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Noli Me Tangere: Social Touch, Tactile Defensiveness, and Communication in Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Daniela smirni.

1 Department of Psychology, Educational Science and Human Movement, University of Palermo, 90128 Palermo, Italy; [email protected] (L.P.); [email protected] (M.R.)

Pietro Smirni

2 Department of Educational Sciences, University of Catania, 95124 Catania, Italy; ti.liamtoh@inrimsorteip

Marco Carotenuto

3 Clinic of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry, Department of Mental Health, Physical and Preventive Medicine, Università degli Studi della Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”, 81100 Caserta, Italy; [email protected]

Lucia Parisi

Giuseppe quatrosi.

4 Dipartimento Promozione della Salute, Materno-Infantile, di Medicina Interna e Specialistica di Eccellenza “G. D’Alessandro”, 90127 Palermo, Italy; [email protected]

Michele Roccella

Tactile defensiveness is a common feature in neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs). Since the first studies, tactile defensiveness has been described as the result of an abnormal response to sensory stimulation. Moreover, it has been studied how the tactile system is closely linked to socio-communicative development and how the interoceptive sensory system supports both a discriminating touch and an affective touch. Therefore, several neurophysiological studies have been conducted to investigate the neurobiological basis of the development and functioning of the tactile system for a better understanding of the tactile defensiveness behavior and the social touch of NDDs. Given the lack of recent literature on tactile defensiveness, the current study provides a brief overview of the original contributions on this research topic in children with NDDs focusing attention on how this behavior has been considered over the years in the clinical setting.

1. Introduction

‘Noli me tangere’ or ‘Don’t touch me’ could be the silent cry that many children with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) incessantly address to the world around them, with their nonverbal tactile defensive behaviors [ 1 ]. In this contest, the term ‘tactile defensiveness’ refers to an unusual avoidance–withdrawal response to non-threatening tactile stimuli or a hyperresponsivity to touch situations that most persons find non-noxious [ 2 ]. Such tactile defensiveness, in literature, has been generally felt in its epi-phenomenological dimension, as expression of an impairment in the processing of somatosensory information, assuming that the clinical sensory problems are due to perceptual deficits in processing tactile information [ 3 ]. One wonders, instead, if this cry cannot result from higher-level cognitive, emotional, and social factors and cannot be considered primarily as a compensatory attempt to communicate with the world, rather than the expression of damage to the system of basic recording and sensory modulation. In this perspective, the cognitive level is influenced in its modulation by autonomic and sensory systems [ 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 ].

Sensory processing abnormalities have been documented across all sensory modalities [ 8 , 9 ], and across all ages and levels of symptom severity [ 10 ] and often they may co-occur in the same individual [ 11 ]. However, while auditory and visual defensive behaviors have been sufficiently focused on for NDDs, perhaps due to the role of visual and auditory processing in verbal and non-verbal communication, the tactile defensive reactivity modality has been less studied, although abnormal touch responses are often described by parents in a wide variety of abnormal brain development (fragile X syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, cerebral palsy, early sensory deprivation) [ 1 , 8 , 12 , 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 ].

2. Aims and Methods

Tactile defensiveness had been an important study topic through the years. Given the lack of recent literature on this research topic, the aim of the current study is to collect an overview of the original articles reporting tactile defensiveness in children with NDDs and highlight how this behavior has been considered over the years in the clinical setting. A further aim of this study is to discuss the role of the tactile system in developmental socio-communicative dynamics. For this purpose, almost a hundred articles of the last ten years have been revised following the search criteria through keywords such as: neurodevelopmental disorders, intellectual developmental disorder, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, tactile defensiveness, tactile discrimination, social touch, sensory stimulation, sensory reactivity. Studies were identified through electronic database searching in Medline (Ovid, 1946 to present), PsycINFO (Ovid, 1806 to present), EMBASE (Ovid), and adapted for Scopus (Elsevier), ERIC (Proquest), PubMed, Web of Science (ISI), and Cochrane Library. The final database search was run on the 1 September 2019.

3. Discussion

According to the American Psychiatric Association [ 17 ], such neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder), communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorder, and motor disorders. Abnormal response to sensory stimulations represents a common behavior in NDDs. Kanner and Asperger included altered sensitivity to external sensory stimuli as a characteristic feature of ASD [ 18 , 19 ]. These sensory symptoms are so widespread that recently ‘hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment’ has been added to the diagnostic criteria of ASD in the DSM-5 [ 17 ].

