I Taste: An ‘Apish Art’?
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’.
From a twenty-first century perspective, Wyld and Greatorex’s tasting of the ‘moisture’ in Colet’s last resting place is peculiar to say the least. What impulse led these two eminent men to sample the coffin’s revolting contents? Wood himself offers no commentary on this disconcerting moment, simply reporting the men’s impressions. In fact, their odd act of tasting can be interpreted in a number of ways. Amongst other things, it becomes more explicable if we take into account to the importance of the sense of taste to the world of early modern experimental philosophy, in which both Wyld and Greatorex participated; the former was a fellow of the recently founded Royal Society, and the latter was a regular attendee at Society meetings. Within this milieu, flavour was considered an important guide to determining the nature and properties of unfamiliar substances. It is, however, difficult to believe that their ‘curiosity’ was purely taxonomical: after all, they must have had a pretty good idea of what the coffin contained. What other impulses – intellectual or affective – might be at play here?
It is, perhaps, relevant that humanist scholarship was often described in terms of taste: the scrupulous reader was compared to a bee using his or her sense of taste to distinguish between the flowers of rhetoric. Given Colet’s reputation for humanist rigour, and the desire of members of the Royal Society to overturn what they saw as the bookish pedantry of humanist scholarship in favour of a new emphasis on sense experience as a source of knowledge, we might see Wyld and Greatorex’s act of tasting as symbolising the replacement of one epistemology (the humanist ideals embodied in Colet) by another (the empiricist ideals propagated by members of the Royal Society). From this perspective, Wyld and Greatorex’s tasting of the contents of Colet’s coffin can be taken as an expression of contempt, an act of rebellion against the insistently resurfacing corpse of humanism – a suggestion that is supported by Wood’s report of their unceremonious, irreverent ‘thrust[ing]’ into the chink in the coffin, as well as the description of Colet’s body as ‘soft and pappy like Brawn’: literally, so much dead meat. From quite another perspective, however, it might be taken as an expression of extreme veneration. Occurring in the church where Colet served as dean, the men’s actions can hardly avoid recalling the Catholic practice – deplored by Colet himself – of touching, kissing, and even licking the bodily remains of saints.
Wyld and Greatorex’s tasting of Colet’s remains, then, is more than a titillating but opaque footnote to the posthumous career of an eminent scholar. Wood’s brief record of a fleeting sensory experience gestures towards a range of more momentous concerns, including the growth of experimental science out of older, humanist forms of knowing, and tensions between Catholic and reformist modes of worship. As such, it stands as an apt introduction to this book, which argues for the importance of taste – understood both as a physical sense associated with the mouth and as a figurative term for different forms of knowledge and experience – to the experience and articulation of key developments in the literate, religious, and social cultures of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. For Wyld and Greatorex’s predecessors and contemporaries, the sense of taste was not only a source of gastronomic pleasure; it was also a means of understanding the world around them.
Early modern literature and culture abounds with the language of taste. To take just one high-profile example, the word and its cognates appear 111 times in Shakespeare’s works, and related vocabulary is also frequent: perhaps most strikingly, ‘sweet’ appears 873 times, and its variants and compound words are also numerous. Despite this ubiquity, however, and despite a cross-disciplinary explosion of interest in the senses over the past couple of decades, taste remains relatively neglected by scholars of the early modern period. This disregard seems strange given the central importance of the so-called lower senses, including taste, for the originators of the Annales School, whose work has been so foundational for later historians of the senses. According to Lucien Febvre, ‘the men of the sixteenth century … were open-air men, seeing nature but also feeling, hearing, sniffing, touching, breathing her through all their senses’. Perhaps, then, one reason for the scholarly neglect of taste is precisely (if paradoxically) its very omnipresence in the culture of this period: in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the language of taste is so pervasive that it becomes unremarkable; so overdetermined as to be indeterminate. It is also relevant, however, that for Febvre the supposed predominance of these senses should be taken as evidence of a culture inclined to affect rather than intellect: ‘their “affective” senses, as we call them, taste and touch, and hearing as well … were exercised much more and were more highly developed (or less atrophied) than ours’. As a result, ‘their thoughts existed in a more clouded and less purified atmosphere’; denizens of this murky era were ‘accustomed to wallowing in imprecision’. In this narrative – later developed by Michel Foucault – the first glimmerings of modernity were coeval with a new emphasis on what Febvre calls ‘the intellectual sense par excellence, sight’, as in the seventeenth century vision was ‘unleashed in the world of science’.
In recent decades, however, a range of scholars have challenged this narrative, arguing – in Mark M. Smith’s words – that the ‘non-visual senses remained central to the elaboration of modernity in many of its forms and configurations’. More specifically, scholars of early modern literature and culture have worked to recover the social, cultural, and (crucially) intellectual and epistemological significance of the lower senses in this period. Holly Dugan, for instance, has revealed the central importance of smell as a mode of social, religious, medical, and commercial understanding, whilst Joe Moshenska explores how early modern authors debated the value of touch as a means both of accessing the divine and of understanding the material and physical world. Most pertinently here, Wendy Wall has shown how early modern English recipe books provided creative and intellectual stimulation for the women who composed and used them. Less concerned with the consumption of food than with its production, Wall’s work has nonetheless shown how recipe books ‘marked evolving and contested meanings of taste that configured and reconfigured sensation, status, and aesthetics’.
Building on and developing such scholarship, this book aims to recover the connotative richness and multiplicity of taste in early modern England. Two allegorical prints, from separate series published in England between 1625 and 1640, offer a fascinating take on this multiplicity, personifying taste (‘Gustus’) visually, as a young woman (Figures I.1 and I.2). The accompanying verses offer a commentary. The first warns that:
Som with the Smoaking Pipe and quaffing Cupp,
Whole Lordships oft have swallow’d and blowne upp:
Their names, fames, goods, strengths, healths, & lives still wasting
In practising the Apish Art of Tasting.
The second offers a challenge:
Match me this Girle in London, nay the World
For feathered Beaver, and her Haire well curld
To none of our Viragoes shee’l give place
For Healthing Sacke, and Smoaking with a Grace.
Figure I.1 Anon., etching depicting taste (Gustus); part of a series of five.
London: John Garrett, 1630–40. First published by Thomas Jenner
. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Figure I.2 George Glover, engraving depicting taste (Gustus); part of a series of five.
London: William Peake
, 1625–35. © The Trustees of the British Museum
These women represent taste in two ‘senses’. Savouring their tobacco and wine, they embody the physical pleasures of gustatory taste. Exhibiting their stylish sartorial choices and sophisticated habits (tobacco smoking was a relatively new and modish practice in the first half of the seventeenth century), however, they also stand for the tasteful consumer. Whilst these two meanings of taste – literal and figurative, physical and commercial, appetitive and discriminative – are conceptually distinguishable, both prints also employ visual parallels to indicate their commensurability. The plumes of smoke ejected from the women’s mouths, for example, correspond to the plumes of their splendid hats (in the case of Figure I.1) and elaborately curled hair (in the case of Figure I.2). Represented visually, the gustatory experience of smoking is integrated into a wider display of luxuries, implying a basic similarity between the objects of gustatory and mercantile taste.
