- Sensory Perception in the Medieval West eds. by Simon Thomson and Michael Bintley
The topic of sensory perception has become of increasing interest to scholars over the last thirty years. Having moved away from the notion that perception is a purely mental process, the present challenge is to engage a historical sensory experience beyond 'simpler descriptions of understanding or interpretation' (p. 3). This collection of essays seeks to explore the two cruxes, as they are described, connected to this subject: 'how an audience's sensory perception could be exploited or piqued by objects and experiences in the medieval world; [and] how scholars can attempt to bridge the gap between present and past sensory engagements' (pp. 1–2).
This is achieved through an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of sensory perception, going beyond the study of literature by including other material matters that have proven their worth in previous discussions on physical and sensory experience. The result is an impressive collection of essays investigating a wide range of aspects of this comprehensive and difficult theme through exploring textual and material products of the medieval period. A broad range of methodologies, from linguistic investigation to surveys, and from conventional considerations to statistical analysis, is used to cover these diverse aspects. The following is a discussion of but a few of the essays included in the work. [End Page 262]
Author Jonathan Wilcox explores the second 'crux' of the book by raising questions about our own sensory engagement with medieval manuscript studies. He points out that with the turn from traditional print to digital media, we might lose sight of what is 'missing'. He concludes his contribution to the book with the paradoxical statement that 'the digital revolution and a new-found respect for the academic study of craft may be the perfect combination' (p. 51) to engage all our senses when dealing with these manuscripts.
The use of more modern technologies becomes clear in the next essay, where Mariana López explores the aural experience in the medieval York Mystery Plays. The relevance of acoustics in these dramas 'highlights the importance of sound in the period' (p. 73). The fact that the staging of the plays was designed to make the most of the acoustic characteristics, possibly through rigorous trial-and-error, suggests an approach based on hearing over sight in their performances.
The emphasis on the primacy of hearing is continued in the next chapter, where Eric Lacey considers the significance of sound in the naming of birds in the oral society of the Anglo-Saxons. Through two impressive case studies he illustrates the differing ways in which aurality was of importance for bird naming, without trivializing the influence of visual means. Pointing out the correlation between the names of the birds and the sensory motivation that inspired them, Lacey identifies hearing and sight as complementary senses. Aurality remains superior, however, as 'hearing can both supplement the visual and supersede it, granting knowledge where the visual cannot' (p. 98).
Meg Boulton's consideration of Anglo-Saxon decor and structures provides us with a means of comprehending the differences and commonalities between modern and medieval notions of perception. She emphasizes the need to understand how a work of art, for example, may have been perceived in the medieval period, engaging the viewer through symbolism and a shared identity, and how it is viewed today. This way, 'we may see not just a world […], but a world beyond the world' (p. 226).
These, and the other essays included in Sensory Perception in the Medieval West, attempt to explore many complex aspects of sensory perception and their implications for further inquiry. Regardless of the vastly diverse topics, the collection of articles is a pleasure to read and gives the reader a glimpse of the staggering complexity of the subject of sensory perception. Its interdisciplinary approach and the wide range of different methodologies make the book indubitably useful for...