Vernacular Knowledge of the Senses

This article/chapter length project forms an element of my larger book project on empiricism. One area lacking in sensory studies of late medieval and early modern England is the extent to which men and women knew of their senses, how, and how this changed over the late fifteenth through sixteenth centuries. While academic sources such as the Parva Naturalia were important for scholars, how intellectual positions trickled down into more widespread vernacular texts, handbooks, medical and moral guides or regimina, and religious / devotional works isn't clear. Further, the senses do appear and even structure critical liturgies of the last rites and exorcism. More over, they also played an important role in confession, acting as a kind of diagnostic template for sins in late medieval England.

The question emerges, how and where did English men and women learn about their senses outside of contact with academic literature, and how did this change over the Tudor period. I am pursuing three major avenues:

  1. The extent to which sensory function and lists appear in vernacular medical and moral guides in late medieval and early Tudor England, alongside similar discussions in religious and devotional works.
  2. The alteration of such texts over the course of the sixteenth century, in particular the rise in catechisms, and the challenges facing protestant moral culture.
  3. The disappearance of last rites, exorcism, and confession in reformation England.

The preliminary findings of this research will form the basis for my keynote lecture at Senses and the Sacred, 1300-1800 at the University of York in the summer of 2013.