Three patterns of altered sensory reactivity have been identified [ 2 ]:

  • Hyper-responsiveness to common environmental stimuli. Hyper-responsive individuals respond to low-intensity stimuli, showing a low response threshold for sensory events and a lack of habituation to continuous sensory stimulation. Therefore, they receive and respond to too many stimuli and avoid all the situations to which they attribute a negative affective value and that most people consider harmless.
  • Hypo-responsiveness to common environmental stimuli. Hypo-responsive individuals respond to high-intensity stimuli, showing a high response threshold for sensory events, including high pain tolerance and a low responsiveness to sensory inputs.
  • Sensory seeking behaviors. Seeker individuals perceive as pleasurable neutral stimuli and repeat a specific unusual stimulus situation that they consider particularly interesting and exciting.

Hyper-responsive children show discomfort for physical contact and for situations involving bodily contact (games, parties, social activities, supermarkets, cleaning). They dislike particular clothing items, certain textures, or particular materials and avoid tactile experiences [ 20 , 21 ]. Conversely, hypo-responsive children may react with pleasure to rough-and-tumble games, they can injure themselves, hit an obstacle and get bruises or constantly scratch a wound, and show indifference to pain, heat, or cold, while tactile seekers can seek out experiences of repetitive rubbing of certain textures or surfaces, or deep pressures such as intense hugs or squeezing [ 22 ]. Such anomalous tactile behaviors have generally been attributed to sensory dysfunctions [ 23 ], assuming that a hypo-responsive child does not react to a normal-level sensory input adequately because of hypo-sensitivity and a hyper-responsive child may overreact to a normal level stimulus because of hyper-sensitivity.

4. Tactile System: Developmental Primacy

For a broader understanding of the meaning of touch and tactile defensiveness, a focus on the role of touch in the human development and communication is needed. At birth, touch is more developed than the others sensory systems [ 24 ] and early bodily contact ‘skin to skin’ represents for the child the first modality of communication with the extra personal world and the primordial channel of access to information [ 3 ]. Somatosensory answers can even be elicited after the eighth week of gestation. After birth, the child’s survival is closely linked to sucking, that is to a reflex response to the tactile stimulation of the perioral area [ 25 ]. In the early years, mother–child communication, feeding, caring, and cuddling are almost exclusively mediated by a close body-touch contact. By tactile contact with the mother, the child feels and communicates emotions and creates maternal bonds, learning to know the mother, to feel her way of being a mother, her mood, emotions, feelings, affection, anxieties, fears, and uncertainties. Being cared, touched, caressed, and lovingly tickled conveys to the child affection, reassurance, well-being, relaxation, and a secure attachment critical for survival [ 26 , 27 , 28 ] and for the development of the child’s basic feeling of trust in himself, in life, and in the environment [ 29 ]. According to Bowlby [ 30 , 31 ], feeling the physical closeness and contact to the mother is the main signal for children to be safe and protected. Interpersonal touch in early life is strongly associated with the development of secure attachment [ 32 , 33 ] and basic family bonds [ 34 ] and influence neural and behavioral social development [ 35 ]. In Harlow’s classic experiment, the infant monkey isolated from the mother seeks ‘contact comfort’ and clings to the surrogate mother of soft material rather than the other made of wire, regardless of which one could provide food.

Harlow’s seminal search was the experimental model for several animal studies on the role of contact with and early proximity to caregivers in other mammals [ 36 ]. In rodent studies, some rat pups were briefly removed from their mother and then returned. Those pups who received more tactile stimulations, such as licking and grooming, on their return, showed greater resistance to stress. Conversely, those who had received less grooming and licking showed greater reactivity to stress. Moreover, their offspring were more stress reactive [ 36 ].

The mother–child attachment is deeper in human newborns receiving skin-to-skin care [ 37 ], with positive effects on heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation [ 38 ]. Similarly, preterm infants who receive a slow and caressing touch gain weight and spend less time in the hospital than controls [ 39 ]. A richer vocalization and smiling were found in infants who experienced systematically affectionate maternal touch. The same children showed better social communication later in life [ 40 , 41 , 42 ].