How are we, as viewers, supposed to respond to this conflation of physical appetite with the acquisition of commercial goods? Both the images themselves and the accompanying verses are ambivalent, combining satirical censure with admiration. Although the verse in Figure I.2 is apparently appreciative of Gustus’s expertise in matters of hats and wine-imbibing, the tone is not entirely good-humoured: the description of Gustus as a virago not only positions her as a brazen scold; it also associates her with original sin, for in the Vulgate rendering of Genesis, ‘Virago’ is the name given by Adam to prelapsarian Eve. Gustus, it seems, is a woman on the brink: it is only a matter of time before she succumbs to a terrible temptation. The verse therefore chimes with what Chapter 3 of this book will argue is an early modern tendency to accord to taste the dubious honour of being the sense that initiated the fall: both visual and literary images of taste frequently draw upon this sense’s association with Eve’s original sin. Relatedly, gustatory appetites are also associated with what Joseph Glanvill, clergyman and propagandist for the new experimental philosophy, calls ‘the fond Feminine’. Writing in The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), Glanvill complains that:
The Woman in us, still prosecutes a deceit, like that begun in the Garden: and our Understandings are wedded to an Eve, as fatal as the Mother of our miseries. And while all things are judg’d according to their suitableness, or disagreement to the Gusto of the fond Feminine; we shall be as far from the Tree of Knowledge, as from that, which is guarded by the Cherubin.
For Glanvill, the postlapsarian corruption of intellect by affect is a consequence of mankind’s subjection to hungers that are gendered as distinctly female. ‘Gusto’ and Eve are conflated: simultaneously ‘Mother’ and ‘wedded’ bride, taste yokes the rational (and implicitly masculine) intellect to the idiosyncratic and capricious preferences and aversions of the appetite.
The other print is similarly equivocal. On the one hand, Gustus’s prodigious appetite proves ruinous, swallowing up the reputation, possessions, and, eventually, lives of ‘whole Lordships’. The unnervingly anthropomorphic ape that lurks behind her, munching on a piece of fruit, drives the message home. As a traditional symbol, in medieval and renaissance iconography and literature, of humankind’s degraded hungers and of slavish imitation, the ape represents the shadow side of Gustus’s glittering display of discriminative consumption: rapacious, unrefined appetite. The presence of the monkey also emphasises the gendered terms of the print’s critique of taste: as Constance Classen has commented, the pervasive notion that the ape was a kind of degenerate human echoed the ancient idea of woman as an imperfect man: ‘apes were often typed as feminine’. Gustus emerges as corrupt and ignominious, sullied by her intimacy with iniquitous appetite and with what Richard Brathwaite calls ‘apish or servile imitation’, which ‘detracts much from the worth of man’. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the print seems jovial, and the image celebrates, even as it apparently condemns, the blithe, attractive figure of Gustus. Whilst tasting is undeniably ‘Apish’, it is also, crucially, described as an ‘Art’: a form of creative or imaginative skill, an embodied craft, and a mode of scholarship or learning.
The ambivalence of the prints represents a broader tension in early modern culture, which inherited from classical and medieval authors – notably Plato – a hierarchy of the senses that privileged the distal senses of vision and hearing, which work remotely from their objects, from the proximity senses of taste and touch, which depend on direct contact with their objects (smell was understood to fall somewhere between the two extremes). In this model, taste is often associated with boorish and potentially sinful physical gratification, as opposed to the supposedly purer, more spiritual forms of pleasure and understanding offered by sight and hearing. ‘The eyes are the discoverers of the minde’, as the physician Helkiah Crooke writes in his anatomical textbook Mikrokosmographia (1615), ‘and so fitted and composed to all the affections and affects of the same, that they seeme to be another Soule.’ At the same time, however, some writers and thinkers emphasise the indispensability of taste, highlighting both its crucial role in sustaining the body (as Crooke writes, along with touch, it is ‘absolutely and simply necessary to our life’) and its value as an analogy for, or even as a form of, discrimination and knowledge about the external world. In their interest in the close relation between sensory and discriminative taste, in their suggestion that Gustus’s femaleness is one source of her degradation, and finally in the tension that they establish between taste’s adjacency to immoral sensual appetite and its epistemological potential as a mode of judgement, the two prints encapsulate some of the attitudes and ambiguities that are fundamental to taste, understood both as physical sensation and as a mode of knowledge production, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.
II Embodying Taste: Beyond Aesthetics
Although taste has been relatively neglected by scholars of the early modern senses, it has been extensively explored by scholars of eighteenth-century aesthetics and commerce. According to a standard narrative, taste first rose to prominence in the context of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century consumer culture and aesthetic theory, as authors including Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, Richard Steele, and Joseph Addison made a metaphor out of what had previously only been a physical sensation. Thus detached from the vagaries of physical appetite, taste could serve as a faculty of aesthetic, social, and commercial judgement. In the words of Robert Jones, ‘taste, once it is figured as a claim to a discernment which rises beyond immediate use or gratification, could grant its user, if successful, a prestige and licence in other areas of social life’. In this story, the early modern period rarely features: taste emerges as an aesthetic category and as a mode of discrimination in response to distinctively ‘long’ eighteenth-century phenomena such as the cult of sensibility (where good taste functions as an assurance of a morally virtuous character) or the growth of capitalism and a subsequent disruption of established social categories. For Amanda Vickery and John Styles, for example, taste gained eminence as part of an eighteenth-century effort to protect commercial interests: ‘the notion of taste provided a defence against the accusation that the commercial market in culture simply pandered to the baser lusts of whoever could afford to pay … Taste offered disinterested discernment as a corrective to the crude gratification of the appetites.’ David Howes and Mark Lalonde, meanwhile, emphasise the importance of aesthetic taste as a reactionary response to social change in the eighteenth century, including urbanization, the expansion of the middle classes, and – ultimately – the loosening of traditional class boundaries. In this context, they suggest, the language of aesthetic taste provided a way of reinforcing traditional hierarchies.
Where earlier authors and concerns do feature in this kind of narrative, the emphasis remains on taste’s progressive disembodiment. Milton is a pivotal figure here; for Denise Gigante, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674) and Paradise Regained (1671) occupy a liminal place ‘on the verge’ of what she calls an ‘eighteenth-century effort to repress, sublimate, or otherwise discipline appetite into aesthetics’. Gigante argues that Milton imagines a form of tasting that culminates not in digesting and excreting, but rather in verbal and textual expression. In this regard, he ‘paves the way for eighteenth-century taste theory’, understood as a ‘symbolic economy of consumption’. More recently, Wall has drawn on – but also modified – Gigante’s important work in order to trace how the shift from gustatory to aesthetic taste was reflected in recipe books. Wall suggests that whilst eighteenth-century recipe books did indeed disembody taste, registering ‘aestheticized definitions of taste circulating in writings throughout the culture’, earlier seventeenth-century examples of the genre emphasised physical or culinary taste as integral to aesthetic and social judgements. The ‘taste communities’ which formed around seventeenth-century recipe books, Wall suggests, ‘participated in acts of social classification long before taste took on its modern meaning as a refined mental sensibility tied to social hierarchies’.
