Academic journal article Magistra

The Anchoress and the Heart's Nose: The Importance of Smell to Medieval Women Religious

Academic journal article Magistra

The Anchoress and the Heart's Nose: The Importance of Smell to Medieval Women Religious

Article excerpt

The sense of smell is an undervalued sense, but it plays an important role in daily life. Smell is strongly linked with memories and emotion. A usually pleasant fragrance could be considered foul by someone who associates it with a bad memory. Conversely, a normally malodorous stench can seem pleasant if associated with pleasant memories. Research even shows that family members can identify each other's scents out of an assortment of other people's odors.1 These are human universal, but the sense of smell is also interpreted differently across cultures. Cultures assign meaning to smells "as a means of and model for defining and interacting with the world."2 More than the modem West, medieval Europe gave the sense of smell cultural meaning.

In the Middle Ages, all five senses were known to be the conduits through which humans interacted with the world. Medieval authors ranked them according to prestige and perceived utility, following ancient writers and Church Fathers including Aristotle, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Most commonly, the senses were graded from the distinctively human to the most animalistic or according to their ability to convey truth. Sight was given pride of place. Next were hearing and taste, while touch was usually at the bottom of the list. The ability to smell was in the middle, sometimes grouped with the "higher" senses of sight and hearing and other times with the "lower" senses of taste and touch.3 The sense of smell was not as frequently explicated as the other senses, particularly the senses of sight and hearing. In fact, smell is often closely linked with taste. However, the medieval world was full of smells. Both the cities and the rural areas were marked by the distinctive smells of humanity and its various industries, including farming, animal husbandry, cooking, spice-selling, butchery, and tanning.4

Like the rest of life, religion was a sensed experience. Religious authorities wrote about a spiritual hierarchy of the senses that mimicked the worldly hierarchy, influenced particularly by Augustine.5 On a physical level, the atmosphere of the church was consciously manipulated in order to provoke religious feelings in the faithful. Medieval churches were characterized by brilliantly painted art objects, stained glass, the sound of music and Latin, the smell of incense, and the taste of the Eucharist. The five senses were a vital part of medieval Christianity as well as of everyday life and, if the senses were important to the laity's understanding of themselves, God, and the world, they were even more vital to those who devoted thenlives to Christ. The author of the thirteenth-century Middle English Ancrene Wisse recognizes the significance of the senses in his guide for a community of English anchoresses:

The heart's guardians are the five senses: sight, and hearing, and tasting, and smelling, and each limb's feeling. And we shall speak of all, for whoso guards these well, he does Solomon's bidding: he guards well his heart and the health of his soul.6

The author of the Ancrene Wisse repeatedly emphasizes that the senses are the paths through which the world, the devil, or God may enter into a person and either corrupt or sanctify her. He recognizes that, no matter how enclosed a woman of religion may be in theory, her senses are still a connection to the world and an avenue of vulnerability.

Women religious in medieval Europe were as connected to the world of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell as any other woman or man during the Middle Ages. In fact, they were supposed to be more connected to the realm of the spiritual senses than ordinary people. Both the physical and the spiritual senses were commonly described as gateways that needed to be protected from the ingress of evil or opened to the message of God.7 Women were thought to be especially open to the influences of good and evil spirits, which tended to enter the body through those gates.8 Women's senses, then, were especially sensitive religious tools. …

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