Conversely, poor tactile interactions early in infancy may result in aberrant repetitive behaviors, echolalia, stereotypies, and can have a serious negative impact on the child’s psychomotor and even physical development [ 43 ]. Probably, the quality and intensity of this first modality influences future relationships and affects the development of non-verbal and verbal communication for the rest of life. Indeed, even after the appearance of verbal communication, physical contact and tactile input continue to be a primary mode of communication that improves verbal communication itself, even in the adult stage [ 44 ]. Therefore, early tactile communication can be seen as a precursor of verbal communication [ 45 ].

On the other hand, considering an evolutionary framework, the non-verbal tactile communication, like grooming behaviors, comes before verbal communication [ 46 ]. Monkeys, for example, practice grooming for much longer than is hygienically required [ 45 , 47 ]. Furthermore, grooming behavior does not only have a purely hygienic purpose, but can also have an important emotional and social goal. Time of grooming takes much longer as the social group grows larger. It is therefore likely that the most important role of grooming contact is to promote or reinforce positive relationships within the group and keep it cohesive. It is also probable that when hominids organize themselves into larger groups and seek food in larger areas, a verbal communication modality becomes necessary, in addition to the contact mode and tactile stimulus. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that in the ontogenesis of cuddling and skin-to-skin contact between preverbal children and their mother, the phylogenetic role of grooming, as a precursor behavior of verbal communication, is summarized [ 45 ]. Touch therefore is crucial for social development in early childhood [ 40 , 42 ] and represents a primordial access channel for early interpersonal relations [ 28 , 40 , 42 ] on which rests the future affective and relational development.

5. Tactile System: Discriminative and Affective Dimension

Tactile information-processing starts in the sensory receptors of the skin and, through the spinal and thalamic pathways, is relayed to the cortical sensory areas. The primary somatosensory cortex processes elementary tactile information in a somatotopic organization, while the associative cortex processes and integrates the individual basic information into a significant higher-level perceptual act [ 48 ]. Tactile sensory modality allows us to manipulate objects and explore their haptic features as shape, textures, thickness, roughness, softness, fragility, and consistency, allowing us to perceive tactile experiences as pleasant or unpleasant. Moreover, interpersonal touch can promote communication with each other by a range of tactile social interactions.

In human neurophysiology, the tactile system includes two parallel and functionally different peripheral and cortical pathways for discriminative and affective touch [ 48 , 49 ]. Discriminative touch provides, in an exteroceptive fashion, haptic features of an object. It is activated by any type of touch on the skin and primarily mediated by A-beta and A-delta fibers, a class of fast-conducting, myelinated, large-diameter peripheral nerves distributed in the hairless, glabrous skin of the palm and projecting to the discriminative-cognitive system of the primary and secondary somatosensory cortexes [ 48 ]. Affective touch elicits hedonic or emotional responses, supporting the subjective experience of affiliative and emotional somatic pleasure of touch [ 50 ]. It is activated selectively by caress-like gentle touch and mediated by C-tactile (CT) afferents, a class of slow-conducting, unmyelinated, small-diameter, low-threshold, mechanoreceptive peripheral fibers, distributed primarily in the hairy skin and in the face [ 49 ] and projecting mainly towards the emotional, affect-related cortical regions [ 1 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 ] such as the anterior cingulate, insular, and orbitofrontal areas [ 49 , 50 , 57 , 58 , 59 ], the temporoparietal junction, and the superior temporal sulcus [ 60 , 61 ].

In sum, considering its anatomical and physiological properties, such as fiber class, slow conduction, as well as limbic-emotional areas of cortical projection, hedonic, and affective nature, the CT-spinothalamic system share more characteristics with interoceptive modalities generating autonomic homeostatic emotional and behavioral responses [ 62 ], whereas rapid and accurate A-beta fibers reflect the external world. Indeed, although interoceptive CT information arises from the external surface of the organism, CT afferents follow a similar route to the brain projection areas as visceral thin fibers, creating an area of overlap between visceral afferents and cutaneous afferents. In addition, as CT projects to the interoceptive cortex in the posterior insula, it contributes to the subjective awareness of the body’s state and to maintaining homeostatic balance [ 63 ]. Therefore, whereas discriminative touch encodes the presence on the skin of a stimulus and its objective tactile characteristics, the affective touch encodes the emotional, affective, relational, and social features of a tactile stimulation and its relevance in affiliative context. Taken together, these findings provide a relevant support for an affective touch hypothesis [ 48 ].