Wall, then, has laid the groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of how taste functioned in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, as a period in which we can discover a more complex model of the relation between physical and mental taste than that described by narratives of repression, sublimation, and discipline, and a more inclusive notion of how taste functions as a mode of discrimination. As Gigante stresses, Milton is an important figure in the history of taste. As I will suggest in Chapter 1, however, his poetic preoccupation with this sense can also be understood not as a forerunner of the eighteenth-century obsession with taste as an abstract aesthetic category, but rather as an expression of a much wider cultural interest in the epistemological and moral status of gustation, an interest that, furthermore, has a long and vibrant prehistory. Pierre Bourdieu famously opens his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste with the assertion that ‘one cannot fully understand cultural practices unless “culture” in the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage, is brought back into “culture” in the anthropological sense, and the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food’. This imperative, I want to suggest, reflects a separation that did not exist in the early modern period, when (as my discussion of the prints above has already hinted) ideas about physical appetite and gustatory sensation informed taste’s associations with commercial and other forms of judgement, rather than functioning as the disavowed ‘other’ of a purely aesthetic form of taste. In the period covered by this book, the relationship between physical and discriminative taste may have been complicated and sometimes antagonistic, but it was also intimate and overt.
At this point, it is worth taking a moment to clarify what I mean by the terms ‘physical’ taste and ‘mental’ or ‘discriminative’ taste. The former, of course, seems most self-evident: it refers to the perception of flavour (and perhaps other qualities, such as texture) by the organ or organs of taste (usually, but not exclusively or unanimously, identified as the tongue). The parenthetical qualifications in this basic definition, however, suggest that even such a rudimentary account of gustation is subject to provisos. For early modern men and women, physical taste could mean subtly different things. Thus, although the organ of taste was most usually identified as the tongue, it is not uncommon to find authors attributing the capacity to perceive flavour to the palate (the roof of the mouth), throat, and stomach, too. Crooke, for example, states unequivocally that ‘the Tongue is the true instrument of Tasting’, but he acknowledges that others have argued that the palate or the teeth fulfil this role, whilst others still have suggested that ‘the Taste is … diffused thorough more parts then one’, including the gullet and stomach, as well as the mouth. Taking such discrepancies seriously raises some pressing questions, first about the ways in which sensory experience might vary between individuals in accordance with factors such as social class and gender; second, about how and why sensory experience might change over time; and third, about the relationship between anatomical, medical, and philosophical theories of the senses, and sensory experience per se. These questions will be addressed in subsequent chapters. For now, however, it is sufficient to affirm the premise that the apparently universal, biological experience of tasting is historically specific, taking distinctive forms in different cultures.
Most obviously, the kinds of taste experiences available to early modern men and women diverged dramatically from those available today because the food culture of the period was very different. For the wealthy at least, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were exciting times to be a gourmand in England, witnessing dramatic changes in food technologies and eating habits. A gradual move away from the highly spiced, sweet-savoury dishes that characterised elite medieval cuisine was counterbalanced by the increased consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in upper-class diets and a new interest in showcasing and concentrating the intrinsic flavours of specific ingredients. Meanwhile, the appearance of the first printed recipe books in England in the 1570s enabled the communication of unfamiliar (and often aspirational) techniques, ingredients, and flavour combinations to a broader audience. In other cases, gastronomic innovation was driven not by culinary creativity or social ambition but by desperate necessity: the disastrous harvests of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the subsequent periods of famine saw significant advances in food preservation skills, as people endeavoured in times of relative plenty to prepare for the threat of dearth. Such skills subsequently loosened the shackles of strictly seasonal eating, enabling people to experience the flavour of particular fruits or vegetables all year round. The Civil Wars of the 1640s, too, made a lasting impact on the culinary life of the nation, as the deployment of troops around the country led to the wider dissemination of local recipes and customs. Finally, colonial expansion and the opening up of new trade routes led to the introduction (or, in some cases, increased affordability) of exotic new foods and drinks such as potatoes, sugar, pineapples, coffee, and chocolate, all of which further diversified the national diet, as well as encounters with unfamiliar culinary customs and regimes.
Such developments, extensively documented by food historians, are paramount to understanding early modern taste cultures. My focus here, however, is less on material cultures of food presentation, preparation, and presentation and more on how theories of the senses, as they are outlined in elite texts and disseminated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture more widely, both reflected and informed experiences of taste. In other words, I start from the principle that in order to access and understand experiences of physical taste, we must also pay attention to how the early moderns understood taste as an object of knowledge. The seventeenth century saw significant transformations in contemporary understandings of the body generally, and the physiological aspects of sensation specifically. For a start, the challenge to Galenic humoralism offered by new medical theories, notably Paracelsianism, had a significant impact on how scholars, scientists, and laypeople alike thought about their own embodiment. At the same time, whilst Aristotle’s writings on the senses – and their elaboration by medieval commentators including Averroes and Aquinas – retained enormous influence throughout the period, alternative models of perception, such as the mechanical and corpuscularian doctrines endorsed by members of the early Royal Society, increasingly came to challenge peripatetic orthodoxy. Both of these broad developments affected understandings of the sense of taste. Subsequently, taste emerged in the works of early Royal Society members as a significant topic of research in its own right, as early natural scientists including Robert Boyle, Nehemiah Grew, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek turned their attention to the workings of this important but enigmatic sense. In order to understand how early moderns experienced taste, we must also have a handle on these conceptual changes.
There are, of course, methodological risks in adhering too slavishly to such an approach. In particular, John H. Arnold cautions sensory historians that a reliance on elite and prescriptive sources may lead to ‘a danger of mistaking ideology and pedagogy for the revelation of past reality’. This book, I hope, circumvents this danger, for its use of elite and theoretical sources is interwoven with sustained attention to other forms of text and discourse, including literary and ‘popular’ sources such as plays, pamphlets, and sermons. Such works provide a rich resource in their own right for recovering – partially and imperfectly at least – vanished modes of experience, as the tropical and figurative strive to capture in language forms of feeling that might otherwise hover just beyond the horizon of intelligibility. More pragmatically, literary and popular forms of discourse also helped to disseminate elite theories of the senses to a broader audience: Jennifer Rae McDermott has shown, for example, how discoveries about the anatomy of the ear, including the detection of the Eustachian tube, ‘arose first as a niche subject for select readers and then expanded outwardly, and incrementally, until they permeated public understanding in the wide-reaching medium of state-enforced religious sermons’. But popular and literary modes of discourse also, I will suggest, contested or transformed elite medical, scientific, and physiological theories or put them to unexpected ends: the use of Aristotelian sensory physiology in the service of literary seduction, discussed in Chapter 5 of this book, is a case in point.
