Since Monique and I launched this blog in September, I’ve wanted to feature a nun. As I wrote, revised and scrapped posts though, I realised that, despite a number of early modern Catholic nuns having characteristics that inspire me, many were also problematic figures. Some advocated crusading, others participated in aggressive missionisation among indigenous populations. In short, many were not people I feel comfortable labelling historical hotties. I’m sure that as I move forward in my research, I’ll learn about and feature some of the nuns I study. For now, I’m excited to post about an incredible, provocative historian of nuns: Nicky Hallett.
In 2013 Hallett published The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600-1800: Early Modern ‘Convents of Pleasure.’ For readers unfamiliar with sensory history, I believe this book will prove to be one of the genre’s great works. Early modern histories of the senses have tended to apply anachronistically present-day notions about the senses to the past. But Hallett avoids approaching the sensory experiences of nuns from present-day perspectives. Instead, she respects the priorities of her historical subjects where the senses were concerned.
Although the Teresian Carmelite nuns she studies meditated on senses such as smell in order move out of their bodies and closer to the divine, Hallett does not dismiss the ways they understood or experienced their senses as backward, incorrect or delusional. Instead, she presents the nuns’ practice of mastering their senses as a demonstration that both notions about and experiences of the senses are plural and mutable rather universal and fixed. Hallett points out that “secular philosophers necessarily have conceptualised smell from a human point of view.” By contrast, the nuns she studies used the senses in order to bring themselves nearer to God. By taking seriously the Teresian Carmelite discipline of mastering the senses, Hallet undermines the essentialist assumption that each sense has a true/natural mode of operation.
What’s most important about Hallett’s argument is that it does not perpetuate ideas that early modern people understood their senses incorrectly. Rather, she shows the plurality of valid ways of sensing, knowing and being. This isn’t just good news for students of history like myself who want to study the senses respectfully and meaningfully. It’s also an affirmation for those of us interested in challenging right now—today—assumptions that certain present-day cultures have more truthful ways of knowing and being in the world than others.
 Hallett, Nicky. The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600-1800 : Early Modern “Convents of Pleasure.” (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 164.
 Ibid., 162, 164.