The best books on multisensory history

Why am I passionate about this?

My passion for ancient history and archaeology began in secondary school when I started learning Latin and we were taken on a field trip to Fishbourne Roman Palace. By the time I started my MA at Bristol, my obsession with ancient Roman housing was well and truly established, and it quickly became clear to me that this was the area that I wanted to study for my PhD. Now as an Associate Professor in Ancient History and Archaeology at Royal Holloway, University of London, I have been very lucky to study and teach a range of areas in ancient history and archaeology, including my beloved area of the Roman domestic realm. 

I wrote...

Multisensory Living in Ancient Rome: Power and Space in Roman Houses

By Hannah Platts,

Book cover of Multisensory Living in Ancient Rome: Power and Space in Roman Houses

What is my book about?

People have long wondered what life was like in the ancient Roman house. How, for example, did slaves, inhabitants, or visitors experience the same dwelling differently from each other? And how did an owner manipulate the spaces of their home to display their status to others? To answer these questions, this book draws on written and archaeological evidence to explore the sounds, smells, tastes, sights, and other bodily experiences to be had in the houses of ancient Rome. Moving between non-elite urban residences to lavish country villas, each chapter takes the reader on a journey into the Roman house room by room, considering the reasons, emotions, and cultural factors behind the perception, recording, and control of bodily experience in ancient Roman dwellings. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Sensory History Manifesto

Hannah Platts Why did I love this book?

Historian Mark Smith has written widely on the topic of understanding sensory experiences of the past.

At just over 100 pages long, his most recent book is an excellent insight into the field for both those new to it, and those who are already familiar with writing history of the senses.

Starting with an overview of the origins of sensory history and moving through to consider both the strengths and challenges of current research in this area, Smith concludes this book with a clear, accessible, and persuasive argument for future directions of work in the field.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in exploring sensory history!

By Mark M. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Sensory History Manifesto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Sensory History Manifesto is a brief and timely meditation on the state of the field. It invites historians who are unfamiliar with sensory history to adopt some of its insights and practices, and it urges current practitioners to think in new ways about writing histories of the senses.

Starting from the premise that the sensorium is a historical formation, Mark M. Smith traces the origins of historical work on the senses long before the emergence of the field now called "sensory history," interrogating, exploring, and in some cases recovering pioneering work on the topic. Smith argues that we are…

Book cover of Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect

Hannah Platts Why did I love this book?

Hamilakis’s Archaeology and the Senses was one of the first books I read when starting to explore multisensory history, and it totally altered my view of how we study the past.

Focusing on Bronze-Age Crete, Hamilakis examines how archaeology has engaged with the bodily senses thus far and critiques its emphasis on sight and the traditional hierarchy of the five senses in the west.

Moreover, he proposes an innovative and exciting means by which archaeology can move beyond its focus on visual experiences of artefacts, environments, and materials to bring in lost and neglected, yet just as important, bodily senses such as sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Through this approach to archaeology he seeks to evoke a deeper, richer insight into the breadth of human experience in past societies.

By Yannis Hamilakis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Archaeology and the Senses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is an exciting new look at how archaeology has dealt with the bodily senses and offers an argument for how the discipline can offer a richer glimpse into the human sensory experience. Yannis Hamilakis shows how, despite its intensely physical engagement with the material traces of the past, archaeology has mostly neglected multi-sensory experience, instead prioritising isolated vision and relying on the Western hierarchy of the five senses. In place of this limited view of experience, Hamilakis proposes a sensorial archaeology that can unearth the lost, suppressed, and forgotten sensory and affective modalities of humans. Using Bronze Age…

Book cover of The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses

Hannah Platts Why did I love this book?

Exploring how and why Romans built their houses to impact all bodily senses sits at the heart of my book.

Whilst interest in planning and building for such full body experiences in architecture today has declined, Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin presents a compelling argument for the importance of understanding the role of the multiple bodily senses in our experience of built spaces around us.

Divided into two main sections, the first of these examines the pre-eminence of sight in the West and its detrimental impact on architectural practise and our built environs.

