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21.01.06 Griffiths/Starkey (eds.), Sensory Reflections

The Medieval Review

21.01.06 Griffiths/Starkey (eds.), Sensory Reflections


As you begin reading this review, you may imagine that you are simply "seeing" and "understanding" it. But after you finish it, you will realize (if I have done my job) that this artifact that we call a digital review in fact offers a multisensory experience. You must have turned on your computer, clicked on a link, perhaps heard the satisfying sound of a computer-generated ping, had a sense of mastery as you accessed TMR, perhaps felt alert to your professional responsibilities as you began to read. In short, though only a "thing," even a TMR review has agency, activating feelings in you and me even as we are the agents writing or reading it.

Griffiths and Starkey's collection explores the ways in which nine different sorts of objects were--or, at least, might have been--experienced in the Middle Ages. While today we generally recognize only five senses, the medieval sensorium was also internal and spiritual. Thus, Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of "five spiritual senses by which caritas vivifies the soul, namely the corporeal love of parents, social love, natural love, spiritual love, and the love of God. Through the five sense of the body, during one's lifetime, the body is joined to the soul; through the five spiritual senses, with the intervention of caritas, the soul is joined with God" [1] Elsewhere he firmly linked the bodily senses to the spiritual, so that, for example, taste corresponded to the pleasant love that one feels for one's companions, and sight pertains to the holy love of God.

This is why the chapters in Sensory Reflections take up the internal and spiritual as well as the bodily senses involved in approaching and analyzing artefacts. Following an illuminating introduction by the editors, the first chapter, by musicologist Jesse Rodin, offers, in effect, a Masterclass on how to look at and listen to a fifteenth-century polyphonic song, Je m'esbaïs de vous. One of 161 songs in the Dijon Chansonnier (F-Dm MS 517), its analysis opens a way to understand and experience other songs of the period. Unfortunately, the publisher failed (at least at the time of writing this review) to post the recording of the song on its website. In his essay, Rodin imagines a discussion among the song's performers and a well-informed listener at a court in northern France. Reading their comments while listening to the recording, with which Rodin kindly provided me, and consulting the modern edition of the notes and words (48-49), I learned a new way to hear this sort of music. As medieval theorists said, the senses may indeed be educated.

The Dijon Chansonnier belonged to the courtly milieu. By contrast, chapters by Valerie L. Garver and Richard Newhauser consider the meaning of low-class objects for their non-elite users. Garver's discussion of rural textile workers in the Carolingian era uses a few needles, spindle whorls and rods, loom weights, and other humble relics of the weaving trade to evoke the impoverished conditions of the many peasant women who produced the bulk of cloth used throughout the empire. Newhauser's chapter discovers the generally unsung prestige of the plowman, whose work endowed the peasant community with much of its identity and unity. Plowing was man's work; with his heavy and useful tool, the plowman guaranteed the well-being of his family and, perhaps not incidentally, affirmed his masculinity via the symbolic significance of the in-and-out movement of his labor.

Rather less salacious but no less prestigious were the folding almanacs that practicing physicians in fifteenth-century England consulted at the bedsides of their patients. As Jennifer Borland argues, the tactile sensations of opening these heavily notated parchments gave way to interior feelings as they activated in their users--and those witnessing their use--the conviction of learned expertise, the hope of a cure, and the belief in the almanacs' talismanic powers.

Similarly, chapters on Eastern Mediterranean jewelry by Elizabeth Dospěl Williams and the highly decorated objects of the Anglo-Saxon period by Melissa Herman argue for more than meets the eye or hand. Herman documents the dazzling effect on beholders of finely decorated and shining Anglo-Saxon battle gear, which telegraphed the status and importance of the bearer. She argues that such metalwork had "agency," deliberately manipulating "the movement of a viewer's eye across the pattern of ornamentation" (101). This was of a piece with the strongly aesthetic pleasures that were simultaneously created by Anglo-Saxon poetry and music.

