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The Deepest Sense

The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch

Constance Classen
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Deepest Sense
    Book Description:

    From the softest caress to the harshest blow, touch lies at the heart of our experience of the world. Now, for the first time, this deepest of senses is the subject of an extensive historical exploration. The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch fleshes out our understanding of the past with explorations of lived experiences of embodiment from the Middle Ages to modernity. This intimate and sensuous approach to history makes it possible to foreground the tactile foundations of Western culture--the ways in which feelings shaped society._x000B__x000B_Constance Classen explores a variety of tactile realms including the feel of the medieval city; the tactile appeal of relics; the social histories of pain, pleasure, and affection; the bonds of touch between humans and animals; the strenuous excitement of sports such as wrestling and jousting; and the sensuous attractions of consumer culture. She delves into a range of vital issues, from the uses--and prohibitions--of touch in social interaction to the disciplining of the body by the modern state, from the changing feel of the urban landscape to the technologization of touch in modernity._x000B__x000B_Through poignant descriptions of the healing power of a medieval king's hand or the grueling conditions of a nineteenth-century prison, we find that history, far from being a dry and lifeless subject, touches us to the quick.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09440-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xx)

    If a history could be written of touch, what would it embrace? Hot fire and cold wind, smooth silk and rough wool, spinning wheels and threshing flails, relics and frolics and the healing touch of a king? A world of meaning can lie within the simplest gesture, a kiss, or the touch of a hand. If such a history could be written, why hasn’t it? Touch lies at the heart of our experience of ourselves and the world yet it often remains unspoken and, even more so, unhistoricized. Indeed, in many historical accounts the past is so disembodied that it...

  5. CHAPTER ONE A Place by the Fire
    (pp. 1-26)

    Much of medieval life was lived in common with others. This was particularly the case when large groups of people lived under one roof, as in a castle or a monastery, but also held true of people living within villages or settlements. Keeping close to others allowed individuals to reap the benefits of common labor and also provided much needed security. During a time when food shortages, banditry, feuds, and warfare were commonplace, strong social ties meant a stronger chance of survival. Marc Bloch wrote of feudal society: “The best-served hero was he whose warriors were all joined to him...

  6. CHAPTER TWO A Touchable God
    (pp. 27-46)

    At its heart, the cosmology of the Middle Ages was tactile. Heaven may have seemed to be all light and music and fragrance but the primordial qualities of the universe were held to be the contrasting forces of hot, cold, moist, and dry. All of these qualities could only be experienced through touch, making touch the only sense open to the fundamental nature of reality.

    In the created world these four primary qualities were understood to combine to form the four elements: the union of hot and dry created fire; that of hot and moist made air; cold and moist...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Painful Times
    (pp. 47-70)

    Pain—caused by hunger and thirst, heat and cold, injuries, overwork, and illness—was a commonplace of premodern life. In many cases there was not much people could do about it: work was hard, winter was cold, illness was often incurable. Worst of all, food, the heart-warming, belly-filling stuff of life, was all too commonly scarce. Described by Saint Basil as “the supreme human calamity” (Holman 2001: 77), hunger reached its agonizing peak in periods of famine. According to one source, every morning on the streets of Padua could be found the bodies of some thirty people who had died...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR A Woman’s Touch
    (pp. 71-92)

    Hot, dry, cold, and moist. The same qualities thought to shape the cosmos in premodernity were also believed to shape the bodies of men and women. The creation of a human being involved the union of cold matter, provided by the mother, with hot seminal spirit, contributed by the father. If the father’s semen had been sufficiently “cooked” or concocted the newborn would be male. If the amount of heat was insufficient to fully concoct the semen, a female child would result. The conclusion was that women were imperfect, “half-baked” men (P. Allen 1985).

    According to received wisdom, a superior...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Animal Skins
    (pp. 93-122)

    Intimate contact with animals was part of daily life in the premodern world. Animals were everywhere. Outdoors, oxen plowed fields, cattle and sheep grazed, horses and donkeys transported people and their possessions, hawks and hounds accompanied hunters, and pigs and dogs roamed farmyards and streets. Indoors, birds and squirrels clambered in cages, cats chased mice, and dogs warmed laps or turned spits. In many regions farm animals were lodged under the same roof as farmers. Even within urban centers people often kept their own chickens, pigs, and cows in their cellars and backyards (K. Thomas 1983: 95). On cold nights...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER SIX Tactile Arts
    (pp. 123-146)

    Medieval literature evidences a keen appreciation of the tactile world. In Chaucer’s “The Legend of Good Women,” the narrator kneels upon the meadow with its “small, soft, sweet grass.” In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain enters the deep forest where “hazel and hawthorn were densely entangled, thickly festooned with coarse, shaggy moss” (1992: 43). Indeed, both literature and art disdained distant views in favor of intimate, close-up depictions of a world within hand’s reach. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Discarded Image, “Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. Nature, for Chaucer, is all...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN The Modern Touch
    (pp. 147-166)

    On April 26, 1336, Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in Provence to see the view. It might not seem that noteworthy an event to a modern mind but it was one of those moments that marked the beginning of the end for the medieval way of understanding the world. Petrarch, who has often been called “the first modern man,” knew he was doing something novel. He wrote afterwards that he was the first person since antiquity to climb a mountain purely for the sake of the panorama that awaited at the summit. “My only motive was the wish to see what...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Sensations of a New Age
    (pp. 167-198)

    Ironically, or perhaps necessarily, the very period when the fully fledged modern individual was finally appearing on the scene was also the period when modern institutions—schools, prisons, armies, workhouses—that promoted the social conformity of individuals were reshaping society. These limited the possibilities for the new emphasis on individuality to result in idiosyncratic behavior or a personal touch. The individual, disconnected from the corporate sensibilities of the past, was trained by the new institutions to conform to a standardized model: to wear a uniform (a term that first came into use in the eighteenth century) and to be uniform....

    (pp. 199-220)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 221-228)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-231)