And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts

Don’t you think there is something magical about our senses? I mean, that something out there transmutes into something in here? And it doesn’t just enter our heads somehow, but becomes laden with meaning as well. Emotion. Rough becomes more than an irregular surface and suddenly acquires warmth and texture -even emotion perhaps- if it is the skin of a friend’s unshaven cheek. The smell of burning leaves, becomes a childhood day in autumn; a song, a friend who you haven’t seen in years…

No, perhaps there is more to the senses than is dreamt of in our philosophies, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet -things that we have forgotten, or in our overweening hubris, have buried in embarrassment.

Things were different in those eras where Science had not yet wrested control from myth -the medieval years spring to mind. Or at least they did after reading a delightful essay in Aeon by Chris Woolgar, a professor of history and archival studies at the University of Southampton

He writes that ‘On the face of it, studying the senses in the medieval past should be a straightforward matter. Our bodies are ostensibly the same: there can have been little physiological evolution in the intervening period – and medieval men and women must therefore have been just like us. That, however, is to ignore an important aspect of perception: the way that we understand how the senses work is culturally determined… 

‘The post-Enlightenment scientific world has a closed model of perception: the subject’s sense organs receive information, which is passed to the brain where it is interpreted. In the medieval world, perception was a more open process, where much might pass not only between perceived and perceiver, but also the other way round, from the perceiver to the object or individual who was the focus of perception.’ 

So, am I transmitting as much to the porch where I write, say, as it is to me about the hardness and irregularity of its boards? Of course that sounds ridiculous -I am an agent, my porch is not; I am alive and sentient, my porch is quite evidently not. And yet, in medieval times, if the porch had been used by a holy person, those same qualities might reside in the porch and be transmitted to those who walk on it. It’s not that far-fetched even nowadays: for example, how would we feel about using a pen if we discovered it had been used by Hitler? Would there be some residue of evil in the pen… Or what we had written with it?

‘This was not the one-way transmission of ‘information’ that one anticipates today, but something much broader, and, in the highly moral world of the Middle Ages, the transfer of these broader qualities was of immense significance… Holiness and evil, for example, were physical qualities that might pass by touch. Simply to look upon an object could bring advantage. In this way, the elevation of the host during Mass brought people benefit from seeing the consecrated bread.’ In a way, the act of seeing allowed the eye and the object to have a sort of intimate physical contact. It was how the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ operated -you were, in effect, polluted by even looking at something bad. Or touching it. ‘Swearing oaths while touching holy books guaranteed the truth of a jury’s verdict, its veredictum or ‘true saying’. Touch brought much more than cognition and symbolism. Transmitting moral and physical qualities was an essential part of sensation.’

Or take tastes both good and bad. It’s easy enough to understand how an unpleasant taste might affect how those around it react -perhaps warn them about possible toxicity- but is it so easily seen as a two-way street? ‘Do ‘home-made’ foods bring with them more than the expertise of the cook, but part of the individual themselves?’ We still revere inventive chefs, and enjoying their creations has an often observable effect on them.

Even sound carried with it moral qualities. ‘Heresy passed by sound. One did not have to understand it to be infected, to hear evil sound was sufficient to pass the contagion.’

Glanced at quickly, one can perhaps understand the seeming logic of these prescientific ideas. We do, indeed, view our senses through cultural biases. What we think of as beauty, humour, and even morality are merely how we interpret whatever passes through our sieve. Everything else seems alien, incorrect, or woefully naive. Take, for example, sound again. ‘medieval listings of the senses sometimes include a sixth sense: speech. This might seem odd but to medieval people, speech was a part of the ‘senses of the mouth’: taste was the incoming aspect, speech – above all, an ethical act – the outgoing part.’ Sort of makes sense in a way, I suppose.

Of course, ancient wisdom often lingers long after its best-before dates. It’s maybe why my mother, although largely unschooled in medieval thought processes, insisted on washing out my mouth with soap for daring to utter words she considered unclean – or at least the sole prerogative of my father…  

As Woolgar points out, ‘Traces of the moral characterisation of perception can still be found in present-day language and lore. One might talk about a good or an evil smell.’ There may even be more than a little medieval tracery in my Baptist father’s favourite expression of frustration with the music I used to listen to: “I can hear the devil humming, G,” he’d whisper as he shook his head, perhaps unwilling to use more than an abbreviation of my name for fear the devil would hear that as well.

However, one has to wonder whether it’s even fair to attempt to translate medievality into modern terms. They interacted with their world differently than us: more intimately. As Woolgar writes, ‘their senses brought them into direct contact with others, with the material world and the supernatural. And the consequences of that direct contact, through sight, hearing, smell, taste and, above all, touch, were an essential part of their lives.’ And they were forced to make sense of it all however they could.

We still do though, don’t we?

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