Early modern ideas about the physiology of tasting, moreover, both informed and were reciprocally shaped by the use of ‘taste’ as an aesthetic and epistemological category. This becomes clear if we turn our attention to the second partner in the relation: what, above, I have called ‘mental’ or ‘discriminative’ taste. Here, we find another crucial difference between eighteenth-century taste and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century uses of the term. In particular, I contend, the eighteenth-century association of taste with aesthetic discernment is not – as is often thought – an expansion of the term’s meaning, but rather a restriction of its epistemological jurisdiction. In the period covered by this book, which roughly encompasses the years between Elizabeth I’s accession and the so-called Glorious Revolution, the language of taste is associated not only with the consumption of works of art and luxury goods but also with the production, evaluation, and communication of knowledge in a number of spheres, including but not limited to the aesthetic domain. As well as the literary skills and techniques associated with humanist expertise, for instance, the terms of taste are used to describe and negotiate the dynamic, processual experience of theatre-going; the forms of experimental and empirical knowledge characteristic of the new philosophy; intuitive, intersubjective, and sexual knowledge; and even the experience of knowing God, either through participation in ritual or through the gift of freely bestowed grace.
A brief consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary elucidates some of the epistemological range of the word ‘taste’ in this period, while Shakespeare’s works provide some examples. First, and as it would continue to throughout the eighteenth century, taste could indicate ‘mental perception of quality; judgement, discriminative faculty’. It is this kind of ‘taste’ that Nathaniel claims in Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595; 1598), when he proclaims himself a man ‘of taste’ (a moment I explore in greater detail in Chapter 1). Contemporaneously, however, other definitions of the noun ‘taste’ include ‘a trying, testing; a trial, a test, an examination’, whilst definitions of the verb to ‘taste’ encompass ‘to put to the proof; to try, to test’. Edmund, for instance, uses the word in this way in King Lear (c. 1606; 1608), having shown his father the forged letter implying his brother Edgar’s disloyalty: ‘I hope, for my brother’s justification, he wrote this but as an essay or taste of my virtue.’ Less momentously, in Twelfth Night (c. 1601; 1623) Sir Toby Belch also uses ‘taste’ as a synonym for ‘test’ when he advises Viola (disguised as Cesario) to ‘taste your legs, sir; put them to motion’. To taste can also mean ‘to have experience or knowledge of’ more broadly, as when, in Pericles (c. 1607; 1609), Cleon implores, ‘O, let those cities that of plenty’s cup / And her prosperities so largely taste … heed these tears!’ Here, ‘taste’ is a synonym for first-hand experience. Relatedly, ‘a taste’ can indicate – as it does today – a small sample or slight experience of something. In the 1661 edition of his Glossographia, Thomas Blount defies ‘gustation’ as ‘a tasting or smacking; also a little knowledge of, or experience in’. Touchstone uses the word in this way in As You Like It (c. 1599; 1623), when he offers Rosalind ‘a taste’ of his ability to compose bad love poetry. The alliance of taste with experiential knowledge spills over into the realm of sexual relations: as a verb, the word ‘taste’ could be used in a sense that is now obsolete, to mean ‘to have carnal knowledge of’. In Cymbeline (1611; 1623), for example, Posthumus challenges Iachimo to test Imogen’s fidelity by daring him to ‘mak’t apparent / That you have tasted her in bed’. And, shifting register from the profane to the sacred, the language of taste is often used to describe religious experience and knowledge, an association informed by frequently noted etymological links between ‘sapience’, or spiritual wisdom, and ‘sapor’, or flavour. As the non-conformist clergyman Anthony Burgess put it in his 1659 commentary on Corinthians, ‘sapientia be à sapere, a metaphor from the taste; as the palate discerneth of meats, so doth a wise man of the nature of things’. It is this tradition, associating the pleasures of taste with spiritual illumination, that informs Oliver’s assertion, near the end of As You Like It, that his ‘conversion’ from murderous to loving brother ‘sweetly tastes’.
These two distinctive aspects of early modern taste culture – namely, the intimate relation between physical taste and taste as a term for different forms of knowledge, and the broad epistemological scope of the language of taste – are linked, for the physical experience of tasting has a double aspect that is reflected in the term’s epistemological associations. As part of the activity of eating, the sense of taste plays a preliminary role, evaluating or testing the suitability of an item for further digestive assimilation. As Crooke writes, taste (along with smell) ‘judge[s] of that we put into our bellies’, and as a physical practice, taste can be tentative and preliminary: ‘because we can thrust or lill out our Tongues, we are able to discerne of the Sapors of those things also which are without the mouth if the Tongue do but touch them, especially with the very tip’. Correspondingly, as an epistemological term, to taste something is to try, test, or examine it. In such cases, the forms of enquiry indicated by the language of taste are cautious and investigative. Conversely, conceived of in its relation to the other senses, taste represents the culmination of our experience of our environment. Whereas we can see, hear, and smell across distances, taste’s status as a proximity sense means that – like touch – it is stimulated only by direct physical contact with the object of sense. Taste, moreover, often (if not always) entails the incorporation of its object: early modern ideas about the physiology of digestion held that tasting was the first stage of a process known as ‘concoction’, which concluded in the absorption of the matter tasted into the body of the taster. Raphael’s assurance to Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost that angels are able to eat and appreciate food is a concise summary of this process: like human beings, they ‘tasting concoct, digest, assimilate’. This perceived physiological link between tasting and assimilating informs taste’s epistemological associations with forms of knowledge that are experientially intimate, direct, immediate, and even transformative: to taste, as Satan knows, and Eve and Adam learn to their infinite loss, is to ‘learn by proof’. Early modern taste culture, then, was very different from eighteenth-century taste culture, both in its insistence on the inextricability of physical taste and taste as a term for different forms of knowing, and in its inclusive ‘sense’ of the scope of the latter.
III Synaesthesia and Subjectivity: De gustibus non est disputandum?
One distinctive feature of early modern conceptions of taste is a tendency to represent it in synaesthetic terms, as bound up with other forms of perceptual experience. In particular, echoing Aristotle’s De Anima, authors frequently describe taste as a form of touch: as Crooke notes, ‘some have made no distinction betweene them’. Assertions such as these prompt us to consider the extent to which it is advisable to conceptually distinguish the senses. Mark Jenner has criticised ‘monosensual histories’ for their tendency to ‘either build upon, or test, the idea that if one sense grows in significance, others must decline correspondingly’, noting that this kind of approach ‘neglects the synaesthetic nature of human perception’. Perception is always holistic and immersive: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste cannot be shut off from each other. Whilst the multisensory or synaesthetic nature of experience might be a historical constant, however, it is not necessarily the case that the same goes for the particular permutations of the senses involved. When sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vocabulary registers the tendency of the senses to intermingle or coexist, the particular sensory associations described are sometimes familiar – but they are sometimes surprising, too.
