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  • The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch by Constance Classen
  • Sara Spike
Classen, Constance – The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 227.

In The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch, Constance Classen gives readers a “feel” for medieval and early modern Europe while demonstrating the centrality of touch to the social, cultural, and religious formations of premodernity. More broadly, she advocates for sensory history, and for the role that scholars in the social sciences and humanities have to play in our understanding of the senses. Early in the book Classen reminds readers that “to rely on science for a true understanding of perception is both to disregard the ways in which science is itself a social construct and to detract from the significance of culturally specific models of sensation” (p. xv). The sensory practices and symbolism of any period and its cultural values and norms are closely related and indeed mutually constituted. Foregrounding the senses therefore provides an innovative analytical lens for understanding past cultures; Classen argues that such analyses have the potential to make the “dry bones of historical fact…more interesting and more memorable” (p. xii).

Classen defines touch broadly to include not just bodily contact, but also the sensations associated with temperature, corporeal movement, pleasure, pain and other aspects of embodied experience. She also carefully acknowledges the multisensory nature of human experience rather than trying to disentangle touch from the other senses. Drawing such wide boundaries around her subject allows Classen to investigate an eclectic range of ideas and experiences related to touch by exploring “the tactile values that shaped the sensibility and sociality” of medieval and early modern Europe (p. xiii).

The Deepest Sense challenges the common assertion that the transition to modernity can be charted through a straightforward narrative of the rise of the cultural importance of vision – which Enlightenment thinkers came to associate with rationalism – and a corresponding decline in the primacy of touch – which the same thinkers associated with primitivism and base emotion. This is, of course, an embodied version of the equation that allowed the Middle Ages to be characterized and dismissed as “dark.” Classen problematizes these assumptions, arguing that “the sensory patterns of history are too complex” for such a simplified account (p. 159). She writes that “touch does not simply recede from cultural life in modernity, it is re-educated, and while it retreats from some domains, it expands into others” (p. xiv). For example, although Classen would not suggest that one replaced the other, the practice of touching artifacts was newly banished from museums and art galleries in the nineteenth century at the same time that the rise of the department store (regularly cited as representative of the new regime of vision) provided a new public venue for handling both precious and profane objects. This shift, [End Page 229] and the persistence of touch in modernity, which Classen uses “in the sociological sense to refer to the period beginning with the eighteenth century” (p. xiii), are detailed in the final two chapters of the book. The majority of the text focuses on the tactile realms of medieval and early modern Europe, providing a compelling account of a fundamentally “hands-on” culture.

Following a short preface, Classen draws the reader into a world of communal living, sleeping, eating, and bathing, where bodies regularly came into contact. The warmth of the hearth, the feel of a soft or hard bed, the physical strains of feudal agriculture, the weighty armour and painful blows of knighthood, and the pleasures of games and fairs are among the sensations that characterized a tactile environment both seemingly familiar and very foreign to our own. The extent to which religion underwrote sensory values is also made clear. Unlike the prioritization of iconography and the written word in later periods, Classen makes the case that touch was the predominant sense of early Christian piety. This is exemplified by the theological interest in the tangible corporeality of Christ, embodied rites of physical penance, the numerous cults of relics for which physical contact was profoundly meaningful, the relationship between bodily suffering and the torments of Hell, and the...


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pp. 229-231
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