Pp. viii, 198. $90.00 (hb) 1-84383-146-5 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois at Urbana- Champagne

Perception and Action in Medieval Europe is a slim book, 143 pages of closely-reasoned argument distilled from research into primary and secondary sources listed in a further 45 pages of bibliography. Slim, but hardly slight; in fact, it is an astonishing achievement whose implications are both deep and wide-ranging. It should be required reading for all medievalists, as well as for all non-medievalists whose disciplines are predicated (overtly or implicitly) on theories of "the modern"--disciplines which therefore have a vested interest in maintaining a myth of the Middle Ages as a single, static period that can either be marginalized and dismissed or pathologized and scrutinized as "other."

Essentially, Harald Kleinschmidt's self-appointed task is to explain "What was different about the medieval world?" (141) and when, why, and how did those differences manifest themselves? The fact that he comes extremely close to answering such a huge and tangled set of questions so economically is a testament to his evident intelligence, erudition, analytical skills, and careful prose style. This is not an easy read, but it rewards effort. Indeed, considering its level of sophistication, Perception and Action is remarkably free from jargon, and the reader will find difficult philosophical, philological, and historiographical problems clearly articulated in plain language.

The thesis of the book is most clearly stated in the epilogue (141-144), and this is also the place where the highest stakes of the game are laid out. Perception and Action is a history of ideas both in and of the Middle Ages, which has been an object of study and anxiety since "the Renaissance," when it became symbolic of the West's "cultural self-alienation." After this periodization was reified by modern scholars--"the Middle Ages" and "the medieval" becoming technical terms in the seventeenth century, "the Renaissance" in the nineteenth--it then became necessary to shore up these modern constructs using all the implements in the modern scholar's intellectual toolkit. Two strategies emerged, both of which helped to concretize the familiar set of assumptions about the period that Kleinschmidt is attempting to dismantle. On the one hand, "scientism" sought to quantify and qualify the magnitude of the alleged differences in rationality, belief, values, institutions, habits of life, agricultural practices, etc. On the other, "exoticism" examined and evaluated these differences, finding in "the practice of clumsy rituals and the ubiquity of fantastic images of the world" ample justification for modernity's fascination, prurience, and scorn of the medieval past it had invented.

This will not come as news to medievalists, though it is rarely stated so forthrightly. Most of us know--or at least intuit--that there is little justification for such views, and certainly not for any view of the period that sees it as holistic and unchanging. The problem is, how does one go about proving that these ideas are wrong? What is revelatory about Kleinschmidt's work is that he not only puts his finger on the central problem, but shows how modern intellectuals arrived at these conclusions and how evidence gleaned from medieval sources can be deployed to overturn them. This is why the philosophical categories of perception (aesthetics) and action (ethics) are so important: Kleinschmidt argues that modern thinkers have not adequately historicized "medieval attitudes to their physical and social environments," which have hitherto been "described and analysed by means of purportedly general 'laws' of nature and principles of social organisation." When such attitudes (perceptions) and their associated behaviors (actions) do not conform to these alleged "laws" they can be safely classed as medieval, which of course means irrational by definition. One thinks of Burckhardt's famous assessment of the medieval mentality as "dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil...woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues" [1] or Huizinga's musings on medieval man's "child-life." [2]

In brief, Kleinschmidt sets out to show: (1) that people living in different times and places gather information about the world in different ways, and that they do not necessarily use that information to achieve goals whose success can be measured by modern logic; (2) that during the Middle Ages there was a shift away from a standard of perception governed by group-bound norms, a standard prompting actions that were "process-oriented" and thus protective of the group, toward a standard of perception which expected individuals "to pass judgments on the aesthetic quality of persons and objects at their own discretion" and then to act accordingly, in pursuit of individual goals; (3) that this shift is perceptible in the centuries when medievalists would expect to find it, the ninth and tenth; and (4) that this movement is intimately related to the increased reliance on written record rather than on "integrated oral processes of communicative action" which had "awarded success most easily to actors who were willing to contribute to the social cohesion of groups." This shift is also discernible in concomitant changes in the ways that the sensory stimuli essential to such immediate interpersonal communication--hearing, seeing touching, smelling, and tasting--were processed and translated into action.

