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Simon Smith, Jackie Watson, and Amy Kenny, eds., The Senses in Early Modern England
by Joe Moshenska

The Senses in Early Modern England 1558-1660, edited by Simon Smith, Jackie Watson and Amy Kenny. Manchester UP, 2015. x + 243 pp. ISBN: 978-0719091582. $105.00 cloth. 

In a typically dazzling discussion of Titian first published in 1978, Carlo Ginzburg referred offhandedly to “the still unwritten history of the senses.”[1] Nearly four decades later, scholars have expended a great deal of intellectual energy and spilled a lot of ink in seeking to write this history. This has been particularly true of scholars concerned with the Early Modern period, upon which Ginzburg’s essay focused. The Senses in Early Modern England is just one of several edited collections on the senses to appear in the last few years—along with Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe and The Five Senses in Medieval and Early Modern England—with at least one more collection in the pipeline.[2] There have been monographs on individual senses, including Holly Dugan’s The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, and my own Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England; Sophie Read and Elizabeth Swann are developing new books on smell and taste respectively.[3] When I first began to get seriously interested in the senses a decade ago, it felt as if I was working in something of a vacuum, with only Elizabeth Harvey’s excellent edited collection Sensible Flesh to guide me; now it seems difficult to turn around without bumping into a book on the topic.

Reading the essays collected in The Senses in Early Modern England provides a useful opportunity to reflect upon the reasons for this upsurge of interest, and to consider the continued potential for the Early Modern senses as a site of scholarly endeavor. My own interest in the field was initially sparked by fundamental methodological questions: what does it mean to take a sense, or the senses as a group, as an object of literary-historical scrutiny? Is the history of the senses the history of the way that they have been discussed, represented and understood, or is it possible to write a history of sensory experience itself? Perhaps most of all, it seemed to be a way of bringing into the foreground routine and crucial aspects of our experience which tend to get left in the margins of traditional literary and historical scholarship, if they appear at all. Does the feel of an Early Modern book between my fingers, or its musty smell, matter to my experience of the poems that it contains? If I have never smelled or tasted raw civet or ambergris, can I understand what a poet means when referring to these substances? But these questions in turn lead to yet more difficult ones: if I try to attend to my entire sensorium in this fashion am I not giving in uncritically to the lure of nostalgia and sentimentality—not to mention excluding from conversation those who benefit from the democratization of access afforded by digital technologies but do not have unmediated access to the things themselves in libraries and museums?

Quite sensibly, the editors of this volume begin by raising some of these questions without becoming bogged down in them. “The sensory experiences of subjects living some four centuries ago,” they write, “are to some degree lost” (1). A whole host of intractable questions are swallowed up in that neatly unspecified to some degree. They rightly insist that Early Modern sensory environments cannot be fully recreated, nor do modern performances of plays or dances capture the ephemeral experiences of Early Modern audiences or participants. They propose instead to examine artworks which represent and describe wider sensory experiences, and “accounts of the sensory experiences that articulated everyday life for early modern subjects,” in order to create a “mutual illumination of early modern culture and works of art” (1).

As is often the case with an edited volume, these lofty and laudable aims are somewhat at odds with the quotidian circumstances that led to its creation: in this case, a conference co-hosted by the Globe Theatre in 2011. The essays as a whole cover an impressive and varied range of material, but they can roughly be divided between those whose authors are primarily concerned with the senses, and those who are taking the opportunity to give a sensory twist to their principal interests: the essays on night time and mirroring, for example, bring in the senses in a somewhat secondary fashion. Despite this wavering of focus, I found much to admire and enjoy across the full range of these essays. I learned a great deal about pleasingly recherché topics—an obvious standout being Eleanor Decamp’s discussion of earwax. Writers as various as Dekker and La Primaudaye, she shows, rather than seeing earwax as an irritating or unpleasant fact of life, claimed that it performed a valuable job in defending the ears “‘against fleas, little flies and other small wormes and beastes, that might otherwise enter within them’” (79).[4] She links this vulnerability of the ears to Old Hamlet’s murder, and one can’t help wondering if the Danish king might have survived if he had been less assiduous about cleaning his lugholes: who would have thought the old man to have had so much wax in him?

