From incense to idolatry: The reformation of olfaction in late medieval German ritual

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Abstract

This article builds on recent advances in sensory anthropology to examine the significance of smell in late medieval and early Reformation ritual. It argues that late medieval ritual reflected and reinforced the power of smell to affect senses of boundary demarcation and transition between bodies, the world, and the divine. By removing incense from their rituals, early Reformers challenged this paradigm, effectively desacralizing the sense of smell. In many everyday contexts, its traditional associations persisted, but for early Reformers, smell no longer mediated between the human and the divine. The argument is developed by establishing how smells were embedded in the late medieval mundane and religious contexts, and then by demonstrating how Reformers rejected certain aspects of this paradigm, while retaining others. It demonstrates this in theory and practice. By adopting the sense of smell as a category of analysis, this article deepens the understanding of Reformation ritual as something that interacted with bodies in all modalities of perception.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323-344
Number of pages22
JournalSixteenth Century Journal
Volume44
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2013

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