Just as we do today, early modern men and women (again following Aristotle) thought of taste and smell as contiguous. Smell, like taste, was associated with the preliminary assessment of foods, and the two senses shared a vocabulary in common: the word ‘savour’ was used ‘promiscuously’, as Crooke puts it, to refer both to flavour and odour, as were specific taste and smell descriptors such as ‘sweete’, ‘sharpe’, and ‘sower’. Smelling, moreover, also had traditional associations with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom: Crooke comments, for instance, that ‘Egyptians in their Hyeroglyphicks signified a wise and prudent man by a nose.’ There were also, however, frequently acknowledged and important differences. For a start, smell was conceived of as more passive than taste: whilst we can usually choose whether to put something in our mouths, odours can be invasive, insistent, and – short of ceasing to breathe – difficult to avoid. As Roger Ascham puts it, in a sensorially vivid little analogy in The Scholemaster (1570), ‘Salust, by gathering troth out of Cato, smelleth moch of the roughnes of his style: even as a man that eateth garlike for helth, shall cary away with him the savor of it also, whether he will or not.’ To taste and eat garlic is an active choice; to smell it (and indeed to smell of it) is not.
Another way that taste was distinguished from smell was its closer association with touch. Again, Aristotle was an important influence here: in De Anima, he distinguished taste from smell by noting that ‘our sense of taste is more exact [than smell] through its being a kind of touch, the sense that is at its most accurate in man’. Subsequently, early modern authors emphasised the tactility of eating and drinking: for John Taylor, ‘great eating and drinking is not the greatest pleasure of the taste, but of the touch … full morsells and great draughts are easie and soft to the touch’ in the same way as ‘the feeling of silke … or a moles skin’. Perhaps more strikingly, taste was also often associated with sight. A section on ‘The sence of Tasting’ included in Anthony Munday’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s The True Knowledge of a Mans Owne Selfe (1602), for example, describes ‘the savour called greene, which setts the teeth an edge, shuts up and drawes backe the tongue’, establishing a metonymic connection between flavour and colour: ‘of such tast are Medlars and other greene fruites, before they are come to their maturitie’. In the use of ‘green’ as a flavour description, taste and visual appearance cohere.
In offering a manifesto for taste’s prominence within the literature and culture of early modern England, I do not intend to devalue the historical importance of the other senses, and I strive to remain alert throughout this book to moments when taste intertwines with other modes of perception. Despite this, there are methodological advantages to a monosensual approach, for – as it traverses disparate realms of experience including the culinary arts, commerce, literary culture, aesthetics, religion, medicine, natural philosophy, and sexuality – the language of taste enables us to identify points of exchange between apparently distinct endeavours. Spotlighting a single sense, that is, opens up the multiplicity and complexity of early modern processes of perceiving and knowing, which are never confined to a single field: the focus is not on relationships between the senses, but rather on the ways that specific sensations can cut across and complicate the boundaries between other, apparently discrete realms of human experience.
Again, the language of sweetness is instructive here. When Francis Meres, for example, asserts that ‘the witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare’, offering as evidence ‘his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends’, he is certainly using the synaesthetic associations of sweetness – as a term associated with sound as well as taste – in order to pay the author a compliment on the musicality of his verse. But Meres also exploits the multifarious conceptual associations of gustatory sweetness, specifically, in complex and multilayed ways.
First, as Miriam Jacobson has shown, Meres’s images of sweetness reflect significant changes in the mercantile and literary economies of early modern England. As Jacobson points out, ‘Meres’s wording appears to associate the published, more classically influenced poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece … with a classical sweetner, honey, and the newer, more experimental Sonnets with a newer and more precious substance, sugar’. In making this distinction, Meres indicates that just as in English kitchens honey was being replaced ‘with the newer and foreign imported spice, sugar’, so too were ‘classical forms of poetry … also being replaced with innovative (or imported Italian) ones’. Second, I want to suggest, Meres’s use of the language of sweetness also works to cross conceptual boundaries, even as it delineates generic ones, conflating Shakespeare’s poetic virtuosity with the eroticised sweetness of a beloved’s honeyed kisses – as both Meres’s comparison of Shakespeare to the notoriously amorous Ovid, and his subsequent specifying of his most notoriously licentious works, makes clear. As well as blending sweet sounds and sweet tastes in his pun on ‘mellifluous’ (from the Latin mel, honey), Meres also affiliates sensual and literary sweetness, implicitly invoking a causal relationship between sexual experience and poetic skill. In so doing, as I show in Chapter 5 of this book, he draws on and reduplicates an association that Shakespeare himself had also made, in his drama and poetry, between sweetness, sensual desire, and forms of knowledge and understanding, including intersubjective judgement and self-knowledge, as well as rhetorical expertise. Thus, in Venus and Adonis (1593), the pleasures of the flesh are entwined with the promise of what Venus calls ‘honey secrets’ – knowledge that may be illicit and transgressive, but which may also hold out the promise of self-understanding, increased judgement, and moral transformation.
Elsewhere in early modern literary culture, the language of sweetness is used to indicate, variously, familial and friendly affection, sycophantic flattery, salutary nourishment, nauseous surfeit, the deceptive pleasures of sin, and the experience of divine grace. This ambivalent ethical status of sweetness is also reflected in early modern medical and dietetic discourse: as Ken Albala has shown, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a broad shift from a notion of sweetness as physically nourishing and salutary to a more modern ‘sense’ of sweetness as dangerous and unwholesome. The formidable semantic range of sweetness, then, makes it indispensable for authors who wish to forge associations between apparently distinct realms of experience or who wish to mark moments of unsettling incongruity or ambivalence. Our instinct, as literary scholars, is often to strive to resolve or at least account for conflict or ambiguities in the texts we study, but the language of taste frequently demands that we suspend such exegetical efforts, holding the reconciliation of contraries in abeyance.
There are also good historical reasons for focusing on a single sense, not least that such an examination reflects an increasing tendency throughout this period to differentiate between and compare the senses. Partly, this was a consequence of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century revival of Pyrrhonian scepticism. In Book 1 of his Outlines of Scepticism, Sextus Empiricus had outlined ‘ten modes’ of scepticism leading to suspension of judgement, the third of which was the observation that ‘the senses disagree with one another’. Honey, for example, ‘appears pleasant to the tongue (for some people) but unpleasant to the eyes; it is impossible, therefore, to say whether it is purely pleasant or unpleasant. Similarly with perfume: it gratifies the sense of smell, but displeases the sense of taste.’ Subsequently, proponents of Pyrrhonian scepticism in the early modern period often emphasised differences between the senses in order to highlight their unreliability as a source of knowledge – Michel de Montaigne, for instance, echoed Sextus’s point about perfume and honey in An Apologie of Raymond Sebond. Conversely, others responded by using the differences between the senses precisely in order to shore up, rather than undermine, sensory and epistemic certainty. In his 1636 translation of the fourth-century Christian philosopher and bishop Nemesius of Emesa’s treatise on The Nature of Man, for example, George Wither notes that ‘if one sense erre, the error if it may bee rectified by some other senses; As wee perceive in Pictures: For, the sight beholdeth things as if they stood out from the rest of the peece, as the Nose and such other parts of the Picture; but, by the sense of touching, the error of the sight is discovered.’ In each case however, the senses are perceived as both distinct, with specific capabilities, preferences, and aversions, and comparable in ways that highlight those differences.
