Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses, 1300-1800

Event Date: 
21 Jun 2013 to 22 Jun 2013


An International and Interdisciplinary Conference

Humanities Research Centre, University of York


Religion has always been characterised as much by embodied experience as by abstract theological dispute. From the sound of psalm singing, to the visual emblem of the crucifix, to the smell of incense and to the ascetic practices associated with monasticism; sensation is integral to a range of devotional behaviours. At the same time, the history of Christianity both before and after the Reformations is characterised by an intense suspicion of the pleasures of the bodily senses. Sensory scholarship offers fertile ground for the reconsideration of religious culture across both disciplinary and chronological boundaries. The wide timeframe of our conference reflects our intention to encourage dialogue which traverses and challenges the outdated stratifications of conventional periodization and encourages discussion throughout what might be termed the Long Global Renaissance. At the conference, speakers from several disciplines, including Art History, Philosophy, Musicology, History and English will address a range of topics relating to representations of embodied, experiential faith between 1300 and 1800. Key issues include: how iconography engages the non-visual senses; representations of the relative moral and spiritual values of the senses (i.e. sensory hierarchies); the role of the senses in defining collective religious identities; sensation and pious affect.

Keynote speakers and their topics:

Professor Chris Woolgar (Head of Special Collections, Department of History, University of Southampton): ‘Creating the Sacred: the senses, perception and material culture in the later Middle Ages.’

Dr Nicky Hallett (Senior Lecturer in the School of English, University of Sheffield): (Title tbc) The role of the senses in religious communities 1600-1800.

Dr Matt Milner (McGill University, Montreal): (Title tbc) Central to the discussion will be the role religious instruction and education - particularly in confessional, moral and devotional guides, alongside actual religious behaviour – played in shaping contemporary knowledge of the senses.

Dr Milner is also running a postgraduate workshop, which will focus on the interface between pre- and post-Cartesian theoretical discussions in scholarship on the senses.

There will be 60 papers given from established academics, junior scholars and postgraduate students around the world.

Please see our website for delegate registration information, confirmed speakers and much more:

General questions can be directed to the conference organizers – Emilie Murphy, Robin Macdonald and Elizabeth Swann at:


Generously supported by:

Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (

Society for Renaissance Studies

Humanities Research Centre (,

University of York History department (

Royal Historical Society (

Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies (

Journal of Early Modern History (