The second part considers the role played our other bodily senses in experiencing architecture and proposes a new approach to building design and construction which seeks to integrate full sensory experience into the architectural process.

By Juhani Pallasmaa,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Eyes of the Skin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1996, The Eyes of the Skin has become a classic of architectural theory. For every new intake of students studying Pallasmaa s classic text, The Eyes of the Skin provides a totally fresh understanding of architecture and a new set of insights. This third edition is intended to meet students desire for a further understanding of the context of Pallasmaa s thinking by providing a new essay by architectural author and educator Peter MacKeith. This text combines both a biographical portrait of Pallasmaa and an outline of his architectural thinking. The new edition will includes a new…

Book cover of Perfume

Hannah Platts Why did I love this book?

As a fan of historical novels, I love when past worlds open up through colourful and evocative descriptions.

Although a work of fiction, not a historical text, reading Perfume helped me think differently about arguably the most ephemeral and complex sense – smell.

Set in the sensorially rich world of eighteenth-century France, the story follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born with a sense of smell so extraordinary he can differentiate between a range of odours far greater than anyone else.

Whilst at times a gift, his ability leads him into the realms of obsession and murder in an attempt to own and recreate particular, yet fleeting, scents.

This novel is a great starting place for opening up the transient world of smell and its emotional impacts on people.

By Patrick Suskind,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Perfume as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An erotic masterpiece of twentieth century fiction - a tale of sensual obsession and bloodlust in eighteenth century Paris

'An astonishing tour de force both in concept and execution' Guardian

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today.

It is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts…

Book cover of The Foul & the Fragrant: Odor & the French Social Imagination

Hannah Platts Why did I love this book?

In The Foul and the Fragrant, Corbin offers an extraordinary historical examination of the experience and perception of smell in France from the mid-18th century to the end of the 19th century.

Drawing on diverse disciplines from architectural studies and the history of medicine to literary criticism, this book does not merely recount the array of pungent odours from past societies - although the colour with which it depicts the many fetid, sometimes glorious odours of historic France are eye-opening when compared with the relatively deodorised world we inhabit today.

Rather it examines the crucial role of smell in understanding health and disease before Pasteur’s development of germ theory. 

This pioneering work is a must for anyone wanting to learn more about the role and significance of scent in past societies.

By Alain Corbin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Foul & the Fragrant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a book whose insight and originality have already had a dazzling impact in France, Alain Corbin has put the sense of smell on the historical map. He conjures up the dominion that the combined forces of smells--from the seductress's civet to the ubiquitous excremental odors of city cesspools--exercised over the lives (and deaths) of the French in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

You might also like...

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

Marcia Calhoun Forecki Author Of Blood of the White Bear

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History hound Polyglot Bookworm Neatness averse Yoga beginner

Marcia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette sees visions of a Kachina and remembers the plane crash that killed her parents and the Dine medicine woman who saved her life. Rachel is investigating a new and lethal hantavirus spreading through the Four Corners, and believes the Kachina is calling her to join the work against the spreading pandemic.

She finds Eva Yellow Horn, a medicine woman with the key to fighting the pandemic. When Eva demonstrates ancient healing powers beyond science, Rachel recognizes her as the medicine woman who saved her life years before. Eva reveals that Rachel’s father was investigating the 1979 nuclear disaster in Church Rock, when his plane crashed, killing her parents. Now, Rachel undertakes a new investigation, but she is not alone.

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

What is this book about?

“Visions of kachinas guide doctor to spiritual healing in pandemic.”

2014 Finalist in the Willa Literary Award

This is a book that once closed and last line read, my mind wandered to explore certain character motivations and potential follow-up responses. I don’t think an author has to answer every possibility, art comes into play best when the reader’s own imagination can wander within the story.

Dr. Rachel Bisette is drawn to the Four Corners to lead the search for a vaccine against a lethal pandemic. One elusive indigenous woman, Eva Yellow Horn, carries the gift of immunity. In her search…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the senses, France, and murder?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the senses, France, and murder.

The Senses Explore 23 books about the senses
France Explore 894 books about France
Murder Explore 941 books about murder