How does Kleinschmidt demonstrate this? Admittedly, he gets off to a slow start. His introduction begins by juxtaposing Adomnan's story of the conversion of the Saxon warlord Oswald, included in his life of St. Columba toward the end of the seventh century, with the near-contemporary and analogous story told be Bede. His purpose is to showcase the standards of perception and action underlying these stories, and the tension they exhibit between (on the one hand) the group-sanctioned modes of perception and group-oriented modes of action displayed by Oswald's followers, and (on the other) the incipient challenge posed by a universal Christianity to the particularism of such traditional understandings of and responses to the world. (This is more obvious in Bede's account.) In the context of the book as a whole, the choice of these examples is understandable, but this means that they would have been better placed at the end. Unfortunately, the density of narrative detail and the absence of any obvious thesis statement in these opening pages nearly swamps the importance of the argument Kleinschmidt is trying to develop--which is why I began with the epilogue and think that Kleinschmidt should have, too. Only toward the end of this section does he lay out the problem: that the study of the Middle Ages has been hampered by the fact that modern scholars (historians, philologists, anthropologists, philosophers, cognitive scientists) have "found it hard to penetrate into changing standards of perception and action" (6) and have taken it "for granted that perception cannot and should not be convertible into action" (7).

According to Kleinschmidt, then, it is widely assumed that there is supposed to be a natural division between aesthetic judgments and human behavior. In the early Middle Ages, however, this was not so. Perception of the environment was understood to call for certain responses pre-determined by the values and mores of the social group(s) to which a person belonged. In the later medieval- modern period, by contrast, individuals tend more towards a personal evaluation of the environment, on the basis of which they decide on a course of action. This is what Kleinschmidt sets out to explore in the first chapter by means of a twin analysis: first of changes in the visual perception and depiction of space taking place around and after the millennium, secondly with respect to aural perception, with a focus on changing ideas about the power of music. This is a provocative and rather frustrating chapter, which I can imagine will be even more provocative and frustrating to art historians and musicologists. Although Kleinschmidt provides several good examples in support of his argument, that argument is--at this stage in the book--still too sweeping to be convincingly founded on so brief and breathtaking an analysis.

And the argument is only a little further advanced in the second chapter, in which the millennial rupture between perception and action is illustrated by means of a case study from the very early eleventh century. This is the report--confirmed by a number of contemporary sources--of what happened when revelers from the East Saxon village of Kolbigk transgressed the social norms of their group by performing a round-dance to their own sung accompaniment in the village churchyard on Christmas Eve. Their impious behavior is said to have incited divine wrath, so that they were miraculously condemned to continue the carol, fasting and unresting, until Christmas Eve the following year. At that time, some of the dancers died of exhaustion while others, now outcasts, wandered around Europe begging for alms. Kleinschmidt unpacks this story carefully, in an effort to show that the dancers "appear to have called into question the Church monopoly over the cult of the dead" (47)--a monopoly only recently asserted--and that it "represents an early eleventh-century countryside world in which aural perception was believed to translate into pre- determined actions" but where new forms of control had come into being which complicated secular and lay responses to such actions. "The report can thus be placed at the centre of perceptual, behavioral and social changes." It is no less fascinating because of the evidence it provides for indigenous traditions of oral composition and dance, for which we lack satisfactory sources.

At this point in my reading, I was intrigued by Klienschmidt's argument but still very far from accepting it. The next chapter, devoted to "The Perception of Smell, Touch, and Taste," was therefore crucial to my conversion. It is much more substantive and well-supported than the previous two chapters, and of necessity: while a great deal has been written recently about visuality and orality (chapter one) and about the analysis and interpretation of seemingly supernatural experiences (chapter two), very little has been said about the history of the other senses in the Middle Ages. Here is where Kleinschmidt's command of the material really begins to assert itself, and where his almost gleeful dismemberment of the theories of Lucien Febvre and Norbert Elias calls to mind the proverbial activity of shooting fish in a barrel. Deftly, he explains how Febvre (who attempted to argue that "the intensity of smell perception" actually declined in the early modern period before becoming powerful again in the eighteenth) and Elias (who argued the exact opposite, that there was "a steadily increasing sensitivity toward touch and taste" in the same period) both measured their sources against their own contemporary standards and could not consequently get beyond "mere contentions" of the kind frequently made by modern scholars about medieval phenomena (58-59). As Kleinschmidt remarks, "The way out of the dead end of attempting to measure what is not measurable is to ask different questions." His ensuing treatment of the history of smell perception is admirable in this regard. For example, he is able to show--with reference to a study of the conditions in medieval bathhouses, among other venues--that the later Middle Ages saw the development of a new "standard of smell perception according to which persons were given the task of making their own efforts to control the emission of bad smell," and that this contributed to a growing division between urban and rural populations, the latter being stigmatized because they were not similarly obsessed (74). In this section, one begins to see how the chronology of this particular change in sensual perception maps onto those discussed in the first two chapters, and the argument is further reinforced by a similar treatment of changes in the perception of touch and taste. Although I don't think that Kleinschmidt proves that touch ceases to be a powerful medium for transferring energy in the later medieval period--one strand of his argument--he does show that it came to be something that was to be avoided in polite society and therefore furthered the distance of urban elites from the peasantry, who came to be depicted as buffoons unable to control their bodies. Under the rubric of "taste" he actually deals with feasting and the shift from an early medieval emphasis on "the establishment and maintenance of social order" to the feast as a theatre for the expression of power and the articulation of hierarchies.

