RESPONSE TO ‘A SENSORY HISTORY MANIFESTO’ 1: SENSES, BIOGRAPHY & MEDICAL HISTORY

This blog series responds to Mark M. Smith’s Sensory History Manifesto from the perspective of interdisciplinary and international scholars working on the senses and health. Each blog author addresses the Manifesto in relation to a theme of their work. Our first blog in the series, by Professor Jonathan Reinarz of University of Birmingham, explores medical history, the senses and biography.


In his most recently-published Sensory History Manifesto, Mark Smith once again reflects on current writing on the history of the senses, using three 30-page chapters to set an agenda of sorts to ensure the field maintains its relevance. While there are many lessons to distil from its pages, in this blog I’d like to consider the theme of biography broadly as it pertains to both the publication, his agenda, and my own discipline, medical history.  

As a medical historian, I’m aware that biographies are not immediately accepted as a genre by all scholars in my field. Long associated with volumes celebrating ‘great doctors’, the biographical tradition in the history of medicine has been somewhat tarnished since the 1980s. But not so in sensory history, among other historical sub-fields. In an effort to demonstrate its potential in the history of the senses, Smith includes an example of biographical writing, which might easily win over its fiercest critics. It comes in the book’s second chapter where he outlines three examples of the way a ‘sensory habit’ might encourage us to rethink familiar historical moments. These include Sarah Keyes’s work on the ‘sonic conquest’ that accompanied the westward expansion of Euro-Americans in nineteenth-century America, as well as the recent impact of COVID-19, which has yet-again undermined the authority of the Enlightenment eye. Smith finishes this section by exploring how a concentration on touch can effectively highlight overlooked episodes around Abraham Lincoln’s life. For example, he considers the way in which photographs depict the president’s leathery skin, scars, as well as the handshaking that characterised the sixteenth president’s democratic touch. Touch was also central to the abolitionist stateman’s thinking about free labour and the way in which Lincoln’s skin was remodelled in sculpture, that most tactile of art forms. It is a powerful demonstration of Smith’s belief that ‘a history without the senses is a history very partially told’ (p.62). At the very least, it should make any historian rethink the perceived limitations of the biographical approach.  

The origins of sensory history’s most renowned practitioners are also traced in Smith’s book, beginning with Johan Huizinga, who was active in the interwar period. Until now, historians have either approached the senses in a highly contextualised manner, or as decontextualised phenomena, capable of being reproduced in the present; Huizinga belongs to the latter camp, which is explained in terms of his unique academic background (or biography). A linguist, we are told, Huizinga recognised this pursuit as an interdisciplinarity one from the outset. The senses, the Dutch historian claimed, offered a more authentic engagement with the past. He recognised, for example, the differences between quiet towns in the Middle Ages and noisy industrial ones in the twentieth century, though appeared less interested in how particular people or groups heard things in meaningfully different ways. He linked the senses with emotion, but often failed to articulate that women might sense things differently from men, the poor from the wealthy. Lucien Febvre, another historian, whose life and work is explored in similar detail, more thoroughly grasped the importance of historical context, yet Huizinga encouraged the multisensory way of thinking common today. Other historians discussed in Chapters 1 may not be as familiar as Huizinga and Febvre, but no less important in the prosopography assembled by Smith. These include Robert Mandrou, who was influenced by Febvre and treated the senses in a psychological manner, and incorporated music into his analyses.

A sustained focus on the senses of course emerged in the 1980s and 90s with the appearance of Corbin, who has cast the longest shadow over the field, as Smith himself admits. An interdisciplinary commitment was both apparent and sustained in the work of Sander Gilman, not to mention the contributions of non-historians, like Constance Classen and David Howes. The timing of the olfactory shift noted by Corbin has been challenged more recently by Robert Muchembled, much as Corbin challenged the work of Guy Thuillier’s, who wrote on the everyday and incorporated the sensate in his microhistories of French society in order to capture soundscapes and explain their meanings. Thuillier’s work has not yet been translated extensively, though has informed the work of English-language historians, including Joseph Amato, whose work addresses the quotidian in American society in the past. While it is clear that George H. Roeder’s time teaching at an art school was formative in the approach he took to the senses, I found myself wanting to learn more about the backgrounds of other scholars, like Thuillier. Smith may have resuscitated Thuillier’s memory among sensory historians, but biographical writing on him in English, not to mention his extensive scholarly output, is scarce. Translations of his writings are clearly required to reassess his contribution and appreciate his particular approach to sensory history fully. At heart, it seems that early critiques of his approach hint at the more familiar divide between local/regional history and that of ‘professional’ historians of the senses. 

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In the final pages of the Manifesto, Smith reinterates that recreations of the sensate in living museums and heritage industry continue to irk him. He is most concerned that ‘curatorial tricks’, like period soundtracks and olfactory trails, will continue to be employed by museum staff, who leave visitors without sufficient context to fully understand the way in which the meanings of the senses have changed with time. Museums, he argues, will need better advice on how to deploy these in future. While true in the past, I can’t help but feel that Smith may have overlooked the career paths (read biographies) of the people entering this sector today. Many more history graduates have been gaining appointments in the wider heritage sector in recent years, and local historians have long worked closely with museums and appreciate the meanings of scents in particular towns and regional contexts. This, of course, was something Guy Thuillier (1932-2019) had already recognised (and I’ve since gleaned from a review of one of his 35 books) and is one more reason to return to the pioneering studies Smith surveys in his new manifesto. As sensory history comes of age, hopefully, medical historians will also begin to recognise the vast potential of biography. 

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