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Matthew Milner, The Senses and the English Reformation. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6642-4. Xiv+407pp. Hbk. £70.

Reviewed by Stuart Clark

[1]  This is a bold and ambitious book which raises fundamental questions about the theory and practice of religious worship on either side of the English Reformation. Matthew Milner’s challenge to Reformation historians is to ask the simple but telling question: how can we go on endlessly comparing how religion was experienced before and after the Reformation without knowing how experience itself was then thought to be constructed, in both psychological and physiological terms? Specifically, how can we contrast the so-called ‘sensuality’ of late medieval piety with its supposedly more austere, internalized, and intellectual Protestant counterpart unless we pay close attention to how the human sensorium was deemed to operate at this historical juncture? Generations of students have been encouraged to make generalisations like this (despite their inherently ‘protestant’ nature), whereas what is really needed is for the well-established literature on the English Reformation to be brought into contact with the newly-established history of the senses. This is what the book seeks to achieve, dislodging the generalisations in the process. Since this means acknowledging the extent to which Protestantism was itself dependent both on sensual experience and also the same underlying assumptions that made that experience affective in nature, the book also contributes to the theme of continuity in early modern English religious life that is currently so strong among historians.

[2]  Its structure is binary, divided between four chapters examining the senses and liturgical life in the century or so before the Henrician period and four taking the same themes forward into Elizabethan England. The full, familiar range of provisions and practices is considered and all the usual facets of religious debate and controversy – about sacraments and sacramentals, offices, preaching, prayer, scripture, music, and vestments, and doctrines like those of grace and justification. More to the point in a study with these aims, the full, synaesthetic range of the senses is also brought to bear; this is not one of those studies where sight dominates the analysis. The combination of the two can be striking, as in the discussions of the multi-sensory mechanics of exorcism or the aural ‘heat’ attached to preaching. But the heart of the argument lies in a chapter that one would never normally find in a book on the English Reformation – a chapter about how late medieval theology and philosophy, largely Aristotelian in character, theorized the senses, sensation, and cognition in general. Critically, the theorists themselves seem to have been unclear about the parameters between the materiality of the sensing soul and the immateriality of the intellective soul, with the consequence that the physiological aspects of sensation – what it did to you, rather than what it meant – predominated in cognitive theory throughout the sixteenth century (and in fact, beyond it). Human knowledge and experience remained, in this sense, embodied. Good sensing ‘literally shaped believers’, says Milner, moving them physiologically towards godliness (53); bad sensing, especially sensing that was demonically contaminated, brought sin and harm. Sensation had therefore to be ‘governed’ – managed as closely as possible to maintain sensory propriety.

[3]  The book’s overall argument (defended in detail in a way impossible to summarise here) is that this need for sensory regimes was constant throughout the sixteenth century, even after the objects of religious sensing were changed by reformers. What they saw was a pressing need to replace the bad things that had entered English senses with good ones, which would then do good things to the recipients. More important still, because instrumentality remained a constant principle –even with things like language – we should not assume that meaning and comprehension were always the new priorities. Words, speech, and music could continue to be ‘transient sensory objects first’ and ‘elements of discourse, language and meaning second’ (133). Needless to say, this casts the traditional historiographical emphasis on Protestantism as a religion of the word and of ‘intellection’ in a completely different light – as it does views about the lack of comprehension in late medieval piety. The book’s most valuable sections illustrate this argument by looking closely at such things as (to give a few examples) Eucharistic practice, Cranmer’s description of scripture as ‘the most holy relic that remaineth’, and Elizabethan arguments about hearing preaching and saying prayer. But the entire book is suffused with insights that can only arise if we set aside our own, almost-automatic assumptions about sensation and cognition and remember that those that pertained before Descartes were very different and produced religious beliefs that could yield, to us, unexpected practices.

[4]  There are two reservations to be made about what is otherwise a thoroughly absorbing and challenging study. One concerns the way in which the argument, inevitably perhaps, is constructed almost entirely from what might be called formalisations of religious life – theories, proposals, recommendations, guides, and polemics about what should and should not happen in the sensing of religion. ‘Experience’ is one of the central categories of the argument, and ‘actual experience’ and ‘everyday life’ are mentioned more than once. But we are rarely if ever faced with how religion was (in report at least) actually sensed by the men and women who inhabited Tudor England. As if to admit this, even an ordinary Englishwoman who does appear (1), talking to her ‘gossip’ about the disappearance of the old sights and sounds, is, Milner explains, an invention from a homily. One is inclined to wonder, therefore: are there really no personal testimonies about these matters to tell us what seeing, hearing, smelling, and so on, felt like in a culture where affective sensation was so prevalent?

[5]  The other reservation amounts to a blunt criticism. This is a book about complex matters, written about in a sometimes demanding and not altogether clear way. The exposition is frustratingly dense in places. But the copy editing by publisher and/or author is so bad that many, many sentences remain that are ungrammatical or where words have been omitted, making their sense irretrievable. In one case the sense is ludicrously reversed (90). This is a pity in a book whose contents are mostly fresh and thought-provoking.

Swansea University, March 2012