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The Sensational Past

How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses


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Sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch—as they were celebrated during the Enlightenment and as they are perceived today.

Blindfolding children from birth. Playing a piano made of live cats. Using tobacco to cure drowning. Wearing "flea"-coloured clothes. These actions seem odd to us but in the eighteenth century they made sense.

As Carolyn Purnell persuasively shows, while our bodies may not change dramatically, the way we think about the senses and put them to use has been rather different over the ages. Journeying through the past three hundred years, Purnell explores how people used their senses in ways that might shock now. Using culinary history, fashion, medicine, music and many other aspects of Enlightenment life, she demonstrates that, even though we may be human, over time we have used our senses in very different ways. In this clever, witty work, Purnell reminds us of the value of daily life and the power of the smallest aspects of existence.


“Carolyn Purnell marshals a delicious cornucopia of facts, anecdotes and ideas into a serious argument...” — The Tablet