Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.34

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Margaret Mullett (ed.), Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls: Sense Perceptions in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine symposia and colloquia.   Washington, DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2017.  Pp. xi, 330.  ISBN 9780884024217.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Foteini Spingou, University of Oxford; University of Edinburgh (

Table of Contents

The study of the senses has much been developed in classical and medieval studies. This book is one of the first attempts to approach the Byzantine sensorium. A collaborative endeavour, it taps onto the different expertise of the scholars invited to contribute. The result is a melodic synthesis that makes modern readers question their senses and perceptions of the surrounding world.

The introduction, penned by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and Margaret Mullett, does precisely what it is supposed to do: it introduces the reader to the challenges and appeals of the study of senses within the context of a premodern culture. The rest of the sixteen contributions to the book are divided into six sections: the first five correspond to the five senses, the last one allows synthesis by exploring different types of sensoria.

“Sight” is explored by Glenn Peers and Martina Bagnoli. Peers relates the question of sense to that of objects and persons of different ontologies, and looks at the possibilities of the icon as an independent object, able to react and feel. As he confesses, this attempt is “an informed guesswork” (p. 23)—nevertheless intriguing for the informed reader. The contribution by Martina Bagnoli is a treat for Byzantinists as it brings the discussion to the late Middle Ages. Bagnoli focuses on the impact on sense perception of the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West and the emphasis on the bodily nature of Christ.

“Hearing” includes three contributions. Amy Papalexandrou emphasizes the centrality of hearing in Byzantine culture, finding that its physiology of the ear is the same as ours. She explores that aspects in three texts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries: the famous account by Eustathios of Thessaloniki of the capture of the city by the Normans (1185); a little-known text by Theodore Balsamon on the semantron; and the treatise of Michael Psellos on the Echeion (Echo Chamber) at Nicomedia. A translation of the last two texts is offered at the end of the chapter. Spyridon Antonopoulos searches for the “Byzantine ear” and throws rare light on Byzantine Psalmody, allowing the non-expert to approach a highly technical area of study. Antonopoulos’ article explores “a new species of highly personalized chant” called “kalophonia,” and the phenomena related to it: the development of a new notational technology, the introduction of new compositional devices, and the role of self-consciously authorial composers (intriguingly called poiētai) after the thirteenth century. Kim Haines-Eitzen brings us back to late antiquity and the exploration of a different phenomenon, that of silence (or hesychia). She explores it by using recordings of the Negev and Judean desert silence and looking at texts (such as the life of Saint Antony) that react to sound. The audio files accompanying the contributions by Antonopoulos and Haines-Eitzen can be found in the volume’s website.

The section of the book on “Smell” begins with an example from Al-Andalus. D. Fairchild Ruggles highlights the Islamic garden as a rich multisensory environment and brings forward the idea of a smell informed by the tensions of the era (like Baxandall’s period eye). For Ruggles, memory activates smell, while for Felipe Rojas and Valeria Sergueenkova, who wrote the following contribution, smell triggers memory and result in historical reflection. The examples discussed by Rojas and Sergueenkova come mainly from ancient Greece, with some references to parallels from a vaguely defined pre-modern Greece (including Byzantine and Ottoman Athens). Susan Ashbrook Harvey explores the symbolism of the Holy Oil, that is, fragrant oil with qualities related to the divine (mainly therapeutic, ritual, and devotional). She offers an overview from an impressive variety of sources extending from the fourth to fourteenth centuries and notes continuities and changes in its symbolism.

“Taste” is about the Eucharist and the early monastic table. Thomas Arentzen explores the Eucharist as a “gustatory event,” scrutinizing the songs of Romanos the Melode. Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom searches for the archaeology of taste in early monastic communities by focusing on two particular dishes, bread and salted fish. She looks at examples from the Egyptian desert and brings together texts, archaeology, and observation of modern practices with a long tradition.