Beyond Decamp’s waxing lyrical, there are numerous insightful essays in the collection on particular senses, particularly Lucy Munro’s thorough and subtle account of taste on the Early Modern stage, and Darren Royston’s discussion of touch and dance. Reading the collection in the context of the upsurge of interest in the senses, however, I was struck that the most intriguing essays were those which thought, in more synaesthetic fashion, across or beyond the five sense model. In particular, Natalie Eschenbaum’s piece on “intrusive, liquid sensation” (115) in the work of Robert Herrick captured something of the weird allure of his writing by focusing on the fluidity between the senses that his poems articulate. Drawing on Lucretius (perhaps surprisingly, given the upsurge of interest in De rerum natura in recent years, hers is the only discussion of this poem in the volume) and on Peter Brown’s still hilarious and riveting account of the premodern sexual body in which the genitals are merely “the outlets of a human espresso machine,” Eschanbaum brings in discussions by Scaliger and Bacon of the sexual sense as a sixth sense, involving but superseding all the others. One of the reasons that the senses took some time to emerge as a focus of critical consideration is that they tended to be subsumed within wider discussions of sexuality and the body, but this essay suggests the value of the senses for exploring a given poet’s idiosyncratic articulation of a body that emphatically incorporates, but is not defined by, the sexual. I found that Eschenbaum’s conclusion—in which she suggests that “we might imagine that a little bit of Herrick infuses with us every time we open our senses to his verse” (127)—did not do full justice to her argument, in losing sight of how uncomfortable and cloying as well as tantalizing the possibility of such liquid connections might be. I’m not sure I particularly want to be infused with Herrick.

Holly Dugan’s essay, like Eschenbaum’s, goes beyond focus on a single sense to ask how smell is or is not seen when we encounter Early Modern artefacts, especially in museums. She focuses on pomanders—balls of aromatic paste—and their ornamental containers, wonderfully revealing the complexity and internal variety of these small objects. Dugan is especially sharp on the impossibility either of recreating past sensations, or of entirely relinquishing the fantasy that we might do so, and her advocacy at the close for a “synaesthetic approach to materiality so that we might begin to approach a multisensorial understanding of history” (107) seemed to distil the most exciting insights of the collection as a whole.

Also sharp on the interactions between the senses, though with a quite different approach, is Simon Smith’s essay on seeing music in Antony and Cleopatra. Smith offers an interesting account of the way in which Early Modern dramaturgy deployed differing modes of on- and offstage music, so that playwrights could create a “desired tension between the demands of sight and sound” (175). Particularly welcome is his attention to the manner in which these norms might have worked differently in distinct performance spaces—the placing of soldiers at every corner of the stage in Shakespeare’s play, Smith observes, would have been differently effective in the Globe and Blackfriars, where, in the words by Tiffany Stern that he quotes, “the sparkling audience—and actors—will have emerged through a delicate haze; a confusion of smoke from candle and tobacco” (177-8).

While I enjoyed this particular discussion, the volume as a whole is somewhat skewed in the direction of drama—perhaps reflecting its origins at the Globe—but without this emphasis ever being fully justified. I feel bound to note that Spenser is hardly mentioned: even after all that has been written about the senses there is still a great deal to be said about their role in The Faerie Queene, and it is to be hoped that this volume and the others mentioned above might inspire some scholars to pursue this line of interpretation. Saying more about the sensory pleasures and travails of Spenser’s poem—those it depicts, and those we find in reading it—would be another way of stressing its richness and its timeliness.

Scholarship on the senses first emerged as one of several responses to the dominant concern with subjectivity articulated by historicisms old and new. In more recent years, theoretical and critical focus seems to have drifted ever more decisively in the direction of the object: thing theory, object-oriented ontology, speculative materialism, and actor-network theory are increasingly making their presence felt in literary study, and each in different ways seeks to stress the potential agency of objects. This shift might seem to render scholarship on the senses somewhat passé, but I would argue that it will remain a crucial arena in which the transactions between people and things, and between artworks and those who produce and experience them, can be most excitingly pursued. The senses are of interest in part because they are the principal locus of interaction between subject and object: thinking about them therefore has the potential to shed new light on both of these ur-categories at once. This collection does not break new ground in this respect, but it contributes to what remains a thriving subfield. 

Joe Moshenska
University of Cambridge

[1] Carlo Ginzburg, “Titian, Ovid, and Sixteenth-Century Codes for Erotic Illustration,” in Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi, Johns Hopkins UP, 1989, pp. 77–95, 93.

[2] See Wietse De Boer and Christine Göttler, Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, Brill, 2013, and Annette Kern-Stähler, Beatrix Busse, and Wietse de Boer, The Five Senses in Medieval and Early Modern England, Brill, 2016.

[3] See Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, Johns Hopkins UP, 2011, Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, U of Chicago P, 1999, and Joseph Moshenska, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England, Oxford UP, 2014.

[4] Here, Decamp cites Primaudaye, The French Academie, p. 399. 


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Joe Moshenska, "Simon Smith, Jackie Watson, and Amy Kenny, eds., The Senses in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 46.2.17 (Fall 2016). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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