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Elizabeth L. Swann, Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England
by Clio Doyle

Elizabeth L. Swann. Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 280 pp. ISBN:  9781108487658. £75 hardback.

 

Elizabeth L. Swann’s Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England begins with Anthony Wood’s account of an act of tasting that seems, at least to a modern reader, at once disgusting, transgressive, and just plain strange. Edmund Wyld and Ralph Greatorex lift out a sample of the contents of the coffin where John Colet is buried with a ‘probe or little stick’ in order to taste his remains (1). Apparently, they taste ‘ironish’, and are textured like ‘Brawn’ (1). Swann explains this strange gustatory act by arguing, in a book with impressive scope and careful attention to detail, that the sense of taste is fundamental to early modern ideas of knowledge production. As Swann points out, tasting is a key element of the method of both early modern science and humanist scholarship. But, while humanism describes itself through metaphors of taste, such as that of the reader as bee, the Royal Society uses the evidence of the senses to acquire knowledge about the world. This encounter between two men with connections to the Royal Society and the decaying corpse of a well-known humanist scholar thus turns into a potentially mocking reflection on different methods of acquiring and transmitting knowledge. In addition, Swann notes a Eucharistic element to this act of tasting, which connects to religious ideas about spiritual taste. The anecdote therefore encapsulates the complex web of associations and epistemological questions that centre around the sense of taste in the early modern period. Swann’s book lays bare the entangled humanistic, scientific, religious, and (in a last chapter that takes on a slightly different archive from the previous ones) erotic facets of taste. Just as this tasting of Colet’s corpse might be seen as an experiment, a satirical attack, or an act of reverence, Swann shows that taste is always slightly suspect but potentially transformational: it figures as a sense poised between the fallen and divine, the bodily and the spiritual, and the detached and the transgressive.

The opening anecdote is striking for the way in which it bypasses the medium of the book in its account of the transmission of knowledge between generations, but the written word and its physical instantiations are in fact vital to Swann’s argument, as is attested by the first chapter, ‘“To Dream to Eat Books”: Of Bibliophagy, Bees, and Literary Taste’. This chapter takes on alimentary metaphors for reading that, Swann argues, add up to ‘a subtle poetics of taste’ (41). In this chapter, Swann is particularly interested in the mirrored metaphors of honey and gall. The bee, with its keen taste and propensity for gathering materials from a variety of sources, becomes a figure for readerly discrimination. Swann shows that this metaphor is used in the paratextual material in commonplace books, where it describes a mode of careful, judicious reading – reading that necessarily involves an element of choice. Gall, in turn, is a bitter component of ink which forms, as Swann argues, ‘a vital site of humoral transactions between reader, poem, and author’ (60). Gall, albeit less pleasant than honey, is also a metaphor for a kind of embodied engagement with knowledge. As a substance common to the human body and the printed book, it makes clear the connectedness of the reader and reading material. Swann’s examples range widely, but many are also drawn from prefatory material such as Ben Jonson’s ‘To my book’ from his Epigrams (1616) and Thomas Nashe’s ‘To all Christian Readers’ from Have with you to Saffron-walden (1596). Swann compellingly argues that these prefatory metaphors communicate a theory about the primary role of taste, as embodied experience and as judicial engagement with a text, in the process of reading. The reader as taster is necessarily implicated, in a full-body way, in the book he or she reads. This chapter offers an impressive analysis of what might seem like easy, stock metaphors, showing instead that they reveal a theory of the biological implications of reading.