However, CT afferents may be somehow considered within a large interoceptive system for emotional aspects of tactile perception, monitoring the physiological and chemical variables supporting limbic–emotional, autonomous, hormonal, and behavioral responses [ 62 ] to tactile contact with con-specifics [ 64 ]. It is interesting to highlight that people with autism spectrum disorder and tactile defensiveness exhibited, in functional magnetic resonance imaging, reduced activity in response to CT-targeted versus non-CT-targeted touch in brain areas involved in social–emotional information processing, suggesting atypical social brain hypoactivation. Whereas they showed an enhanced response to non-CT-targeted versus CT-targeted touch in the primary unimodal somatosensory cortex, suggesting atypical sensory cortical hyper-reactivity [ 54 , 65 , 66 ].

6. Social Touch and Social Communication

Recent findings suggest that stimulation of C-tactile afferents correlates with activation of regions associated with social cognition [ 67 , 68 , 69 , 70 ], supporting the hypothesis that skin is a ‘social organ’ and that C-tactile afferents may be a part of a social communication system [ 48 , 54 , 58 , 60 , 71 , 72 , 73 ].

Several experimental studies have shown that interpersonal touch has played an important role as a communication channel since the first social interactions. Even the most simple and immediate social touches, like a caress, a handshake, a pat on the shoulder, or a push can communicate significant positive or negative emotional experiences and improve the meaning of other forms of verbal and non-verbal communication. Eye contact with other people may have a different meaning depending on whether or not we touch them simultaneously. In a classic experiment, library clerks were asked to return the library’s card to the students and, while they were doing it, to get their hands directly on the palms only of some student. The students who, without even realizing it, had been ‘accidentally’ touched by the clerks gave more positive evaluations about the library [ 74 ]. Similarly, in a store, customers tend to respond more positively to a request for tasting and buying and are more likely to agree to participate in interviews when they are touched by an experimenter who acts as a store clerk than when nobody touches them [ 75 ]. Likewise, among the students who had been touched briefly by the teacher during a statistical exercise, the highest number of those who volunteered to demonstrate the solution on the board were registered [ 76 ]. Other research has shown that interpersonal touch can be successfully used to share emotional aspects of communication. Participants were asked to identify emotions from the experience of being touched on the arm by another unknown participant. The latter was asked to touch the bare arm of a subject from the elbow to the end of the hand to signal specific emotions. The results showed that the participants were able to decode emotions to an extent comparable to the success rates of transmission and decoding of facial displays and voice communication [ 46 ].

This kind of research appears to be sufficiently in line with the data of neurophysiological studies. Touch should not only be seen as a cutaneous modification that gives us discriminative haptic information about the external world. It is also a communication channel that enriches interpersonal relationships from infancy onward and allows us to improve social cognition. In a recent study, Aguirre and colleagues [ 77 ] have shown in normal 9-month-old infants, stroked to the legs with a brush at a different speed by either an unfamiliar experimenter or a caregiver, that the child’s heart rate decreased more, showing greater relaxation, when strokes were given by caregivers rather than by strangers. Moreover, this effect was found only for tactile stimulation whose velocity was maximal mean firing rates in afferent C-tactile fibers. Therefore, already in the first year of life, tactile stimulation is not a purely mechanical event that affects the skin but it expresses a pleasant or less pleasant relationship. Similar data had been found in a previous study on two-month-old children in which stroke of intermediate velocity (3 cm/s) activated brain areas that were affective-related, such as the temporal and insular cortex, more than faster strokes [ 78 ].

Therefore, interpersonal touch is strongly influenced by its social properties and by specific channels that can contribute to social cognition, such as CT and the projection areas of the brain, playing a social and communicative function. From childhood onwards, then, the discriminative and affective components of touch interact with a sensitivity to the identity of the source of touch. Finally, touch plays a key role in building a representation of the body self which in turn is crucial to stand out from others, engage in social interaction, and predict and interpret the behavior of others.

In this context, it may be exciting to note Adolphs and colleagues’ research [ 69 , 79 ] showing that bilateral amygdala damage compromises interpersonal space and the degree of close physical proximity. The patient ‘without amygdala’ does not claim any discomfort at close interpersonal distances even when standing ‘nose to nose’ with the experimenter [ 79 ]. Probably, according to Adolphs, she cannot detect the socially and emotionally salient aspects of the situation and the feelings related to physical distance.

