Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture

Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture

Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture

Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture


This ground-breaking interdisciplinary collection explores the complex, ambiguous, and contradictory sense of touch in early modern culture. If touch is the sense that mediates between the body of the subject and the world, these essays make apparent the frequently disregarded lexicons of tactility that lie behind and beneath early modern discursive constructions of eroticism, knowledge, and art. For the early moderns, touch was the earliest and most fundamental sense. Frequently aligned with bodily pleasure and sensuality, it was suspect; at the same time, it was associated with the authoritative disciplines of science and medicine, and even with religious knowledge and artistic creativity.

The unifying impulse of Sensible Flesh is both analytic and recuperative. It attempts to chart the important history of the sense of touch at a pivotal juncture and to understand how tactility has organized knowledge and defined human subjectivity. The contributors examine in theoretically sophisticated ways both the history of the hierarchical ordering of the senses and the philosophical and cultural consequences that derive from it.

The essays consider such topics as New World contact, the eroticism of Renaissance architecture, the Enclosure Acts in England, plague, the clitoris and anatomical authority, Pygmalion, and the language of tactility in early modern theater. In exploring the often repudiated or forgotten sense of touch, the essays insistently reveal both the world of sensation that subtends early modern culture and the corporeal foundations of language and subjectivity.


Elizabeth D. Harvey

Everything is given to us by means of touchy a mediation that is continuallny
LuceIrigaray “Divine Women” Sexes and Genealogies

Pain lays not its touch I Upon a corpse.
Aeschylus, Frag. 250.

Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last,
and it always tells the truth.
Margaret Atwood, the Blind Assassin

Touch occupies a complex, shifting, and sometimes contradictory position in the representation of the five senses in Western culture. Sometimes depicted as “the king of senses” it was equally likely to be disparaged as the basest sense. of the five senses, touch is the most diffuse and somatically dispersed, and because the organ associated with it—the skin or flesh—covers the whole body, it is closely associated with corporeality. Neoplatonic thought, for example, relegated touch (along with taste and smell) to the lower, more bodily senses. Indeed, the sense of touch perhaps most frequently evokes the erotic and seductive, and early modern depictions of the Five Senses sometimes portray Touch through lascivious or pornographic scenes. Yet tactility is also associated with authoritative scientific, medical, and even religious knowledge, and it often expresses in synecdochic form creative powers (the artist’s “touch”). Tactile contact is central to religious representation; it is evident in depictions that range from the Noli me tangere topos to doubting Thomas’s touching of Christ’s wounds to the figuration of religious healing, all of which signify the dialectic between materiality and resurrection, between physical and spiritual contamination or cure.

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