‘Sensory history’, as it is increasingly called, has exploded in recent years, although that rapid burgeoning should not obscure its relatively deep genealogy. Building on early and sometimes tentative insights by a handful of French historians in particular, historians of all persuasions and periods have started to write some remarkable work on the senses. We now have, for example, histories of smell in classical antiquity (Harvey, 2006) and modern France (Corbin,1986), of touch in early modern Europe (Gowing, 2003) and 18th-century America (Smith, 2008), of sound in 20th-century Britain (Picker, 1999/2000) and colonial Australia (Carter, 1992: see p.862), of taste in medieval England (Woolgar, 2007) and the 18th-century transatlantic world (Gabbacia, 2005); and, of course, there are lots of histories of seeing, visuality, and sight for many regions and time periods (e.g. Howes, 2003). Most recently, historians have begun to tackle the history of intersensoriality – how the senses worked together and in concert, not in isolation. This and numerous other works on the history of the senses are surveyed in my Sensory History (Smith, 2007, and see ‘Colonising sounds’, p.862).
A couple of things unite this often disparate work. The first is that these sensory histories, written by a variety of historians in multiple subfields, tend (quite rightly) to stress the preeminent importance of context for fathoming the role a particular sense played in shaping the meaning of the world for contemporaries. Most sensory historians do not assume that what smelled foul to a medieval English nose is the same thing as what modern English noses would deem stinky. Sensory historians correctly understand that the definition and meaning of what was sound and what was noise, what was stench-ridden and what was perfumed, what functioned as permissible forms of touch and what didn’t, and what certain foods tasted ‘like’ is and was highly contingent on who was doing the sniffing, tasting, touching and listening, the various technologies underwriting the meaning attached to sensory evaluations, and the particular political, economic and social contexts that shaped what the senses meant.
This is as it should be. Historians are not – or should not be – in the business of claiming a transcendent, universal meaning to anything, let alone the senses, all of which changed a great deal over time. Instead, they are correctly much more interested in excavating the various meanings different constituencies attached to a particular sense at a particular time and in a particular place.
The second idea uniting most sensory histories is a bit more implicit but, nevertheless, important. In part, at least, historians of the sensate attend to the nonvisual senses principally because we have, for so long, assumed the supremacy of the eye in the human sensorium. Historical interest in smell, sound, touch and taste has been animated often because of the assumed ascendancy of vision that emerged following the print revolution and the developments of the Enlightenment, many of which supposedly elevated the eye as the arbiter of truth, the producer of perspective and balance (courtesy of the invention and subsequent dissemination of visual technologies such as the telescope, microscope and camera) and, in the process, diluted the value placed on the nonvisual, often proximate senses of hearing, olfaction, tasting, and touching. It seems – or, at least, some sensory historians now theorise – that this supposed revolution in the senses was so thoroughgoing that moderns –at least those of the Western 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century variety – increasingly dismissed the other senses as reliable indicators of reason and truth and, instead, came to associate them with emotionalism or, more often than not, hardly worthy of sustained scholarly investigation. Ergo, up until quite recently, most historical writing has attended almost exclusively to the visual, reading the past through the eyes of historical actors. It is only in the past couple of decades that historians have discerned that the same historical texts they have used to understand the past in conventional terms also contain a wealth of information on the nonvisual senses. The tremendous irony is, of course, that that evidence only comes to light when actively looked for (Smith, 2007).
Part and parcel of this increasing historical awareness of the senses is courtesy of work by psychologists, which has often been important for helping sensory historians not only sensitise themselves to sensory historical evidence but also contextualise it so that place and time become central to understanding the role of a given sense or senses.
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