Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
18.01.07, Thomson and Bintley, eds., Sensory Perception in the Medieval West

18.01.07, Thomson and Bintley, eds., Sensory Perception in the Medieval West

The twelve essays in this volume deal almost exclusively with primary sources from England and Scandinavia, and when read as a group, they evoke the richly variable ways in which medieval authors, illustrators, performers, and artisans engaged the bodily senses of the audience. The volume's title thus suggests both a broader geographical span and a more focused understanding of sense perception than these essays actually offer. Nonetheless, a number of the contributions eloquently exhort the reader to put aside the habits of the present-day scholar or museum-goer, and instead to attune our senses to medieval texts, objects, and spaces in ways that more nearly approximate those of medieval audiences. Space does not permit me to respond to all twelve essays at length, so I have foregrounded several that model especially innovative methods or insightful interpretations.

Mariana Lopez's study, "The York Mystery Plays: Exploring Sound and Hearing in Medieval Vernacular Drama," begins with a substantial review of earlier scholarship on the performance conditions of medieval drama. She then presents her original research, which employs "a combination of acoustic measurement techniques and computer models to further our understanding of the impact of the street spaces and wagon structures on performance and reception" (65-66). Lopez has digitally reconstructed the sixteenth-century York performance venue of Stonegate in eight different forms, since some variable features of the space are now unknown, such as the height of the buildings and whether the windows of the buildings were open or closed during performances. She also reconstructs two types of wagons on which the Mystery Plays might have been performed--one based on fifteenth-century documentary evidence of a wagon built by the York Mercers' guild, and one based on a fifteenth-century French miniature depicting a street performance--and accounts for variables in the orientation of the wagon toward the viewers and the height of the scaffolding that was sometimes erected to seat paying members of the audience. Lopez generates valuable data concerning the combinations of variables that might have created the most favorable acoustics for the spoken words and for the music of the York Mystery Plays in its sixteenth-century performance setting.

Eric Lacey's essay, entitled "Birds and Words: Aurality, Semantics and Species in Anglo-Saxon England," has a narrow, technical focus, namely the relationship among bird calls, Old English bird names, and Anglo-Saxon perceptions of bird species; nonetheless, it provides eloquent support for the claim, shared among several studies in this volume, that historians over-emphasize visible data at the expense of information mediated by the other senses. In medieval communities that did not depend heavily on verbal literacy, Lacey argues, the soundscape was as prominent as the scenery. Deafness posed "a greater impediment to the wellbeing of individuals" than did visual impairment (76), and people were more likely to know birds by their calls than by their appearances. Lacey blends ancient and medieval textual evidence with ornithological data and cognitive-science approaches to taxonomies and the perception of species; he sorts Old English bird names into several categories according to their motivation by the bird's behavior, appearance, and sound, demonstrating that by far the strongest motivator for the naming of birds was the sounds they produced. The essay closes with two case studies of Old English terms for owls and thrushes, each of which demonstrates how the application of ornithological data can clarify how the Anglo-Saxons taxonomized wild and domesticated birds as well as those they encountered only in Latin literature.

Melissa Herman's contribution, "All that Glitters: The Role of Pattern, Reflection, and Visual Perception in Early Anglo-Saxon Art," models how to interrogate objects, such as Anglo-Saxon disc brooches, that communicate through means other than words and pictures. Ornaments fabricated from gold, silver, and garnet obviously mark the wearer as a person of social and economic importance, but Herman thoughtfully examines why Germanic artisans of the late antique and early medieval periods employed these particular materials in high-status jewelry. Gold, for example, was prized not only for its scarcity but also its high reflectivity, its malleability, and its resistance to discoloration and decay. In Old English, "colour terms referred more to brightness than colour gradient, meaning that hue or saturation is prioritised" (174); this suggests that the Anglo-Saxon viewer's perception of the effect of an ornament was fundamentally different from that of the modern viewer. Herman reveals how Anglo-Saxon artisans consciously capitalized on the reflectivity of gold and garnet, juxtaposing bright, reflective panels of garnet in cloisonné with dark garnet cabochons, or bright gold with dark niello, so that the viewer's eye would see the ornament differently as the light played off it while the wearer's body moved--a point elegantly illustrated by two photographs of the famous Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle at different angles.