Social and interpersonal touch, as a simple tap, protracted hug, or dynamic caress, may be regarded as an important category of the affective touch and it may be a crucial mediator of affiliative behavior and communication, and intersubjective representations of others’ sensory, emotional, and mental states. Therefore, it can promote social bonds by a range of tactile social interactions [ 35 ]. There is growing neurobiological evidence that the gratifying meaning of physical contact in social interactions arises from a mechanism, mediated by C-tactile inputs, which promotes contact in specific contexts [ 48 ]. Touch is the earliest sensory modality to develop [ 24 , 80 ], and the unmyelinated system may already be functional at birth, and two months after birth may be functional in an adult-like manner [ 78 , 81 ]. Moreover, while discriminative tactile abilities with age may decrease, perceived pleasantness of CT-targeted touch continues to increase until old age [ 48 ].

Therefore, the tactile system supports both a discriminating touch and an affective touch within a complex functional system originating in the skin, as the sensory access channel, and ending in the primary somatosensory brain areas and in the associative areas of higher polymodal integration and emotional processing, where the basic tactile stimulus becomes cognition, affection, and feeling [ 82 ]. In this perspective, the abnormal development in any element of the somatosensory functional system, both low-order or high-order, may involve the functionality of the entire functional system of tactile processing and it promotes behavioral responses of tactile defensiveness.

7. Tactile Threshold or Emotional and Social Impairment

Generally, in literature, tactile defensiveness was associated with developmental impairment of the tactile perceptive threshold [ 83 ]. However, it should be noted that the data from the literature mainly result from subjective reports of parents, caregivers, and even the high-functioning subjects [ 22 , 83 ]. Additionally, these empirical findings focused on lower-order dysfunctions of the somatosensory system, neglecting higher-cognitive order, as well as impaired emotional processing and social communication. However, in clinical settings, self-rating scales, reported by parents, caregivers, or by subjects, continue to be used, although semi-structured interviews are more valid to reduce the subjective bias of the reports. In the experimental field, the most accurate measures prove the quantitative methods of psychophysics to study sensation and perception. Recently, studies using objective measures of sensory processing and applying psychophysical assessment methods provide more specific evidence for potential mechanisms underlying sensory impairment [ 1 , 3 , 83 ].

On such psychophysical measures, several studies about tactile defensiveness reported both in adults and in children with NDDs thresholds comparable to controls and, in addition, significant correlations between tactile and affective items on parent questionnaires [ 3 , 66 , 83 , 84 , 85 ].

For example, Guclu, et al., comparing boys affected by ASD with typically developing controls in tactile detection threshold in two different experimental conditions, did not find differences between groups in tactile thresholds [ 66 ]. Moreover, they found a correlation between tactile and emotional items of the Touch Inventory for Elementary-School-Aged Children and Sensory Profile. The authors hypothesized that the abnormal tactile sensitivity in ASD could be related to emotional impairments and could be more present with concomitant emotional problems.

Previously, O’Riordan and Passetti [ 86 ], studying the performance of children with and without ASD on tactile discrimination tasks, identified a comparable tactile discrimination in ASD with respect to controls. Similarly, comparing tactile sensation, Cascio, et al. [ 65 ] found that ASD adults and controls displayed similar thresholds for detecting light touch and innocuous sensations of warmth and cool, and provided similar hedonic ratings of the pleasantness of textures suggesting that tactile defensiveness in ASD may be at least be partially modulated by affective neural systems of touch as opposed to discriminative touch pathways.

Interestingly, a study by Blakemore and colleagues [ 84 ] investigated in people with autism whether hypersensitivity would be found within certain tactile stimuli and not others. They examined in individuals with Asperger syndrome and a normal control sensitivity to vibrotactile stimuli at two different frequencies (30 and 200 Hz), given that high-frequency vibration (200 Hz) stimulates Pacinian corpuscles and activates low-threshold fast adapting mechanoreceptors (FAII fibers), and lower-frequency vibration (30 Hz) stimulates Meissner corpuscles and activates slowly adapting-low-threshold mechanoreceptors (SAI fibers) well adapted for high-resolution discrimination of shape and texture. The study confirmed a slight tactile hypersensitivity in Asperger people but only for high-frequency stimuli (200 Hz). In a second study, the authors found that the perceptual consequences of self-produced touch are attenuated in the normal way in people with Asperger syndrome, suggesting that the neural changes underlying tactile sensory problems do not affect absolute thresholds, but modify intensity discrimination or magnitude estimation. Moreover, they suggest that hypersensitivity occurs at some as yet unidentified neural level.