In chapter two, ‘Anatomizing Taste: Practice, Subjectivity, and Sense in Mikrokosmographia’, Swann reads Helkiah Crooke’s 1615 anatomical text as taking part in the humanist metaphors of reading as taste described above. The section as a whole analyses Crooke’s ‘gustatory metaphors’, by which Swann means both metaphors for reading and learning that draw on the sense of taste, and metaphors for the parts of the human body that make tasting possible (71). As she demonstrates, this conflation of the body of the student and the body of knowledge that he or she is learning about is fundamental to how Crooke believes that knowledge is acquired. Crooke speaks of bodies as books that teach anatomy, but also claims that it is through the body that any knowledge, including anatomical knowledge, is acquired. Crooke’s language is seen to reveal ‘the practice of anatomy as involving a comprehensive integration of the physical and intellective faculties’ (83). And the sensing body is thus revealed to lie at the foundation of anatomy, as well as that of any other discipline, for it is only through the senses that any knowledge of the body or the world at large is possible. This means that any knowledge obtained is inherently ‘subjective’ for it is always informed by the perceiving body and its environment (100). Swann’s analysis suggests that metaphors for the senses inform an account of how self-knowledge is acquired and can be used to express how it feels to possess it. This careful reading of Crooke’s language offers much to think about, both for those who work on early modern anatomy and those who are interested in early modern language in wider contexts.

The next chapter, ‘From Eve’s Apple to the Bread of Life: Piety and Palate in Devotional Literature’, characterises taste as a (compromised and dangerous) method of accessing the divine. Early modern texts, Swann argues, describe the Fall as an act of taste – rather than, say, ingestion. Yet, this picture is often a complex one: Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, for example, even while describing the Fall as a descent from wholesome sweetness to luxurious tastes, still finds in the sense of taste a method of accessing the divine. As Swann indicates, then, taste has an ‘ambivalent status’ in post-Reformation English writing (104). The bodily sense of taste is seen as morally compromised and less exalted than spiritual taste, the sense that allows communicants to taste the body of Christ in bread and wine. But even this distinction is problematical. Over-attention to the physical taste of food can jeopardise one’s spiritual taste, but eating can also serve as a kind of spiritual lesson. Swann argues that the sense of taste functions as a gateway to the divine ‘precisely – and paradoxically – because of the worldly, fallen qualities of this sense: notably, its transience’, which reminds the taster of the transitoriness of earthly joys (112). Both the literal and the figurative senses of taste can lead to a spiritual experience; in the case of the Eucharist, literal taste – which finds in Communion the tastes only of bread and wine – is an important spiritual tool that, as Swann points out, ‘focused on the flavours of bread and wine as “proof” of the absurdity of transubstantiation’ (120). Swann returns to her concern with metaphors of bibliophagy to show that, in the context of the reading of scripture, these established metaphors raise the concern that a tasteful, thoughtful engagement with scripture could turn into an analogue of fallen physical taste: injudicious and corrupt interpretations. This chapter is particularly exciting in its refusal to resolve complexities, instead continually coming back to the importance of reading early modern ambivalence as an intellectual tool.

Throughout this monograph, Swann shows that taste is a metaphor for (and instrument of) both experimental science and Christian history. In chapter four, ‘“Those Fruits of Natural Knowledge”: Taste and the Early Royal Society’, she discusses the ways in which scientific and religious discourse come together in the discussion of taste. Swann shows that tasting as a scientific method was complicated by the results of the Fall, and indeed caused the Fall, but could also offer a way to regain a prelapsarian paradise. She recounts early modern debates about how taste works, and identifies a ‘fundamental conflict’ in, for example, Nehemiah Grew’s work on plants. Accurately identifying the taste of plants could help develop medicines to return humanity to its lost perfection; however, this also proves impossible as their tastes seem to vary widely depending on a variety of factors that have to do both with the growing conditions of the plants themselves and the biology of the individual tasting them (178). Both science and religion prioritise taste as a method of gaining access to knowledge, but a growing understanding of the differences between individuals’ senses of taste seems to problematise models of the connection between taste and understanding. Swann argues that this calls into question the nature of subjectivity itself, and cites Steven Shapin, who calls taste ‘one among many practices of subjectivity’ (179). Taste is then an ‘embodied subjectivity’ that is subjective not because it is shaped by cultural assumptions but because it is shaped by the taster’s body (179-180). This chapter recounts some fascinating early modern debates on how taste works and articulates clearly how the scientific and religious discourses discussed in the two previous chapters intersect.

