Projekt: Sensory Communities

Sensory Communities: Perception, Order, and Community Building in the Early Modern Town, ca. 1480-1880

Philip Hahn

The timeframe of this book project is deliberately broad and proposes an over-long early modern period. Spatially, it is the opposite, as it offers a case study on Ulm, a middle-sized free imperial city (until 1802/03) on the river Danube. The goal of this study is to uncover long-term transformations and short-term changes in the meaning and function of sense perception in urban society over 400 years. While it is meant principally as a contribution to urban history, the book will also relate to research in the history of natural science and medicine, environmental history, the history of religiosity and confessionalization, and the cultural history of politics.


A case study on Ulm can, of course, only claim to be representative of other towns in a very limited sense. This town has been chosen for a number of reasons. Firstly, urban sensory history is still dominated by research on big cities like London, Paris, Milan, or Berlin. Secondly, Ulm did not have any of the particular features like a seaport, a princely residence, or a university, except for its free imperial status (possessed by 51 German towns before 1802). Due to this status, however, the town’s self-administration could act independently, hence the local politics of the senses was largely home-made, too. Furthermore, Ulm’s civic authorities ruled over a territory containing three smaller towns and more than fifty villages. It is therefore also possible to take sensible differences between town and countryside into account. The chosen timeframe cuts across two of the major events in Ulm’s history, the introduction of the Reformation in 1531 and the loss of the imperial status. Finally, Ulm's municipal archive and library house a wealth of material relevant for the purpose of this study.

The point of departure of the book’s argument are the 500-year celebrations of the foundation of Ulm Minster in 1877, when lavish shows and processions were staged in which local people and visitors tried to re-enact and re-feel their urban past. Obviously such events, which appealed to the senses, were regarded as central to urban community formation. Yet, the re-enactment of 1877 was different from traditional, early modern civic festivities. The re-enactors and spectators were cut off from the sensory world of their ancestors from the 14th to 18th centuries, but how exactly? Why do the re-enactors seem nearer to us, ‘modern’ as distinct from their ‘pre-modern’ ancestors, even though they lived in a town that looked, sounded, and smelled pretty much like in previous centuries? An answer can be found in the long-term history of the local urban ‘sensescape’, i.e. the ensemble of potential sensory stimuli, individual perceptions, social practices, and sensory policies or regimes. The cohesion of the premodern urban community depended no less on the formation of the senses, but it did so in different ways.

The book pursues this history in four parts. Part I (‘Townscapes and Sensescapes') traces continuities and changes in the image of Ulm. Combining the viewpoints of inhabitants, foreign visitors, and the impressions that travellers from Ulm brought back from other cities, it reconstructs stereotypes, habituated perceptions, and the astonishment in the face of the unaccustomed. Part II (‘Perceiving Danger’) looks at situations in which habituated modes of perception were challenged by threats which were associated with danger for the entire urban community, namely, unusual appearances in the sky above the town, alarming sounds, and disconcerting smells. Parts III and IV then analyse the ambivalent role of the senses in community building between distinction and segregation on the one hand, and efforts to unite the town’s population by aligning perception towards common goals. While part III concentrates on the ways in which distinct styles or sub-cultures of sensing were formed by estate, gender, or age-specific modes of habituation of the senses, part IV focuses on those practices that also relied on hierarchy and the exclusion of others, but were nonetheless aimed at uniting the majority of inhabitants, like public corporal punishments, civic festivals, and religious rituals in the parish community.

The changed meaning of the huge Minster church for the town’s identity during the process of its completion in the late 19th century leads back to the beginning. The generation who witnessed the erection of the world’s highest church tower was a sensory community which differed from earlier generations in many ways. Yet, the urban ‘sensescape’ of their time was a complex texture in which new sensory impressions were interwoven with many threads reaching back to different layers in the long sensory history of the town.

Selected publications

Philip Hahn, African Gowns and Turkish Buttons: Global Horizons of Material Expertise in a German Town, in: German History 42 (2024) [Link to online advance access]

Philip Hahn, The Emperor's Boot: Perceiving Public Rituals in the Urban Reformation, in: German History 35 (2017), H. 3, S. 362–380. [zum Text]