The hypersensitivity to touch may be due to an abnormal processing of touch in one or more components of the tactile system. Additionally, our measure of tactile threshold pertains to the discriminative rather than the affective pathway. Therefore, hypersensitivity to suprathreshold tactile stimuli it could be a response to a particularly high stimulus rather than a dislike of a normal stimulus. Individuals with autism may show a normal threshold in detecting a simple stimulus, but elevated thresholds when detecting a complex, second-order stimulus. The hyper-responsiveness, then, expresses an impairment in processing rapidly changing, dynamic stimuli as well as an increased sensitivity to second order, complex stimuli that require additional integration of information.

However, psychophysical studies of discriminative touch processing have yielded inconsistent results. It would seem that the emotional aspects of touch are more consistently affected in ASD children [ 65 , 66 ]. Several studies are increasingly highlighting the emotional aspects of tactile stimulation and the emotional–relational meaning of tactile defensiveness.

Overcoming the classic relationship between tactile defensiveness and low or high threshold levels, perhaps the tactile defensiveness could be rethought as the phenomenological expression of the emotional and social communication problems of subjects with NDDs. Maintaining a comfortable physical proximity with others on the basis of feelings and personal comfort is the expression of a social and emotional ability that allows us to correctly evaluate interpersonal distance as socially and emotionally significant. It would seem that NDDs subjects cannot modulate the emotional dimension expressed by the physical distance with others. The NDDs subjects come too close or too distant, showing in either case that they cannot adequately modulate distances and, above all, their relational and emotional meaning.

8. Conclusions

In conclusion, the current overview has collected suggestions and hypotheses to facilitate the carrying out of further research and more evidence on the complex reality of the sense of touch and tactile defensiveness in NDDs. In literature, tactile defensiveness has received much less attention than defenses behavior in visual and auditory modality. Probably for this reason many outstanding questions are still open and many areas remain poorly explored both in touch sense and in tactile defensiveness areas.

A first crucial area concerns the matrix of tactile defensiveness. Future clinical and experimental studies will have to provide evidence to understand if the tactile defense responses can arise mainly from an abnormal sensory–tactile threshold in the NDDs, as in the literature’s prevailing interpretation, or if, instead, they can be thought as a behavioral manifestation of a more general disorder of social communication and interpersonal relationships.

Related to that, it becomes interesting to consider whether abnormal tactile reactions can be thought of as the use of a primordial language and communication modalities in individuals with a broad relationship and communication disorder.

Moreover, it could be interesting to study whether the hypo- or the hyper-tactile responses in NDDs can be somehow associated with the difficulties to regulate close physical proximity and appropriate social distance and whether both tactile defensiveness and the difficulties of modulating the physical distance between people can be thought of more broadly as a signal of a single disorder of the modulation of emotions related to interpersonal relationships.

Hopefully, future clinical and experimental research can also improve knowledge about the role of the sense of touch in general in interpersonal relationships in both typical development and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Author Contributions

Substantial contributions to the design of the work, D.S., P.S.; articles collection, G.Q. and L.P.; articles analysis and interpretation, D.S., P.S. and M.C.; drafting the paper, D.S., P.S. and M.R.; revising the paper, D.S., P.S., M.C., L.P., G.Q., M.R. All the authors read and approved the final manuscript.

This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Rizal’s Noli and Fili

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A good part of the scholarship in Hispanofilipino literature revolves around one author and his two novels.

6- Portrait of José Rizal.jpg

Jose Rizal, 1861-1896, bust portrait, facing left. [no date recorded] Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. https://lccn.loc.gov/2005686023

The intellectual, martyr, and national hero José Rizal–pictured above wearing a dark suit with a white collar in a closely framed photo–wrote the two foundational novels of the Filipino nation in Spanish.   These were the Noli me tángere (or Noli ), first published in Berlin, Germany in 1887, and its sequel El filibusterismo (or Fili ), which came out in Ghent, Belgium in 1891. The Noli and Fili are widely regarded as foundational novels because they distilled the failures and promises of an incipient Filipino national identity. The oldest copy of the Noli we have in the Worcester Philippine History Collection is the 1899 edition printed by the Manila-based publishing house Chofré y Compañía. We likewise have the 1909 edition published by Casa Maucci in Barcelona. As for the Fili , we have the Chofré edition from 1900 .

