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‘Trusting’ the Medieval Senses—and Reformation Change

Much belief (and by that, I mean devotional) in the Middle Ages was predicated on trust. Is this a new idea? Those who are familiar with the medieval Church will know it is not. But how much “faith” can, and indeed should, we put in the idea of “trust”, in terms of belief? How much does “trust” impact our senses—and indeed our studies of them? And finally, did this concept affect the sensory experience of devotion?

In the Middle Ages, trusting the senses amounted to trusting the Church: one could not exist without the other. And though St Bernard in the twelfth century argued that truth could only be revealed if it was presented to the eyes, swearing oaths while handling relics or placing the hands upon the Gospels in judicial proceedings guaranteed the truth or speciousness of the parties or events concerned.[i] Hence, the virtue of the object ‘touched’ was the pledge of truth: in the judicial process, a jury’s verdict, or veredictum.

The medieval perception of the world, and belief in what was real and what was untrue, was much more predicated on divine guarantees. Take the Eucharist, for example, and the need to view the Elevation of the Host during the Mass in order for Transubstantiation to occur (and indeed at which point). In 1215 Pope Innocent III called the Fourth Lateran Council to resolve issues surrounding the transubstantial dogma.[ii] From then forward, each time the Mass was said the priest could actually perform the sacrifice of Christ.

Similarly, our modern principle of trusting the senses wouldn’t fit into a medieval worldview. God was responsible for what people saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted—essentially, for everything they experienced. In her fourteenth-century Dialogue, the Dominican Catherine of Siena describes God’s mystical revelations using multisensory language which seems intrinsic, and necessary, for relating her experience. As she recounts God’s promise of ‘spiritual calm’, she physically ‘tastes milk’ from Christ in divine union. God then divulges that he wants her ‘to rise above [her] senses so that [she] may more surely know the truth’, illuminating that through her multisensorial revelations – her transcendence of the bodily senses – truth is revealed to her.[iii] Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) alluded to this in his suggestion that senses are a type of reason. ‘Taste, touch and smell, hearing and seeing, are not merely a means to sensation...but they are also…your only actual means to knowledge.’[iv]

Scents were also ‘active’ material symbols that gave a saint, the divine, or God verification of presence. Smelling was understood as a form of internal ‘tasting’ as it acted as a metaphor for the sweet pleasures of the sacred and holy, and that taste was made manifest spiritually, through which holiness could therefore be experienced and the supernatural benefits directly attained by the participant. This principle derived not from a belief in an ‘aroma of sanctity’ but from olfactory perception and the associative testimonials that were produced as a result – essentially, past effectivity of the divine to intervene through scent. The smell of holiness was not a by-product of medieval religiosity but a customary humanization of the experience of divinity: proof of faith and faith in proof.

We can see these qualities with other senses, too—the medieval eye was greeted with a revelry of colour. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) claimed in his Apologia of 1125, ‘the bishops…use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means’. And yet, the plain stonework and grisaille windows of the Cistercian Order were consciously designed to promote a pure and abstract analogy of spatial geometry through which God could be properly conceived – a visual, and therefore, sensory ordered beauty to connect with the heavenly. Designed with specific interactive goals in mind, architecture could physically and mentally ‘touch’, communicate, and enforce understanding through assertive reciprocal performative means using patterns, sounds, and smells.

When consulting the extraordinary writings of the Middle Ages it is impossible to ignore the multisensory complexity of spiritual experiences – just how senses were intertwined and reciprocal. Today, the overlapping or merging of the human senses, which allows one sense to trigger an involuntary reaction in another, is a neurological or psychological condition known as synaesthesia. Deriving from the ancient Greek term for ‘sensation’, this mixing-up of the senses may lead to sound taking on visual qualities so that one may associate certain colours with musical notations to ‘hear colour’. But medieval synaesthesia was a somewhat different concept. It was consonant sensation or experience through a simultaneity or interplay of various senses at one time.