Jonathan Wilcox writes evocatively on "The Sensory Cost of Remediation; or, Sniffing in the Gutter of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts." The first half of this piece evaluates online repositories of digital images of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, assesses the usability and special features of the different platforms for viewing these images, and succinctly describes several digital resources that support research on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, such as DigiPal. Wilcox is candid about obstacles such as software obsolescence, images that are too large or too small for optimal viewing, and the digitizers' focus on text and illustration, often to the exclusion of bindings, stitch-holes, and other crucial codicological features. The internet-theory concepts of immediacy and hypermediacy provide Wilcox a framework for considering how the scholars who use digital images may be compromising their engagement with the materials of the manuscript more often than they are aware: digital presentations of manuscripts cater exclusively to the eyes, although certainly the sense of touch, and arguably the ears and nose, are also integral to codicological study. Intriguingly, Wilcox observes the growing demand, among scholars, for hands-on training with the raw materials of manuscripts, and proposes that as the proportion of time that we spend with manuscripts grows increasingly mediated by computers, we can make good the sensory losses through "a new-found respect for the academic study of craft" (51).

Two pieces in this volume are especially pertinent to current conversations about the nature of the mind and soul in vernacular or folk psychologies. First, Richard North's essay, "Heaven Ahoy! Sensory Perception in The Seafarer," demonstrates that the psychology of conversion in the poem depends upon "the Seafarer's intuition of heaven, which comes about through sensory perception" (8). As he advances this reading, North is obliged to choose between earlier critics' divergent interpretations of much-debated passages, so the essay also encapsulates several debates that have informed modern reception of the poem. North and I continue to disagree about the semantic discreteness of Old English poetic terms for the mind (17), but he does make a plausible and fascinating case for the Seafarer-poet's use of hyge and sefa to represent intention and sense-perception respectively. While this usage may reflect the poet's imitation of Lactantius's ascription of distinct mental roles to the animus and the sensus in De opificio Dei, writes North, the representation of the wandering mind as a bird "comes closer to heathen folklore" (26).

Second, Pete Sandberg's "Disembodied Cognition and Sensory Perception in Sólarljóð" explores a text unfamiliar to many readers: a thirteenth-century Icelandic poem combining exempla and wisdom literature with an imagined first-person account of what the soul experiences during and after the death of the body. Approaching Sólarljóð by way of contemporary discussions of embodied cognition, Sandberg is struck by what he views as a remarkable paradox: the poet's narrative lexicon is so inextricable from the human condition of embodiment that, even while recounting "disembodied" experiences, the poet cannot escape his dependence on the language of bodily sensation. Sandberg's examination of Sólarljóð is valuable because discussions of the nature and behavior of the soul in medieval Scandinavian literature are not abundant; however, if Sandberg had interpreted Sólarljóð within a more capacious intellectual or literary-historical context, he might not have found the portrayal of a disembodied soul with sensory perception to be so paradoxical. The vernacular psychologies of medieval Germanic regions did not equate disembodiment with strict incorporeality in the Platonist sense: the soul was certainly differentiated from the flesh, but it was often thought to be visible, extended in space, and made of subtle, non-fleshly matter. Moreover, there exist late antique and medieval works from all over the medieval West and the Mediterranean that depict the soul in the afterlife as a simulacrum of the body, which speaks and moves and exercises all five senses. While I accept Sandberg's assertion that anthropomorphism in visions of the afterworld likely results from the inherent difficulty of constructing a narrative about a completely disembodied being, I think that a more historically grounded reading of Sólarljóð would conclude that most medieval audiences found nothing surprising in the portrayal of a soul exercising its sensory faculties in the afterworld.