6- Noli me tangere.jpg

José Rizal. Noli me tángere. Manila: Comisión Nacional del Centenario de José Rizal, 1961.

This illustration above from the cover of the 1961 edition of Noli me tángere depicts an iconic scene from the novel, where the protagonist Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra attacks Padre Dámaso after the Spanish priest taunts the memory of Ibarra’s dead father. 

Rizal’s two novels are the most translated works in the Hispanofilipino canon. Since Spanish has never been spoken as a majority language in the Philippines, the only way for Filipino readers to understand the Noli and Fili was to read them in translation. The known oldest English-language translation of the Noli is An Eagle Flight , an adaptation published in 1900 in New York. We also have Charles Derbyshire’s The Social Cancer , first published in 1912, and a 1931 edition of Derbyshire’s translation of the Fili , titled The Reign of Greed . Other notable English-language translations of the Noli and Fili in U-M collections are León Ma. Guerrero’s The Lost Eden and The Subversive , Jorge Bocobo’s Noli me tangere , described as an “unexpurgated” translation, Camilo Osias’s El filibusterismo , Jovita Ventura Castro’s Noli me tángere and The Revolution , Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s Noli me tángere and Subversion , and Harold Augenbraum’s Touch Me Not   and El filibusterismo . 

On the other hand, translations of the Noli in Philippine languages at U-M include Tagalog/Filipino by Pascual H. Poblete and by Benjamin de la Fuente , Hiligaynon by Ulpiano Vergara , Kapampangan by Pedro Manankil , and Cebuano by Juan Kijano . We also have the Chinese translation by Se Fen . The University of Wisconsin-Madison has the French translation by Henri Lucas and Ramón Sempau under the title Au pays des moines ( In the Land of Monks ) . Despite their status as foundational novels, the Noli and Fili have not been translated to many other languages of the Philippines. Except for Filipino, which is the national language, and English, the co-official language, translations of Rizal’s novels in other Philippine languages are almost unheard of. The ones we do have are obsolete and hardly ever read. The nationalization of Rizal’s novels was ensconced in the bigger project of promoting a single national language and the concurrent (and perhaps unintended) minoritization of other Philippine languages. Before the educational reforms that adjusted Philippine education to a K-12 model, the Noli and Fili were offered in high schools as the literary component of the subject called “Filipino” in the last two years of high school.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

De Castro, Juan E. 2011. “ ¿En qué idioma escribe Ud.? : Spanish, Tagalog, and Identity in José Rizal's Noli me tangere .”  MLN 126 (2):303-321.

Garcia, J. Neil C. 2017. “ Translation and the Limits of Minority Discourse in the Philippines .” Continuum 31 (1):24-32. doi: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1262093.

Lifshey, Adam. 2008. “ The Literary Alterities of Philippine Nationalism in José Rizal's El filibusterismo .”  PMLA 123 (5):1434-1447. doi: 10.2307/25501945.

Testa-de Ocampo, Anna Melinda. 2011. “ The Afterlives of the ‘Noli me tangere’ .”  Philippine Studies 59 (4):495-527.

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Filipino Enlightenment

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Between Two Powers

Noli Me Tángere

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Noli Me Tángere (Touch Me Not)

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Summary and Study Guide

Noli Me Tángere (1887)—which translates to “Touch Me Not” in Latin—is a novel written by Filipino writer José Rizal. The novel tells the story of Don Crisóstomo Ibarra , a young man of Filipino and Spanish descent who returns to the Philippines after a seven-year trip to Europe. Upon his return, and because he is now old enough to better understand the world, Ibarra sees the oppression wrought on the Indigenous population by Spanish colonialism. As Ibarra attempts to do something about this, he finds himself confronting forces that view him as a direct threat to their power—and who will do whatever it takes to retain it.

Noli Me Tángere is predominantly narrated in the third person, with occasional shifts to first-person plural. The narrative follows a generally linear plot with occasional shifts that provide historical context . It also tends toward the satirical, especially when the narrator describes members of the wealthy ruling class. At times, the novel depicts the brutality of oppression realistically, hence it is sometimes graphic.

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This guide is based on the Kindle edition of the novel, translated by Harold Augenbraum and published by Penguin Books in 2006.

Content warning: This guide contains references to violence, which is depicted in the source text. 