“Touch” is related to piety, pain, and erotic sensation. Béatrice Caseau distinguishes touch from other senses as “it is both felt and produced.” The reader will find here an overview of forms of “tactile piety,” and a supplement on subjects discussed in earlier contributions, such as a response based on Byzantine realities on the importance of the bodily nature of Christ for sense perception and the emergence of the phenomenon of the myroblete saints (saints associated with the emission of fragrant oil, considered holy). Galina Tiranić is concerned with public punishment and the importance of making the pain of the condemned openly visible. Tiranić’s article finishes with a simile comparing the emperor to a doctor who inflicts pain in order to cure the body of the empire. Ingela Nilsson’s chapter is an overview of the erotic touch as it appears mainly in twelfth-century texts, with particular emphasis on sensory imagery in romances. She discusses eye-catching references to male and female orgasm, the importance of sense mingling in erotic scenes, and the ambiguous interpretation of the erotic touch.

The last section of the volume is about two types of sensoria, the rhetorical one and the spiritual one. One would have expected that a contribution by Ruth Webb—an eminent scholar of Byzantine ekphrasis—would have found a place in the section about sight. Webb, in her discussion of texts from the fourth to the ninth century, proves that the ekphrasis is not simply about seeing, but also about sensing, and she explores how words create illusions of sensations and the nature and quality of the resulting experience. Laura Suzanne Lieber’ contribution is about the rhetorical sensorium in late antique Jewish poetic texts and its activation through performances of seduction, fantasy, and magic. The two appendices of her article include the most useful translation of the central texts in her discussion: Yannai’s hymn on Numbers 5, “The suspected adulteress,” and Eleazar berabbi Qallir, “The power of Dew.” Marcus Plested explores the spiritual sensorium by offering an overview of related accounts in ascetic and mystical texts from the fourth to the fourteenth century. The name of Symeon the New Theologian appears for the first time in Plested's contribution—this is unfortunate given that Symeon's work is rich in references to Byzantine senses. Little can be criticized in this elegant volume. The division in sections is undoubtedly stimulating and makes the rich material manageable; nonetheless, it remains artificial. For example, the first section, “Sight,” has only little to do with sight. The section concerns the general topic of the senses. Most of the subsequent sections refer to the full palette of human senses. Furthermore, one may have expected some more traditional approaches to senses. The absence of any discussion relating to ekphrasis in most noticeable in the section on “sight.” The section on “hearing” would have had benefited from a discussion of prose rhythm and the multisensory experience of performance. Byzantine recipes in the section on “Taste” would have given a rare glimpse to the world of those people, who are rarely represented in the rhetorical texts.

The book moves the discussion of the senses in the direction of the broader context of the “European and West-Asian” Middle Ages. Although I have been in the past (and remain) a strong advocate of studying Byzantine phenomena in the broader context of the pre-modern world, I wonder if this is possible for a domain that remains so heavily unexplored. This results in an evident weakness in the volume: the discussion of examples from other cultures rarely crosses cultural lines and thus remains unintegrated in a volume discussing senses in Byzantium in particular. Indeed, the expression of sensing existed in other cultures, but how did this relate to those from late antiquity and Byzantium? For example, the informed reader can start drawing parallels to the phenomena discussed by Bagnoli in ch. 1; however, these parallels (and differences) will not be evident to everyone. The chapter is loosely connected to Byzantium and so stands alone in a volume devoted to “sense perceptions in Byzantium.”

The lack of dialogue between articles and contributors is also evident in the more Byzantine contributions. For example, it would have been interesting to note how the hesychia of the late antique desert is related to the hesychia of the Holy Mountain and Thessaloniki at the time of the emergence of calophonia. One might also expect a more extensive discussion of the senses’ twin subject-matte, that of emotions. Only Caseau directly discusses the emotions created by senses, while implications to the topic also exist in other contributions.

As a philologist, I also cannot avoid noting the lack of a system in quoting texts in their original language. The omission of the original text is particularly problematic in the text-based contributions. Each translation involves a degree of interpretation and the absence of the original text does not allow the reader to react to the views of the modern scholar. This shortcoming is for example particularly evident in the contribution by Amy Papalexandrou, where the text is central for the discussion, but, to the reader's disappointment, it is quoted only in English translation.

The book results from a stimulating Spring Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, April 25–27, 2014.

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