Imagining Central Paris of the Middle Ages: A comment on bells and the medieval soundscape

If only one could time travel – the sensory experience of Paris of the middle ages would be interesting to have, but as a 21st century being. This little advertisement for a DVD tour through Paris of the middle ages had to serve as the next best thing to a time machine, it offers a useful tool to begin to imagine how Paris could have been experienced, through the senses, at the time.

In terms of trying to determine the sounds of the time, it seems especially important to be attentive to the church bells of Notre Dame that was one of the more key, distinguishing landmarks – if this imagined representation is anything to go by;

In an era where there was no recorded sound,  the bells offered a consistent sound effect to scenes of daily city life: a  sound of a predictable quality and tenor. This predictable sound stands in strong contrast to our world where several programmed sounds form part of our city soundscapes. In addition to the programmed sounds that we may carry with us to create our own auditory experiences of the city – iPods, our phones and so forth – the city’s sounds are  more organic, varied.

The bells of notre dame were also tied to the broader rhythm of life of the medieval city: Sound was intricately tied to a sense of time and the cycles that shaped the day.  Today,  artificial sound (arguably) plays less of a functional role, and is predominantly linked to entertainment and noise pollution.

And, of course, there is a much wider democratization of sound experience of the city, we all beat to different drums in today’s city and have more tools to define, cancel and customize how we experience sound as we go about our days.

The short video in French also gives an interesting tool to  visualize the interaction of the city with other senses –  the city’s color scheme that has since changed to a large degree and perhaps the sense of touch ( the building materials used seem to suggest a particular tactile experience, quite different from todays sleeker experience of touching steel and other smoother surface).

And, there is of course, the opportunity to try to imagine the smells of the age: the smell of grass, sand, the building material.

However, as one imagines these different dimensions of sensory experience, it is also worth thinking about whether the senses at the time were actually socially and otherwise conditioned. To what degree did ideas of ‘smooth touch’, ‘good smells’, ‘beautiful colors’, ‘pleasant sounds’ and ‘noise’ depend on socially determined meanings.

This is perhaps why a time machine is of the essence because experiencing Paris of the middle ages would be a much more interesting experience for a 21st  century person –  our senses are most definitely very much differently conditioned.