The final chapter diverges slightly from the emphasis of the previous chapters on scientific and religious texts to take on the language of sweetness and bitterness in seventeenth-century poetry and drama. ‘Honey secrets: Erotic Sweetness and Epistemology’ explores the idea of taste as ‘a mode of sexual knowledge’ (187). In William Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, because there is no ocular proof of Desdemona’s infidelity, taste as a method of finding out about sexual infidelity becomes very important. Both Othello and Iago characterise giving in to sexual desire as both dangerous and sweet. Emilia argues that the potential for the development of adulterous desire comes from the biological fact that wives ‘have their palates both for sweet and sour / As husbands have’ (194). Swann reads this as both a description of ‘rationality’ – being able to tell good from bad taste – and ‘corruptibility’ in that women can be misled by the desire for sweetness (194). But Desdemona’s sweetness, her sexual desire which Othello misreads as promiscuity, is actually a hint of her goodness. Thus, sweetness, if read correctly, can result in understanding other people. In this chapter, Swann argues generally that women’s erotic tastes raise questions about how to understand what other people want – and therefore how any kind of understanding can be possible. Swann returns to the trope of the bee, which she here reads, in early modern erotic poetry by Thomas Carew and Richard Barnfield, as a figure for sexual intercourse but also as a metaphor for reading and the reader’s burden of choice and interpretation. Whether to find in the bee’s quest for sweetness a purely erotic meaning is placed on the reader’s shoulders. This very wide-ranging chapter then turns to works in the ‘banquet of sense’ tradition to argue that these poems are about different models of epistemology, Ovidian and Neoplatonic, that specifically concerns whether taste and the other lower senses can be used to acquire knowledge. And finally, Swann takes on that other pleasure of the tongue, rhetorical skill, the sweetness of which can persuade women into sleeping with the speaker. In all of these examples, ‘the perceived mystery of female desire’ becomes a prompt for thinking about how any kind of knowledge (including sexual knowledge) can be reached (222). This chapter is almost too packed with information and readings, but it repays attention by offering fascinating rereadings of familiar genres and texts in the context of the connections being made between taste and knowledge.

This is, in the end, a book about ambivalence. The sense of taste, Swann shows, is one that is both uniquely compromised and uniquely privileged. It opens the way to knowledge that may ultimately only be knowledge of one’s own perceiving body – and contains the potential to have devastating consequences, as it did for Adam and Eve. It can lead a person into temptation, but it can also help one avoid it. It encourages prurience but also helps in the understanding of other people’s desires. Swann deftly keeps all these opposing ideas in balance; her book is never boring (it has a little of the banquet of (one) sense to it) and her arguments, while complex, are clearly articulated. I have no doubt that this book will be of great value to anyone with an interest in early modern literature. The final chapter in particular will be very useful to those working beyond the fields of early modern science or religion; it shows how to apply the book’s conclusions to early modern poetry and drama, which are pervaded by metaphors of taste that, Swann shows, we should read also as metaphors for interpersonal knowledge. Swann’s work builds on recent work on the connections between early modern literary studies and the pursuit of knowledge such as Claire Preston’s The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England (2015) and Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen (2016) and also enters into conversation with key works in the history of science such as Pamela Smith’s The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (2004). Swann’s attention to bibliophagic metaphors and the idea of embodied reading will be of interest to those working in Book History and the Environmental Humanities. This is a careful, wide-ranging, and exciting exploration of taste in all its many meanings, which places taste at the centre of the early modern experience of the world. It shows us that taste is not just a sense but a tangle of fundamental questions about how we know what we know, and whether we can trust our perceptions.

 

Clio Doyle

Queen Mary University of London

 

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    This extremely broad chapter turns to pieces from the "banquet of sense" tradition to make the case that these poems are about various epistemological frameworks.

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    The final chapter in particular will be very useful to those working beyond the fields of early modern science or religion.

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    Swann's analysis offers a nuanced perspective on the multifaceted nature of taste in early modern England, revealing its significance not only in the acquisition of knowledge but also in the realms of literature, anatomy, and religion. Her exploration of metaphorical language and textual representations deepens our understanding of the cultural and intellectual landscape of the period.

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Cite as:

Clio Doyle, "Elizabeth L. Swann, Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed April 20th, 2024.
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