How the importance of our senses has changed over the years

This is a rather random piece, but it was something I was thinking about today. Imagine you are living in the Middle Ages in a village or in a major town somewhere in Europe. What would be your most important sense? Or, to put it another way, what sense would you be using the most of?




I would hazard a guess that you’d be using your nose a lot and therefore your sense of smell would be very important. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in the middle ages, things were probably smellier then they are today! Can you imagine the smells that would waft your way as you walked through a small town: manure, shite, rotting flesh, cabbages and then there is the miasma emanating from a person: sweat, bad breath, rotting teeth, onions in the belly and fart fumes. Today we take for granted our level of hygiene – most of us shower at least once a week. I would guess that in the Middle Ages people went months without a wash – so you can imagine how they would have smelt. This is why scents were important in the Middle Ages – the scent of perfumes, flowers, frankincense, spices, rose petals, mint and all manner of others.

The second reason is that people used their sight a lot less in the Middle Ages. And there is a very good reason for this. People didn’t and couldn’t read and the printing press hadn’t yet been invented. Reading and writing was confined to a few ‘specialists’ or monks cloistered away in Abbey’s. If we were to transport a Middle Ager to the modern world of 2013, the first thing that would strike him or her is how much more we use our eyes and how rarely we use our nose. We use our eyes constantly to read computer emails on screens, very small print on mobile phones, printed books, eReaders, Ipads – and the world is a visual feast bubbling with multi-coloured movies, posters, computer games and glossy magazines – and even our language is dominated by words and expressions that refer to the sense of sight: ‘love at first sight’ / ‘out of sight but not out of mind’ /  ‘a sight for sore eyes’ / ‘seeing is believing’ etc etc.

In the modern world the sense of sight dominates. But it was not always so. Today we are bombarded with words and slogans and sights – constantly.

Imagine a world without words and sentences and movies and visual images. No wonder the early paintings by the great painters were so esteemed. Such things were rare! Today, we can watch a sci-fi blockbuster full of arresting images – no wonder we have lost the appreciation of old paintings. In the old days a large painting hung up on a wall depicting angels, death, cherubs, the sky and the spark of the divine, would have been like watching a blockbuster…

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