More pertinently here, Anthony Munday’s synchronisation of sight and taste in his description of a particular flavour associated with medlars and other unripe fruits as ‘green’ should be qualified by recognition of a common tendency amongst sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers to juxtapose these two senses, and not always to the detriment of taste. Chapter 4 of this book, for instance, explores how Robert Boyle opposes the immediate and intuitive forms of knowledge offered by taste to the more incorporeal and remote forms of knowledge provided by vision, associating the latter not with praiseworthy neutrality but rather with superficiality. In endorsing taste over vision in this way, I suggest, authors such as Boyle open a window on a culture in which impartiality was not yet securely established as an epistemological ideal. Distinguishing between the senses for heuristic purposes, then – as early modern men and women themselves did – enables us to recognise the way that specific modes of perception were coordinated with, and sometimes used to promote, different ideas about knowledge.
Today, we have a pair of adjectives to describe the forms of knowledge that early moderns associated with vision and taste: objective and subjective. Although these terms took on their modern meanings of ‘not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached’ and ‘derived from or expressing a person’s individuality or idiosyncrasy; not impartial or literal’ only in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively, the highly personal, idiosyncratic nature of taste was axiomatic in the early modern period as it is in the twenty-first century. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the Latin proverb goes: there is no disputing about taste. There is, however, a difference between modern and early modern applications of this aphorism: while today it is usually deployed in response to a clash of aesthetic tastes, in the early modern period it just as often referred to gustatory tastes. Again, the subjectivity of taste was a sceptical trope, articulated by Sextus and repeatedly echoed by early modern authors. As the 1651 Skeptick, or Speculations, a partial translation of Sextus’s Outlines commonly attributed to Walter Raleigh, puts it, ‘divers creatures … having tongues drier, or moister according to their several temperatures, when they tast the same thing, must needs conceit it to be according as the instrument of their tast is affected, either bitter, or sweet’. Importantly, the subjectivity of taste here is not a matter of the mind interpreting or misinterpreting sensory data in varying ways, according to prejudice or predisposition; rather, it is articulated in the terms of Galenic humoralism, as a result of one’s physical complexion or constitution. It is the composition of the tasting subject’s bodily humours – not emotions, memories, or mental preconceptions – which affects their perception of flavour and results in the variousness of taste.
Crucially, however, the embodied subjectivity of taste does not preclude it from functioning as a valuable source of knowledge. We can see this, for instance, in a chapter on ‘how to judge of the Maturity and Goodness of Fruits’ included in Jean de La Quintinie’s The Compleat Gard’ner (1693), translated by John Evelyn. Quintinie notes that ‘a thing which may please one Man’s Pallat, may displease another’s’, before avowing that ‘this discussion is out of my Province; the Ancient Maxim (de Gustibus) forbids my medling with it’. For Quintinie, however, the idiosyncrasies of individual gustatory preferences and aversions do not negate taste’s epistemic utility as a mode of judgement: whilst sight, touch, and smell can judge the outward appearance of fruits, Quintinie asserts that ultimately ‘the Tast is the only and real Judge to whom it belongs to Judge Solidly … of the Goodness’ of a fruit. Taste, for de La Quintinie, is at once highly personal and epistemologically superior: its intrinsic subjectivity is compatible with the production of accurate knowledge about the external world.
The individualistic or subjective nature of taste also has broader implications, for it hints at a connection between the senses and subjectivity in the more general sense of individual identity. As numerous scholars have maintained, subjectivity in the early modern period was deeply embodied. For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century men and women, influenced by Hippocratic and Galenic theories of humoral physiology, an individual’s temperament or character was dependent on their physical complexion; there was, in the influential words of Gail Kern Paster, ‘no way conceptually or discursively to separate the psychological from the physiological’. As mediators between the body and the mind, we might expect the senses to play a key role here, and indeed, recent scholarship has done much to illuminate how the senses and sensory experience have, historically, helped shape notions and practices of selfhood. The emphasis, however, has tended to be, first, on the staging or communication of such identity, rather than its formation, and, second, on the relationship between the senses and the passions or affects in constituting identity, rather than on the relationship between the senses and knowledge and understanding.
Notably, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume, Holly Dugan asserts that ‘Renaissance self-fashioning in England could be decidedly aromatic.’ Rose attar, for instance, was both ‘a perfect distillate of erotic power’ and ‘an important part of staging an embodied self’; possession of a casting bottle (a small, decorative vessel filled with perfume and worn on a chain) ‘was a powerful tool of self-presentation’. Dugan’s account represents a fresh and enlightening approach to early modern subjectivity, but it goes only so far: external sensory properties (scent) reify or represent interior passions, enabling individuals to perform or ‘stage’ their identities. Dugan’s model thus figures the relation between sense and self as representational; a sensory property stands in for and communicates a pre-formed subjectivity that is itself associated with (erotic) passion and power. Similarly, though with a different sensory emphasis, Wes Folkerth suggests that in Shakespeare’s works, sound is ‘a privileged mode of access to the deeply subjective thoughts, emotions, and intentions of others’. For Folkerth, sound is a way of accessing a subjectivity that is already there, a core of selfhood concealed in the opaque depths of ‘others’.
In contrast, this book proposes that in early modern England, sense experience was thought to play a direct role in creating or forming subjective interiority, as well as communicating or performing that interiority – and that the proverbial idiosyncracy of taste gave it a privileged part in this process. For the early moderns, sensory experiences could constitute identities in a literal and immediate way: subjects were fashioned not only by staging themselves as objects of sense (that is, by associating themselves with particular sensory qualities), but also in the very act of sensing (that is, in the day-to-day process of perceiving the world around them).