Aware of this combined effect, church architects and patrons chose to design spaces to trigger multiple senses at the same time: filled with colours, lights, sounds, smells, and tactile surfaces, very rich sensory experiences could occur. Synaesthetic metaphors were also a common staple of dogmatic vocabulary: the greatest example being the visual and aural concept of the Word of God as ‘religious symbolism is grounded in sensory perception’.[v] Thus, while we might term the religious individuals who experienced mystical phenomena as visionaries, the label is decidedly reductive when we consider the multisensory experiences they describe.

St Neot church

Fig. 1. St Neot, Cornwall. Credit: Author.

It is clear that the aim of the interior of the church building was about far more than worship; it was intended to impress via the stimulation of many or all of the senses and, as such, patron, artist and visitor had an underlying interest in creating works that inspired these reactions, thus pilgrimage was described as ‘seeing with the senses’. A particular example of this type of experience can be found at St Neot in Cornwall. Numerous sacred areas from the dual purpose of the shrine to the art and architectural infrastructure of the space; the roughness of the grey granite of the piers and arches contrasted with the vibrant hues of the red, blue and gold of the painted wagon roof, together with its striking geometric and curved nature which provided perfect harmonics for aural devotion; Neot’s life narrated in the stained glass panels of the windows, and the location of the shrine directed to up the north aisle via the wooden roof bosses above which told aspects of Neot’s story; and even the elaborate carving of the masonry which would have also attracted the touch and even perhaps kiss of the pilgrim.

St Neot interior

Fig. 2. Interior of St Neot, Cornwall. Shrine located in north wall of chancel. Credit: Mattis (CC Wikipedia)

Together these elements created an interplay of texture and colour and an embodied experience for the worshipper, as different senses and emotions were affected by different parts of the fabric. Expectation was created on immediate entry to the church by the shrine vista and elaborate interior, and anticipation was stimulated along the route to the main shrine, while interpreting the glass, and also during the wait to enter the chancel. This then culminated in overwhelming adulation as the shrine was visited and venerated in a suitable locale. As a result, the entire church became the shrine setting. Every area of its interior was aesthetically designed to create a unified appearance that extended east and west, north and south, from the ceiling to the floor, linking each decorative and architectural element with the cult of the saint.[vi]

St Neot shrine

Fig. 3. Shrine of St Neot, Cornwall. Credit: Author.

However, in the sixteenth century, attitudes towards the senses changed. From the ‘smells and bells’ of medieval Catholic England with its religious practices, smoke, images, sights and sounds that dazzled pre-modern churchgoers, the Break with Rome brought Protestantism, often cast as Catholicism’s austere and less-sensory rival sibling. Accused of asensoriality, with its white-washed churches, devoid of the images, relics, incense, music, vestments and fabric of late medieval religiosity, Protestant England emphasised preaching and scripture. But was this new era really a drab and disengaged sensual landscape?

In 1544, the traditionalist Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner (fl. 1531-1555), denounced the conduct of the reformers of the English Church insinuating they were robbing religion of its synaesthetic experience. Gardiner’s view was that this new wave of Protestant reform brought with it a censoring of the sensory. Yet the dangerous and idolatrous attractions to the eyes and ears of medieval Catholicism required more than just the smashing of images. It was a profound mental revolution – a reaction against the role of the sensory in religious perception.[vii] It was this belief – a rejection of a sensory faith experience to one based on the Word – that became a crux of the English Reformation. Its core theological pillars literally re-ordered the interiors of churches finding themselves a very real physical presence within the building, and consequently re-shaped how parishioners experienced communal religious activities across the country.

Yet the sensory encounters were not altogether removed. In fact, they fully continued. Where painted images once had pride of place, scripture slowly became the dominant focus. Images were most often whitewashed and replaced by the Ten Commandments; an act seen as a symbolic manifestation of the removal of Catholicism from the entire building. But this was not always successful as can be across the remains of the rood screen at the Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross at Binham, Norfolk, where the original saintly images, once whitewashed, now shine through the black-letter text of William Tyndale’s (c.1494-1536) and Myles Coverdale’s English translation of the Bible – an embodiment of the triumph of the Word over the image, perhaps? Even ‘trusting’ that the concept of the sensory experience still remained?


Fig. 4. St Michael the Archangel holds a spear with which he pierces a dragon
at his feet, St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham. Credit: Binham Priory.