The volume's other study of Old Norse literature is "Plant Life in the Poetic Edda" by Michael D.J. Bintley. He examines works of Old Norse literature that anthropomorphize plants, ascribe them sensations and emotions, and, unusually, elevate them to an ontological level that is not always inferior to those of humans and animals. The "suffering of trees," Bintley argues, "is used as a means of portraying the suffering of humans," and it is possible to read into this analogy something about the "interactions between humans and plants in early medieval Scandinavia" (228). Much of Bintley's discussion relies on portrayals of Yggdrasil, but since Yggdrasil is an ash tree as well as the central pillar of the cosmos, I have some reservations about reading Yggdrasil's attributes as representative of the general attributes or ontological status of ordinary trees. Nevertheless, I learned much from Bintley about how trees and other vegetation play a crucial role in the similes and imagery that are applied to humans and human reproduction in Old Norse literature.

Five additional contributions round out the volume. Simon C. Thomson examines the sensory experience of laboring in a medieval scriptorium, and he additionally explores medieval and present-day perspectives on scribal copying: are changes to the text best understood as the destructive act of corrupting an authorial text, or as the creative act of recension? Patricia Skinner's contribution, which focuses on law codes and narrative sources from throughout western Europe, examines "the gradations of sensory impairment" that were recognized and differentiated under the law, or in other words, "the fluidity of what was, and what was not, considered an 'impairment'" (183). Francesca Brooks reads Exeter Book Riddles 48 and 59 against Psalms 113 and 115 and the multi-sensory experience of the rituals in the Mass, which convincingly puts the reader in touch with the mental furniture of the riddles' authors and immediate audiences. Victoria Symons offers a meditation on "the complex, nuanced, and at times contradictory relationship between perception, language and reality that forms the Old English riddles and charms, and the role that words can play as an alternative to the five senses as a means of understanding the world around us" (124). This may be too much to cover in 18 pages; the author juxtaposes selections from Gregory the Great's Libellus responsionum, Isidore's Etymologiae, riddles in both Latin and Old English, metrical charms, and Old English homilies to produce a loosely structured contemplation of the relationship between words and things. Finally, Meg Boulton invites students of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical architecture and art to reject the antiquarian preoccupation with source study and classification and to adopt a "performative gaze" (215). Though she speaks at length about the performative gaze and devotes several pages to the well-known mosaics of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, she does not examine what the performative gaze can draw out when trained on the particulars of even one Anglo-Saxon church; her penultimate paragraph hastily lists architectural features that Boulton would have liked to discuss, such as figural sculptures at Deerhurst, the crypt at Hexham, the chancel arch at Escomb.

Although I learned much from reading Sensory Perception in the Medieval West, the quality of the essays is uneven; several contributions would not, in their current state, be accepted by selective journals. Editors Thomson and Bintley did not intervene assertively enough in the production of the volume by prescribing the necessary revisions or rejecting submissions that are inchoate, inconclusive, or otherwise unready for publication. Moreover, the editors would ideally have corrected glaring errors (e.g., "Knapp" and Dobbie as editors of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, p. vii); helped contributors improve the accuracy of their Old English translations (e.g., 142-155, passim); penned an introduction that engages thoughtfully with ongoing conversations about the central topics covered in the volume; and even encouraged contributors to engage with one another's essays instead of talking past one another (as, for example, Lacey and Skinner do, concerning the relative importance of sight and hearing in medieval settings).

Although Thomson and Bintley are responsible for these shortcomings, I suspect that their editorial labors may have been compromised by the pressures that compel early-career scholars (especially in the UK) to edit essay collections in order to accrue lines on the CV. Obviously this brief review cannot accommodate substantial discussion of how to reform the climate that engenders such pressures, but the results are unhealthy for our profession, as the rush to meet research benchmarks weakens the abilities of editors to discern how best to serve contributors and readers alike. The best contributions to Sensory Perception in the Medieval West would have garnered a larger audience if published in prestigious journals, and because these essays do not directly complement or engage with one another, there is little intellectual payoff for publishing them as a single volume.