All of this pays off beautifully in the fourth chapter, the most important segment of Perception and Action and the one to which the reader might most profitably turn after the epilogue. It strikes at the heart of the modern assumption that the measurement of any action's rationality is based on the degree of efficiency with which it accomplishes a stated goal. Kleinschmidt, like the innocent in the story of the emperor's new clothes, asks "Why?" and thereby shows that the emperor has nothing on at all: Why should it be the case that this is the only acceptable test of rationality? This, as he makes clear, is not only a question that has a bearing on the history of the Middle Ages and modern perceptions of the period, but on the history of ethics broadly speaking, where ethics is defined as "the interconnectedness of values, norms, and rules" which govern perception and which are themselves subject to change. Answering it allows him to expose the close relationship between modern beliefs about action and modern standards of communication predicated on end-results crystallized in texts, as well as on the modern privileging of visual evidence (so-called "eye-witness accounts") over aural/oral testimony (or any other form of sensory perception, for that matter). Dismantling these assumptions allows for a dissection of the rationales behind early medieval valuations of the process of interpersonal communication, in which all the senses, not just that of hearing, are brought into play. Such "process-oriented actions have frequently been referred to under the label of magical beliefs"--the most die-hard of the myths about the Middle Ages--yet Kleinschmdit is able to demonstrate that these communicative actions, evaluated on their own terms, were logically consistent with the norms and values of early medieval society before they were eroded by the rise of new communication technologies (writing).

Throughout the book, Kleinschmidt's use of medieval sources is extraordinarily innovative. But in this chapter, especially, his mode of interrogation induces both conventional and little-known artifacts to yield surprising answers to new questions about how medieval people used their senses, and how they acted on what they perceived through these media. In this instance, the evidence he introduces is drawn from the long exegetical tradition surrounding the Book of Genesis, specifically the interpretation of the divine utterance "Fiat lux," placed side by side with late Carolingian polyptychs, charters, narratives of warfare, images, and observations of farming practices.

The fifth and final chapter, "Aesthetics and Ethics: Their Separation as Concepts," reinforces the findings of chapter four by explaining how "the recognition of conscience and the cognitive power of persons in twelfth- and thirteenth-century philosophical theory began to widen the gap between aesthetics and ethics," by making the power of perception (of beauty, of the divine, of truth) a matter of individual judgment and not an agreed-upon standard which should prompt certain actions (140). As Kleinschmidt suggests, understanding this transition has the capacity to illumine nearly every facet of medieval life. It certainly helps to explain the very different ways that the people of the Middle Ages felt compelled to act on their beliefs, and should prompt some powerful--if uncomfortable--reconceptualizations of the period's less savory aspects (the group-sanctioned violence of chivalry, crusading, persecution of minorities, and so on).

The answer to the question "What was different about the medieval world?" (141, 143) therefore depends upon whether one is describing the earlier era or the later, or even (as Kleinschmidt shows at various points in the book) the transitional era of the ninth and tenth centuries. The earlier period, he concludes, was truly "different in that people perceived of and acted in their physical and social environments in ways that differed from later periods"--and presumably from the periods before, although Kleinschmidt rarely discussed the differences (perceived or real) between the Middle Ages and antiquity (another of the book's shortcomings, it must be said). The later period, by contrast, exhibits "several features of perception and action that link up with those of later periods" and thus calls for a re-evaluation of the "epochal break" that is supposed to characterize the movement from medieval to modern. Increasingly, in this seminal book as in the work of other medievalists who have taken on the challenge of modernity (among them Patrick Geary, Peter Haidu, John Ganim, and Bruce Holsinger [3]), it is becoming obvious that the world we inhabit is not so much postmodern as postmedieval.


(1) Jacob Burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch (Basel, 1860), tr. S. J. Middlemore as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London, 1878), 98.

(2) Johan Huizinga, Herfsttij der Middeleeuwe; studie over levens- en gedachtenvormen der veertiende en vijftiende eeuw in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden (Haarlem, 1919) tr. F. Hopman as The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (New York, 1924), 9.

(3) Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, 2002); Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages (Stanford, 2004); John Ganim, Medievalism and Orientalism: Three Essays on Literature, Architecture and Cultural Identity (New York, 2005); Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago, 2005).