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Response to Review no. 708

The premise of The Senses is that we cannot understand daily experience in the past unless we can first understand perception. The book argues that perception is culturally specific and that to comprehend it we need to move away from our own contemporary view of how the senses function. Our preconceptions include the number of senses, their methods of operation, indeed the boundaries of animate life, which in the past and in other societies are not necessarily where we would place them. The book differs from much contemporary historical scholarship in looking at the operation of the senses in practical terms, rather than focusing on philosophical and theological positions about perception.(1) My intention was that this approach would allow one to see the operation of perception, in medieval terms, much as we have accounts from anthropologists setting out very different patterns of cognition in other societies – recent work on the senses in anthropology and sociology I found useful, not necessarily as a model for how perception might have worked in the medieval period, but in setting out the range of possibilities that I would need to consider in looking for the ways in which perception could have functioned in the Middle Ages. Although it may have inherited the five senses of Antiquity, the Middle Ages had different notions of perception, and different groups simultaneously had different understandings or practices.

The book is in two parts, the first looking at individual senses or experiences which operated in a similar way to perception, such as miraculous encounters with relics and the holy, and the theoretical background to them; the second concentrating on sensory environments. In this latter part, I chose three closely related environments, great households of bishops, queens and the higher aristocracy, rather than covering the whole of society, urban, rural, etc. I wanted to demonstrate from well-documented contexts that although these environments were ostensibly similar in their physical characteristics – if one reads inventories of these establishments, many of the same goods will appear – there were different attitudes to perception. Making direct connections between physical objects and sensation is not straightforward, and this was one of the more difficult parts of the book to write. If one turns to archaeological interpretations of the everyday, which have similar concerns, this is one of the areas where discussion is at its most tentative, although there are some recent pieces of work centred on sensory environments that take the discussion forward.(2) And there are indeed further theoretical approaches which one might adopt: I chose not to place these in the foreground.(3) My judgement at this point, given my argument for the cultural specificity of sensation, was that it was more important to engage with the evidence in depth to demonstrate contrasts which might be drawn directly from medieval sensory environments.

It is pleasing to know that others find much to ponder here, too, and I look forward to reading their work.