Within the Galenic humoural framework, taste preferences and aversions could both indicate and help to create character. Pleasure taken in plain food could certainly point towards an upright temperament: a 1634 translation of the Jesuit theologian Leonardus Lessius’s popular treatise on health, Hygiasticon, for instance, observes that ‘a sober man’ will tend to ‘relish’ plain foods, such as ‘drie bread’. Conversely, as the physician Thomas Muffett asserts in in his popular Healths Improvement (1655), in an aside that pivots into the unexpectedly personal, rich food such as pork is ‘sweet, luscious, and pleasant to wantons … [it] was the bane of mine own Mother’. The consumption of certain kinds of food, therefore, could signal other predispositions towards virtue or vice. An individual’s personal tastes and the dietary choices they resulted in not only represented or revealed aspects of their character, however; they also had a direct, decisive role in forming that character. As Ken Albala puts it, in the early modern period ‘not only the emotions but even ideas and the inclination to perform virtuous acts are ultimately influenced, if not determined by, dietary habits’. Certain kinds of food could, for instance, stimulate the mind or incite lasciviousness (indeed, according to Henry Butts in his 1599 collection of dietary lore, some foods could do both: the flesh of the turtle simultaneously ‘sharpeneth the wit’ and ‘exciteth Venus’). The impact of diet on character, moreover, was not negligible or transitory, but significant and sustained. For William Vaughan, writing in his Approved Directions for Health (1612), it was important enough to serve as an answer to the question of why there is ‘so great a diversitie among men’. ‘Physicians’, Vaughan notes, ‘hold, that men be diversly affected according to the diet which they use, as Venison, Conies, and Hares-flesh, make men melancholick, and consequently envious and froward: those meates which ingender good bloud, make men of a sanguine complexion and free hearted.’ Taste preferences and character are considered mutually constitutive: it is not simply the case that dissolute gluttons crave rich foods because it is in their character to do so, but that the craving itself helps create the character, in a vicious – if delicious – cycle.
This close connection between eating and identity in this period has not gone unnoticed: two works in particular provide valuable precedents for my approach in the current book. In his ground-breaking Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England, Michael C. Schoenfeldt argues that ‘psychological inwardness’ was founded both in the individual’s ‘deep attention to’ and in one’s ability to control and master the body – including its alimental appetites. For Schoenfeldt, drawing on works by Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton alongside contemporary moral, medical, and dietetic literature, ‘self-control … authorizes individuality’ in this period. ‘The Renaissance’, Schoenfeldt argues, ‘seems to have imagined selves as differentiated not by their desires, which all more or less share, but by their capacity to control these desires’ – a process which can encompass the redirection (rather than simply the denial) of intense emotion into suitably pious channels, such as an extreme love of God. Indeed, ‘diet and digestion were seen not just to affect mental capacity but even the ineffable realms of the soul’. Most obviously, as I have noted above, temperance was intellectually and spiritually salutary, while gluttony bred vice and stupidity. ‘To choose one’s diet in this regime’, Schoenfeldt observes, ‘is an act of self-fashioning in the most literal sense, and requires intense self-scrutiny.’ More recently, David B. Goldstein has placed the connections between eating and identity in a social and intersubjective context in his Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England, tracing the ways in which dining was integral both to ‘community-formation through commensality’ and to ‘a relational understanding of the self’. As Goldstein persuasively argues, individuals formed eating communities, but they were also formed by them in turn: ‘the early modern self was constituted relationally through the act of eating’. As such, ‘to think about eating was to acknowledge that the individual did not just have a relationship to the world but was made of the world, utterly inseparable from it’.
Schoenfeldt and Goldstein’s interest in how sensation constitutes rather than simply communicates subjectivity, then, distinguishes their approach from other works in the field. Nonetheless, Schoenfeldt shares with other scholars of the senses an emphasis on the relationship between sensation and the passions or affects in relation to selfhood, rather than between sensation and knowledge and understanding. For Dugan, the self is associated with the expression of erotic passion and power; for Schoenfeldt, it is associated with the rational regulation (or transformation into religious fervour) of embodied desires. In this regard, scholarship on the senses reflects the legacy of scholarship on early modern subjectivities more broadly, which – following Paster – has tended to emphasize the centrality of embodied passion and affect to identity formation. In their introduction to Passions and Subjectivity in Early Modern Culture, for example, Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis assert that their volume ‘aims to make new connections between embodiment, selfhood and the passions’. The passions, they acknowledge, do ‘contain in themselves a ratiocinative element … they are in themselves a form of cognition’. This is persuasive, but it positions cognition as secondary to the passions as a determinant of identity: knowing is merely an epiphenomenon or side effect of feeling.
The selves that acts of sensing helped to shape, however, were knowing and thinking as well as feeling and desiring subjects. Katharine Craik and Tanya Pollard have highlighted the ‘interdependence’ of ‘bodily responses’ and ‘intellectual reasoning’ in the early modern period, observing that whilst sense perception was indeed ‘understood … to alter the passions, or affections’, it also informed ‘the cognitive processes of reason, memory, and the will’. This book, then, proposes that whilst the senses and the passions undoubtedly worked in tandem to make early modern selves, so too did the senses and the mind: sensory processes of knowing played a foundational role in the formation of subjectivities. Sensory knowledge was ‘subjective’ not only in the sense that it reflected the character of the knower, but because it helped shape or constitute that character.
That the epistemological underpinnings of early modern selves have been largely overlooked derives in part, I suggest, from a disproportionate emphasis on humoral models of embodiment at the expense of sustained critical engagement with the widespread influence of the Aristotelian notions of sensory physiology that still, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, retained a strong hold on the imagination. One underlying premise of this book is that Aristotelian and peripatetic theories of the senses represent in the early modern period not the carcass of a long-discredited scholasticism, but an animate, dynamic, and flexible imaginative resource. In the Aristotelian tradition, sensation is both the basis of all knowledge (as Aristotle puts it in De Anima, ‘if one perceived nothing one would learn and understand nothing’) and a process of self-transformation (‘perception’ consists in ‘being moved and affected’; it is ‘a kind of alteration’). Sensing, knowing, and being are therefore intimately intertwined.
It is, moreover, worth noting that although both Galenic humoralism and Aristotelian sensory physiology share an interest in the subjectivity of knowledge – and, particularly, the ways that sense-based knowledge is informed and moulded by the physical complexion of the knower – they also evince different attitudes to that subjectivity. In particular, whereas the former tends to view knowledge as tainted by its dependence on embodied subjectivity, the latter tends to view subjectivity as innate to perceptual knowledge. As Crooke comments, ‘we learne out of Galen … that understanding followeth … the good temper and disposition of that bodye which understandeth’. This state of affairs is most apparent when the humours become pathologically imbalanced, resulting in perceptual error: an excess of choler in the tongue, for example, will give ‘all things though sweet … a bitter tange’. In Galenic humoralism, then, the subjectivity of sensation is semi-pathological. Conversely, in faculty psychology, the dependence of sensation on an individual’s constitution is not necessary a hindrance to accurate perception, but rather an integral aspect of perception. The Thomist dictum unumquodque recipitur per modum recipientis, rendered by Anthony Munday in his 1605 translation of the Dominican prior Giacomo Affinati’s The Dumbe Divine Speaker as ‘every thing is received, according to the nature of the bodye that receives it, and not according to the nature of the thing it selfe received’, is important here. This principle extends to the reception of sensory knowledge about the external world: ‘wee may example the same by our intelligence or understanding’, claims Affinati. Because knowledge of the external world is dependent on the body that receives it, ‘our understanding sits as mid-way seated, betweene the thing apprehended or entertained, and the body which receives the same’. In processes of perception, the alterity of the world is absorbed by, and at least in part remade in the image of, the sensing subject. By shifting attention to the vital role that faculty psychology continued to play in early modern literature and culture, I highlight both the ways that knowledge was shaped by the constitution of the sensing subject and, conversely, the extent to which early modern selves were themselves thought to be fashioned, in a very real and concrete sense, by the kinds of knowledge available to them.