In her chapter on jewelry, Williams notes that in the Eastern Mediterranean these ornaments were not only seen, felt, and heard (by clinking together, for example), but also smelled. Tenth-century litterateur al-Washshā', in a book on the elegant styles of Baghdadi elites, associated these scents with gender: both men and women might imbue their clothing with musk and ambergris, but women could sport many other perfumes as well, and they could adorn themselves with "pleasant-smelling jewelry, such as choker necklaces with fermented cloves" (81). In ascetic Christian circles, however, jewelry was associated with sin, and in the Qur'an, women were warned not to "stamp their feet such that the ornaments they conceal become known." Thus, did the sense of hearing give way to the internal sense of moral outrage?

Some chapters are about the ways in which objects may require human movement to be activated. The "Alhambra vases" surveyed in Patricia Blessing's chapter offered a sort of miniaturized experience of the awesome splendor of the palace itself. Their shining glazes, inscriptions, size, and association with water recalled the luster tiles, writing, fountains and gardens of the building in which they were presumably installed. And, just as the Alhambra invited (and invites) movement from one room to another, so these heavy vases--too ponderous and fully glazed to be of practical use--required the viewer to walk around them to appreciate their decoration and read their inscribed message.

In a very different context, the Mosan reliquaries discussed by Cynthia Hahn moved "like actors in a play" (143). Thus, in 1030, the reigning bishop placed the reliquary of St. Gaugerik on the bishop's throne in the Cathedral of Cambrai to preside over the consecration of the church. In effect, the saint served as "bishop for a day." Other reliquaries were carried in procession on feast days, making clear the presence and power of the saints within. When monasteries were involved in disputes, they might take out and effectively display their reliquaries, as happened in 1071 when the monks of Stavelot were seeking to overturn some rights claimed by Anno II, archbishop of Cologne. The aggrieved monks carried numerous relics and reliquaries through towns and countryside to the imperial Easter Court in Liège. There, amidst prayers and incense, their most precious reliquary, that of St. Remaclus, did much of the pleading for them--emitting sounds, rising in the air, becoming too heavy to move. The monks of Stavelot won their case.

The micro-books surveyed in Alexa Sand's chapter asked users to engage with them in quite a different way. Such tiny texts were not meant to impress large crowds with their agency and power but rather to please and inspire individuals with their preciousness and intimacy. As the Word was made flesh, so these too were written on skin and, unlike large manuscripts, might be worn, perhaps over the heart or on a belt. In this way, they might function as amulets to ward off danger or to heal. Their tiny scripts and exquisite decorations were designed to provoke reverence and amazement. Further, they suited the late medieval association of littleness with pious humility, the shrinking of the self, the "little brothers" of Saint Francis.

Sara Ritchey's chapter also considers a book, of much larger scale, in her profound analysis of one illustration in a fourteenth-century manuscript (Royal Library of Belgium MS 4459--70, fol. 150v) that depicted the "life-size" wound in Christ's side. Surrounded by the text of "an indulgence of forty days for those who contemplate the image" (163), and a prayerful song (among other things), it demanded the activation of all the viewer's senses, within and without. Indeed, its juxtaposition of flesh and spirit called upon the reader to move from corporeal experiences to inner sensations and back again. The ultimate goal was spiritual healing: the wound became a relic; its viewer was brought closer to salvation.

The book includes many helpful black and white illustrations and color plates. But the lack of a bibliography, whether the decision of the editors or publisher, is a pity, as the chapters are richly footnoted and many readers will want to chase down the references. Certainly, De Gruyter has done no one a favor by omitting on its website the recording necessary to appreciate Rodin's chapter. While some of the essays tend to remain at the level of the five senses, others delve deeply into the many other senses that medieval people recognized and cultivated. All offer new ways to think about material things. On balance, this is a book worth savoring in all one's senses.

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Notes:

1. Richard G. Newhauser, "The Senses, the Medieval Sensorium, and Sensing (in) the Middle Ages," in Handbook of Medieval Culture, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin-Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 1559-1575 at 1567.