Still, repeated Injunctions published into the concluding part of the sixteenth century to ‘utterly destroy’ figurative imagery ‘so that there remained no memory of the same in walls, glass windows or elsewhere’ suggests that the process happened slowly.[viii] In turn, much statuary, though damaged, was also left on view in a maimed state in order to demonstrate its inactive, ineffective and powerless nature. Considerable numbers of heads, hands or feet painted on wood were scraped off based on the traditional notion that they embodied more of the symbolic life force than any other feature. Great Witchingham’s (Norfolk) defaced font was turned into a visual representation of the now ineptness of images. Even though significant traces of paint remain, not one face exists intact nor most of the hands; the erased attributes left on display cogently illustrating ‘the objects’ impotence, as blind, mute and anonymous stone.’[ix] This ritualistic defacement was thus a result of the desire to remove or should be, alter, the symbolic sensory elements of the figures. This was far more than merely covering; to remove physically all suggestions of its head and hands and so that repainting could not be undertaken, was a bold move. In this sense iconoclasm became ritualistic, with some instances resulting in targeted physical violence against images and relics echoing criminal sanctions.[x]

Great Witchingham font

Fig. 5. Defaced font at The Assumption church Great Witchingham Norfolk. Credit: CC Wikipedia.

Perception had simply shifted from an emphasis on a highly bodily experience (and one based on images) to one that emphasised the understanding of belief and doctrine through hearing, seeing and thus comprehending God’s word in the vernacular (to one based on texts). Arguably, then, the sensory devices remained; they had been merely altered.

So, were these sensory responses real or imaginary encounters based on a contrived unquestioning belief? To medieval men and women, who truly believed that the senses were the conduits through which they perceived (and contacted) the physical and supernatural worlds, they were very real and indeed enormously vital. And so, the Middle Ages ‘sensed’ in a very different manner to us today. For the historian, it is not easy to describe past societies’ ‘sensations’, and to do so we must remove ourselves from our own contemporary view of how the senses function. We must ‘trust’ in this. Perception is culturally specific; we all have different notions.


Emma J. Wells


Emma J. Wells is a Lecturer in Ecclesiastical and Architectural History of the Late Medieval and Reformation Era and a Research Associate in Archaeology at the University of York. She is Programme Leader of the PGDip in Parish Church Studies (in partnership with the CCT) and MA in English Building History, as well as Assistant Editor of the Journal of Church Archaeology and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Norwich Centre for Parish Church Studies (CPCS).


[i] M, Camille, 1996 Gothic art: visions and revelations of the medieval world, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 22; E. Palazzo, ‘Missarum sollemnia: eucharistic rituals in the Middle Ages’, in J H Arnold (ed.), The Oxford handbook of medieval Christianity, Oxford, 2014, 238–253, 244.

[ii] J. M. Powell, (ed.), The Deeds of Pope Innocent III, Washington, 2004, xlv.

[iii] S. Noffke (ed.), The Dialogue, New Jersey, 1980, 184.

[iv] D. Chidester, Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing and Religious Discourse, Illinois, 1992, 3-6.

[v] Ibid., 22.

[vi] E. J. Wells (2012) ‘Synaesthesia in Medieval Pilgrimage: The Case of St Neot’s shrine, Cornwall’, Church Archaeology, 14, 63-77.

[vii] Patrick Collinson termed this ‘total repudiation of all images’ as iconophobia. P. Collinson, From Iconoclam to Iconophobia: The Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation, in P. Marshall (ed.), The Impact of the English Reformation, 15001640, London, 1997, 278–308, 282. Also, Alexandra Walsham has often broken down the long-held yet little-evidenced caesuras between pre- and post-Reformation Catholic practice, see: A. Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain, Farnham, 2014.

[viii] W.H. Frere, Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the Period of the Reformation, London, 1910, no. 2, 107.

[ix] J.L. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, London, 2004, 108.

[x] R. Marks, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England, Stroud, 2004, 270; C.P. Graves, From an Archaeology of Iconoclasm to an Anthropology of the Body: Images, Punishment, and Personhood in England, 1500–1660, in Current Anthropology 49 (February 2008), no. 1, 35–60.