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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Colloquium to explore the medieval senses

We divine what we believe is real through our senses -- taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing -- and a scientific understanding of how the world works. And as a rule, we trust our senses based on this empirical evidence.

But someone living in medieval Europe would be hard-pressed to buy into this concept.

Take the Eucharist, for example. Today's churchgoers are unlikely to believe that they are consuming the actual blood and flesh of Christ. They probably view it as a symbolic, rather than literal, act.

Not so in the Middle Ages. People then generally "believed that bread and wine could be the real substance of Christ's body and blood," said Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature in the departments of Comparative Literature and French and Italian. "After the transubstantiation, what is present and looks like bread is really Christ's body; and what looks like wine is really God's blood. For us, that's kind of weird. Now, for European medieval culture, this is as real as anything else."

Gumbrecht is organizing a three-day colloquium on "The Medieval Senses" from Thursday, Nov. 30, through Saturday, Dec. 2, in the Littlefield Center's Newhall Conference Room at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. The event will bring together roughly 30 eminent medievalists from around the world to ponder the role of the senses in various aspects of medieval culture and thought. For example, Yale's R. Howard Bloch will present "The Animal Appetites and the Senses"; Stanford's Jeffrey Schnapp will present "Sweat"; and Joachim Küpper of the Free University of Berlin will present "The Theological, the Philosophical, and the Medical Discourse on the Senses: Degrees of Congruence, Degrees of Divergence."

In the Middle Ages, trusting the senses amounted to trusting the church. People, for the most part, accepted the notion that God could intervene at any moment in the world, Gumbrecht said.

"I mean, a miracle was a miracle, and therefore exceptional, but a miracle was not outside normal expectations," Gumbrecht said. "What makes modernity, I think, is that our perception and belief in reality is based on individual, empirical -- and that means sensual -- experience. This is why what we call the sciences really only starts in the modernity. The medieval perception of the world, and the medieval belief in what was real and what was non-real, was much more predicated on divine guarantees."

The reliance on the Christian church as a source of rock-solid fact could result in some strange versions of history, Gumbrecht said.

For example, if there are five accounts of a battle, a responsible historian will use the one that is most likely to have occurred, he said. If one account tells of, say, a warrior who killed 100,000 people, the historian is likely to dismiss it as wild exaggeration.

But in the Middle Ages, what was true or untrue depended on the source ­ namely, the church.

"In other words, if it came from a Christian source, then it's true; if it came from an Islamic source, then it's untrue," Gumbrecht said.

In the "Song of Roland," a medieval French epic poem, God makes the sun stand still for eight hours, he said.

"For us, this would completely discredit this as a historical narrative," he said. "But not in the Middle Ages."

Similarly, our modern precept of trusting the senses wouldn't fit into a medieval worldview. God was responsible for what people saw, heard, felt, smelled, tasted -- essentially, for everything they experienced.

"So you don't trust the senses, because your senses can always be overpowered and overwhelmed," Gumbrecht said. "The bottom line is, I think, the very basic premises of world perception, world experience, world interpretation, are so radically different from ours that I think we are only beginning to grasp it."

For more information about the colloquium, which is free and open to the public, contact Margaret Tompkins at 723-1356 or


By John Sanford

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