What the Nose Knew: Renaissance Theologies of Smell

  • Sophie Read
Part of the Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern Literature book series (CKEML, volume 1)


From the earliest times, and well into the Renaissance, the sense of smell was seen as an index of truth, irresistibly revelatory of the essence of things; it was thought to bypass cognitive processes, and register its wordless impressions directly on the brain. There was danger as well as enlightenment, of course, in this unmediated sensory pathway to knowledge: danger of infection from evil smells, of seduction from sweet ones. But despite its potential hazards, smell remained an important mode of theological understanding: it allowed the apprehension of divine intelligence though the created world, and offered a way of knowing things that might be immediate, transcendent, devout. This chapter explores some of the beliefs surrounding smell in early modern religious contexts, their origins, and the uses to which they were put by poets and other writers seeking a trope for the experience of communion with the divine.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sophie Read
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of EnglishUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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