5.3 Sensory Perception

Memory leads to another crucial area of empowerment, how people perceived their worlds. There is a growing body of theoretical and contextually applied studies of medieval culture that demonstrate the value and insights offered by memory and sensory perception analysis. Material culture clearly functioned in complex ways in order to aid and develop memory. Sensory stimulation was an important aspect of this and a given piece of material culture was not restricted to stimulating a particular sense, be it sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell or indeed any of the at least 21 senses science suggests humans possess (Durie 2005, 36, quoted in Rifkin 2009, 585). Certainly the main, familiar senses tend to be analysed in isolation from each other instead of a suite of varying skills possessed by human beings. Most analysis has gone to seeing and visual culture, not least because society culturally values this sense above the others. Anthropology and geography have led the way in exploring the interplay of the senses, cautioning against an over emphasis on seeing and vision, which archaeology has taken on board. Whilst a recent volume of World Archaeology focused on seeing and visibility it also acknowledged the need to recognise and study all the senses operating in balance (Frieman and Gittings 2007) and that ‘invisibility’ has cultural significance (Frontijn 2007). There are numerous examples of medieval material culture where the object was essentially invisible to the human eye through acts of deposition and burial ritual or through placement in inaccessible parts of churches, but which were presumably thought to be visible in the supernatural plane or remained in some sense ‘visible’ through other senses. It is important to recognise that the cultural understanding of, say seeing, did vary through time and social context (Giles 2007). The interplay of sensory perception could be promoted in sophisticated ways by material culture, and sometimes explicitly as in the case of Anglo-Saxon metalwork that actually depicts one or more of the senses (such as the Alfred Jewel and the Fuller brooch –Webster and Backhouse 1991: 280-283).

Other material forms that are thought of as primarily visual would also have stimulated aural perception. Numerous pilgrim badges are known to have been cast in to the fabric of church bells in the 15th and 16th centuries so as to spread the apotropaic protection of one or several saints to all who heard the sound (Hall 2005 for references) whilst at the same time aurally reminding the community that the church was there, structuring their lives (see Magnusson-Staaf 1996 for a Scandinavian parallel). In his study of the Bayeux Tapestry, Brilliant (2009) demonstrated that its repertoire of memory invocations included making sounds (of battle, of feasting, of conversation) visible. It did so by deploying recognisable gestures and scene arrangements that enabled viewers to “‘hear’ through seeing” (p. 76). The Tapestry can thus be understood to have sought ‘to make sound visible’ (2009, 74), deploying sensory strategies akin to those used by written accounts of the Battle of Hastings (2009, 74). Such approaches might be usefully deployed in studying Scotland’s medieval material culture, not least its early medieval/Pictish sculpture and its figurative repertoire. The external phenomena which give rise to our internal perceptions can also be studied, as for example with luminosity, which Bille and Sorensen (2007) have demonstrated links people, things, colours, shininess and places, allowing light to be thought of as having an ‘active social role’ (2007, 264). That social role was not restricted to seeing but influenced the other senses. In their study of the light available in Arctic dwellings Dawson et al. (2007) concluded that the available light was a determining factor as to where activities were carried out, its low levels ‘elevating touch to the same level as sight when performing intricate and detailed tasks’ such as carving and sewing (2007, 31). In the open air, and within buildings, light was a tool of colour which worked on painted and unpainted objects. Whether painted or not, early medieval sculpture was subject to daily and seasonal changes in sunlight that could have been essential to the understanding of its carved imagery (see, for example, O’ Carragain’s forthcoming study of this aspect with respect to the crosses at Ruthwell and Bewcastle). Gothic stained glass, of course, was highly coloured but gained an abstract fluidity from the changing direction of sunlight painting the interior space of cathedrals.

Leave a Reply