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This chapter explores how taste’s epistemological utility in the early modern period was compromised by its disreputable moral status: taste was often identified as the cause of Adam and Eve’s fall. Nonetheless, sacramental tasting held out the promise of redemption. Eucharistic practices, I propose, provide a crucial context for the Protestant poetics of authors including George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Amelia Lanyer. Frequently, for instance, the language of taste is used – with varying levels of commitment – to affirm the superiority of experiential faith over clerical and scriptural authority. Simultaneously, religious writing, from poetry to polemic, offers a neglected source to uncover popular understandings and experiences of everyday, physical tasting. In particular, even banal, quotidian experiences of eating were conceived of as opportunities for spiritual illumination, precisely – and paradoxically – because of the fallenness of taste.
This chapter turns to medical writing in order to probe the relationship between literary taste and taste as an object and faculty of empirical investigation. In anatomical textbooks – notably Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia – ‘taste’ slides referentially between gustation and readerly discrimination. Against a conventional scholarly supposition that anatomical history follows a trajectory away from classical authorities towards the empirical certainties of sense experience, I contend that this semantic flexibility emblematises an early modern insistence on the productive complementarity of proto-scientific empiricism and philological erudition, bodily sensation and mental judgement. The complementarity also has implications for our understanding of early modern subjectivities, pointing to a notion of selfhood that is simultaneously sensorially and textually inscribed, grounded both in physical experience and in the acquisition of knowledge.
This chapter brings print and manuscript commonplace books into dialogue with anti-theatrical diatribes and defences of poetry in order to establish that literary taste, usually dated to the eighteenth century, emerges much earlier in the humanist trope of the reader as bee, using the sense of taste to discriminate between rhetorical ‘flowers’. Through a reading of Anne Southwell's commonplace book, I claim that in the context of humoral psychology, this trope possessed a literal dimension: contemporary sensitivity to the flavour of gall ink corresponds to the suggestion that literary judgement is exercised through actual acts of tasting. Focusing on Ben Jonson’s paratexts, I submit that this has implications for how we understand the politics of taste: locating judgement at the bottom of the sensory hierarchy, ‘taste’ democratises critical authority.
This chapter investigates taste’s paramount importance to the production and legitimisation of experimental knowledge by early Royal Society members, including Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Nehemiah Grew. Early scientists attempted to classify the properties of substances by reference to their flavours; in so doing, they aimed to develop medicines and technologies that could return humankind to prelapsarian felicity. Their efforts chime with Royal Society propaganda, which depicts taxonomical tasting as an inversion of Adam and Eve’s catastrophic gustation. Research into taste as a physiological process, however, presented gustation as subjective, disrupting the link between taste and objective knowledge that undergirded this rhetoric.
This chapter asks how the early modern association of eroticism with sweetness, and romantic betrayal with bitterness, correlates to the affiliation between taste and knowledge described in preceding chapters. I suggest that authors including Richard Barnfield, Shakespeare, and Thomas Carew forge links between sensual pleasure and non-ratiocinative epistemologies, using the bitter/sweet opposition to endorse a rhetorical conception of knowledge as innately relational. Erotic experience is reconceptualised as a source of epistemological mastery, and the language of taste emerges as instrumental within what Faramerz Dabhoiwala terms the seventeenth-century ‘sexual revolution’.
Addison’s article (from classical Latin articulus: joint, point of time, critical moment) forms a hinge between the early modern sense (in both ‘senses’) of taste and later ideas about aesthetics and commerce. On the one hand, as Addison proclaims, the subject of his paper is ‘Mental Taste’, rather than ‘Sensitive Taste’, and the relation between the two terms is clearly defined as metaphorical. In this regard, Addison’s words seem to bolster the critical narrative, discussed in the Introduction to this book, which describes an eighteenth-century endeavour to suppress taste’s associations with physical appetite and pleasure in favour of emphasising its associations with mental discrimination and aesthetic judgement. On the other hand, however, Addison highlights the ‘great conformity’ between mental and physical taste: the metaphor, it seems, is grounded in a very real correspondence. In Addison’s assertion that the ‘intellectual Faculty’ includes ‘as many Degrees of Refinement’ as the physical sense, moreover, the latter emerges as the standard of discrimination to which the former must aspire. Even as the cultural emphasis shifts, then, from the ‘Sensitive’ to the ‘Mental’, taste is not entirely disembodied.
In his Athenae Oxonienses (1691–92), a history of writers and bishops educated at the University of Oxford between 1500 and 1690, the antiquary Anthony Wood includes a brief description of the life of the scholar, educational reformer, and sometime Dean of St Paul’s, John Colet. A humanist luminary, Colet was ‘exquisitely Learned’, being (as Wood comments approvingly) ‘no stranger to Plato and Plotinus’, but somewhat indifferent to their scholastic commentators: ‘Schoolmen, he seemed not to delight in.’ Colet was also profoundly pious, taken by later reformers as an early proponent of their cause: the churchman and historian Thomas Fuller calls him ‘a Luther before Luther’. After his death from a sweating sickness in 1519, Colet’s achievements were acknowledged, as Wood reports, by the construction of ‘a comly Monument set over his Grave’ in a wall of St Paul’s, which stood ‘whole and entire till 1666 [and] was then consumed in the dreadful Conflagration that happened in the City of London’. About fourteen years later, the wall that contained Colet’s body was taken down, and his coffin was revealed. Wood describes how, ‘out of curiosity’, the politician Edmund Wyld and the mathematical instrument maker Ralph Greatorex paid the ruins a visit. Encountering Colet’s newly uncovered burial place, Wyld and Greatorex ‘did thrust a probe or little stick into a chink of the Coffin, which bringing out some moisture with it, found it of an ironish tast, and fancied that the body felt soft and pappy like Brawn’.
Elizabeth Swann investigates the relationship between the physical sense of taste and taste as a figurative term associated with knowledge and judgment in early modern literature and culture. She argues that - unlike aesthetic taste in the eighteenth century - discriminative taste was entwined with embodied experience in this period. Although taste was tarnished by its associations with Adam and Eve's fall from Eden, it also functioned positively, as a source of useful, and potentially redemptive, literary, spiritual, experimental, and intersubjective knowledge. Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England juxtaposes canonical literary works by authors such as Shakespeare with a broad range of medical, polemical, theological, philosophical, didactic, and dietetic sources. In doing so, the book reveals the central importance of taste to the experience and articulation of key developments in the literate, religious, and social cultures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
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