Alexander Cowan, Jill Steward, eds. The City and the Senses: Urban Culture since 1500. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. 245 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-0514-0.
Reviewed by Peter Clark (University of Helsinki)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2007)
This is an interesting and important book on a hitherto rather neglected subject: the interaction between the European city and bodily sensations--those of sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. The editorial introduction offers both a useful theoretical survey and an overview of trends from the Renaissance onwards, stressing how in both the early modern and modern city "the history of the senses was bound up with their material and cultural development" (p. 11). A raft of lively and informative studies follows.
Jo Wheeler examines the growing concern with stench in sixteenth-century Venice linked to the fear of plague and describes how the Republic tried to organize a permanent control machinery to deal with the problem. Action was taken against polluting industries (moved to the periphery) and stinking beggars and vagrants (expelled from the city), while the Grand Canal was dredged and filth and waste transported away. All in vain: plague returned in the 1570s with devastating mortality. Using cases of lower class women trying to marry into the Venetian patriciate, Alex Cowan analyzes attitudes towards social distinction, cleanliness, and work, particularly the gradations between blue- and white-collar trades.
Taking early modern London as her subject, Laura Wright explores the variety of tongues and accents heard in early modern London--surprisingly no mention is made of cockney. London's great rival at this time, Paris, is considered by Ulf Strohmayer whose subject is the Pont Neuf completed in 1604, which was the first wholly paved bridge in the city and part of a new planned infrastructure for the capital. Ava Arndt takes us to London in the Georgian era and stresses the evolution of a new genre of fiction: novels, newspapers, magazines, and books that recount the tactile experience of artefacts, such as coins, coats, coaches, and the like, in the metropolis--works that illuminate the unseen mechanics of urban life. In an excellent piece David Inglis uses the rise of sewer systems in nineteenth-century cities to look at changing attitudes towards public defecation and urination. Here perhaps more could have been said about national variations, and how Dutch and English citizens pioneered a new perception of dirt from the seventeenth century.
More studies of the social history of alcohol are badly needed. Kim Carpenter presents a good study of beer consumption in mid-nineteenth-century Münich, where she estimates 40,000 people relied on beer and bread for their main nutrition and where (as elsewhere) taverns were major social centers. Hazel Hahn emphasizes the importance of advertising (posters, banners, billboards, camels, street traders, sandwichboards, and eccentrics!) and the culture of consumption on the Parisian Grand Boulevards from the 1860s, creating a fantastical atmosphere that contributed to the French capital's reputation as a city of pleasure. Among the other chapters Janet Stewart considers the way that cuisine has been associated with Vienna's status as a modern metropolis, and Dorothy Rowe reports on the late nineteenth-century artist Lesser Ury and his depiction of Berlin's sights and sensations, including rain lashing the streets. Last but not least Rosemary Wakeman tells how the popular festivities at the Liberation of Paris in 1944 incorporated charivari and other traditional rituals as people used street theaters, parades, public ceremonies, spectacles, and ritual singing to retake the streets from the hated Nazi occupiers.
As will be evident, this is a book full of interesting ideas, insights, and reflections. It is rather slanted to big cities--did residents of small towns have different, more rustic sensations? Nothing is said about Northern cities with their very special seasonal sensations--of white nights in summer, or of freezing breath in winter's slippery streets. The experience of nature in the city might also have been worth a chapter. But editing is always the art of the possible and the editors, Alex Cowan and Jill Steward, are to be congratulated on producing an excellent, pioneering work.
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Peter Clark. Review of Cowan, Alexander; Steward, Jill, eds., The City and the Senses: Urban Culture since 1500.
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