IV Faculty Psychology and Historical Phenomenology
Strikingly, Affinati’s assertion that ‘every thing is received, according to the nature of the bodye that receives it’ resonates with developments in twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenological philosophy. Thus, for Maurice Merleau-Ponty the body is similarly a formative condition that simultaneously enables and restricts our knowledge: ‘I regard my body’, he writes, as ‘my point of view upon the world’, rather than as ‘one of the objects of that world’. For Merleau-Ponty, moreover, understanding this principle is generative, as well as limiting, for although recognising the situated and embodied character of perceptual knowledge entails acknowledging the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of achieving truly objective knowledge, it also reveals perception as suffused with significance: ‘the sensation and images which are supposed to be the beginning and end of all knowledge never make their appearance anywhere other than within a horizon of meaning’. Similarly, Affinati’s insistence that understanding is situated ‘betweene the thing apprehended … and the body which receives the same’ resonates with Bruce Smith’s insistence that ‘colour … is a phenomenon, an event that happens between an object and a subject’; for both Affinati and Smith, a perception is something that occurs ‘between[e]’ the world and the self.
In noticing these parallels, and in emphasising the historical specificity of sensation, I signal my allegiance to a mode of scholarship that, following Smith’s seminal work, has become current in early modern studies: historical phenomenology. As Smith notes, early phenomenology – the work of Merleau-Ponty included – tended to be ‘universalizing in its assumptions about how the human body knows what it knows’. In contrast, Smith has been instrumental in developing a version of phenomenology that acknowledges the historical nature of embodiment, and hence of perception. This historical version of phenomenology insists that just as perceptual knowledge is informed by embodiment, so too is embodiment (and, hence, sensation and affect) informed by historical and cultural factors. As Kevin Curran and James Kearney put it, historical phenomenology works from the premise that:
Feeling and sensing have a history. The way we feel sad is different from the way Shakespeare felt sad; the way we smell perfume is different from the way Queen Elizabeth smelled perfume. This is because the two experiences occur in distinct cultural, institutional, and discursive contexts.
In taking the sense of taste as an object of literary and historical enquiry, this book clearly participates in this broader scholarly project of revealing the ways in which apparently universal substrata of human experience are in fact thoroughly historical. At points, however, it will challenge the presumptions implicit in Kearney and Curran’s emphasis on ‘cultural, institutional, and discursive contexts’, with its implication that the historicity of sensation and affect derives from the social and cultural circumstances in which sensory and affective experiences are interpreted. Instead, this book unpicks the ways in which the historical and cultural specificity of sensation is always already embedded in that sensory experience – through, for instance, the inculcation of specific modes and practices of tasting that inform the experience itself, rather than simply its retrospective construal.
If historical phenomenology encourages acknowledgement of the historical distinctiveness of apparently universal phenomena, it also enables us to recognise that this is an insight that early modern men and women shared. Reading Affinati alongside Merleau-Ponty, we see that a sophisticated understanding of phenomenality is not exclusive to twentieth- and twenty-first century scholars. The reasons for this kinship, however, have been inadequately accounted for; too often, similarities between early modern texts and the insights of modern phenomenologists are attributed to the historical precocity of specific sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors. Bruce Smith comments, for instance, of Edward’s Herbert’s De Veritate (1633) that ‘here, several centuries too early, are the grounds for … the phenomenological writings of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty’. Similarly, Christopher Tilmouth comments that in his Les Passions de l’âme (1649), Descartes ‘strikingly anticipates the phenomenological approach which has dominated modern philosophizing about the emotions’. Such statements imply a teleological mindset according to which a few authors managed to achieve insights worthy of a later, more advanced historical period, and generally overlook the fact that twentieth-century phenomenology was shaped to a significant degree by its practitioners’ self-conscious engagement (as part of a wider project of challenging the assumptions of Enlightenment philosophy) with pre-Cartesian conceptions of selfhood and knowledge.
In contrast, I wish to emphasise here how twentieth-century phenomenologists overtly drew on and developed much earlier conceptions of selfhood and knowledge. It is less helpful to suggest, as Shankar Raman and Lowell Gallagher do, that ‘the early modern understanding of the reciprocity of touch can be said to anticipate Merleau-Ponty’s ethics of intersubjectivity’ than it is to note that Merleau-Ponty himself was an insightful and receptive reader of early modern philosophers – including those, such as Montaigne, who were interested in the reciprocity of touch. Early modern texts do not predict or anticipate phenomenology; rather, phenomenology draws heavily on older traditions. Importantly, the works of Aristotle and his medieval commentators are prominent within these older traditions; the critical tendency to ignore the debt that twentieth-century phenomenologists owe to classical, medieval, and early modern thinkers in favour of a teleological vocabulary of anticipation is thus attributable, at least in part, to the neglect of Aristotelian sensory physiology. Intentionality is a case in point. Formulated by Franz Brentano in the 1870s, and later elaborated by his student Husserl, phenomenological ‘intentionality’ designates the contention, put simply, that all mental phenomena (thoughts, consciousness, cognition) must be directed towards an object (whether real or imaginary). Brentano’s work on intentionality drew heavily on the Aristotle’s De Anima and on the work of Aristotle’s Arabic and scholastic commentators, including Ibn Sīnā (known widely as Avicenna) and Thomas Aquinas. From this perspective, similarities between early modern ideas about perception and twentieth-century phenomenology derive not from the historical precocity of figures such as Edward Herbert but from their shared heritage of Aristotelian and peripatetic philosophy. Recognition of this encourages critical humility, but also allows us to develop a more nuanced appreciation of the intricate and diverse, but in many respects continuous, fabric of ideas about the human sensorium, prompting acknowledgment of the extent to which apparently fresh hermeneutic strategies are entangled in the histories and texts that they propose to unravel.
V Chapter Summaries
The material in this book is organised according to both thematic and chronological concerns. It begins with an exploration of literary taste, often understood as a variety of aesthetic taste. Chapter 1 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.
Taste is a mode of knowing, but – for anatomists – it was also an object of knowledge, a function of the body that might be studied and understood. Chapter 2 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.
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 in Chapter 3, provide a crucial context for the Protestant poetics of authors including Herbert, Marvell, and 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, I suggest, even banal, quotidian experiences of eating were conceived of as opportunities for spiritual illumination, precisely – and paradoxically – because of the fallenness of taste.
Chapter 4 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.
Chapter 5 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 ‘sexual revolution’ of the seventeenth century.
Poised between acclaim and infamy, the sacred and the profane, taste in the seventeenth century is an ‘Apish Art’. This book illuminates the pivotal role that this ambivalent sense played in the articulation and negotiation of early modern obsessions including the nature and value of empirical knowledge, the attainment of grace, and the moral status of erotic pleasure, attesting in the process to a very real contiguity between different ways of knowing – experimental, empirical, textual, and rational – in this period.