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Plot Summary

Noli Me Tángere begins at a dinner party hosted by Captain Don Santiago (Tiago), a wealthy resident of Manila. Guests assembled at the party include other members of the upper class as well as friars of both the Dominican and Franciscan orders. During dinner, Don Crisóstomo Ibarra arrives—the party being his first stop post-returning from Europe. He is there to visit his fiancée María-Clara , Santiago’s daughter. However, the celebratory atmosphere soon turns tense as one of the friars, Father Dámaso , becomes angry at Ibarra’s arrival. After the party, Ibarra learns that his father, Don Rafael, died while in prison and Father Dámaso had his corpse exhumed and removed from the Christian cemetery (i.e., dumped into a river). The dramatic tension between Ibarra and Dámaso forms the central conflict.

As Ibarra reacclimates himself to his homeland, he looks to apply his progressive ideals to make life better for the citizens of San Diego. After meeting with a school teacher, Ibarra’s first act is to build a school. While he gains support from the local government, the religious order within the town views the project with suspicion. They begin to see Ibarra as a threat to their power—with Dámaso in particular seeing him as a rival who must be put in his place.

Ibarra and María-Clara’s relationship dates back to childhood. However, Dámaso is the godfather of María-Clara and opposes the marriage. He wishes to drive the two apart and eventually achieves. He arrives uninvited to a dinner party hosted by Ibarra and dishonors the memory of his late father, which baits the latter into retaliation. Ibarra physically attacks Dámaso, holding him at knife point and threatening to kill him. María-Clara intervenes and prevents Ibarra from completing the deed, but the damage is done. As punishment for the assault, Ibarra is excommunicated and thus, the couple’s engagement is annulled.

The Captain General, the King’s representative in the Philippines, intercedes on Ibarra’s behalf. Once again, Dámaso and his colleague Father Salví are disgruntled and see the Captain General’s respect for Ibarra as a threat to their power. Salví’s role in the novel becomes more prominent after this incident, as he works on a scheme to take down Ibarra once and for all.

Ibarra befriends Elías , a fellow Filipino who is involved with a subversive group planning an uprising. Because Elías is knowledgeable of the town’s underground, he is able to warn Ibarra of the attempts to have him framed and killed. Their friendship is unusual as they are not of the same class, but they have mutual respect for each other—and this respect enables them to strengthen their alliance.

Through no fault of his own, Ibarra’s life is turned upside down by the same forces that claimed the life of his father. As the novel comes to a close, the progress that Ibarra advocated for is put on hold. However, Dámaso suffers a private defeat as María-Clara holds a secret against him, one that would destroy his reputation in town. Dámaso is eventually moved out of San Diego and with him out of the way, the possibility of reform is made more possible than ever.

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  • Introduction / Soledad S. Reyes
  • 1. Tasio El Filósofo and Padre Florentino: an inquiry into Rizal's prophetic vision / Raul J. Bonoan
  • 2. The historical impact of the Noli me tangere and the El filibusterismo / Stephen Henry S. Totanes
  • 3. The folk reception of Noli me tangere / Consolacion Alaras
  • 4. Humor and craftsmanship in the opening chapters of the Noli / Miguel A. Bernard
  • 5. Philippine studies: the Noli me tangere viewpoint / Vivencio R. Jose
  • 6. Reform and revolution: the impact of Rizal's Noli and Fili on the Tagalog novel / Soledad S. Reyes
  • 7. Noli me tangere: creating an idiom to legitimize a new paradigm of power / Florentino H. Hornedo
  • 8. Values in the Noli me tangere: a critical hermeneutics / Manuel B. Dy, Jr.
  • 9. The Noli me tangere as catalyst of revolution / John N. Schumacher
  • 10. Religion and nationalism in Rizal / Raul J. Bonoan.

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Literature Review Blog

Philippine Literature: Understanding The Message Behind Noli Me Tangere

April 16, 2022 June 7, 2022

Noli Me Tangere, one of the most well-known Filipino novels, is a work of fiction written by Jose Rizal. It was first published in 1887 and it is considered to be the most important novel in Philippine literature. It tells the story of two friends: Juan Crisostomo Ibarra and Elias who are both from wealthy families.

The novel was written in Spanish and English for different audiences. The Spanish version was meant for Spaniards residing in the Philippines while the English version was meant for an international audience. Noli Me Tangere has been translated into over 20 languages and it has been adapted into films and TV series as well as musicals.

Read also: Literature: Understanding the Basics of SEM and SEO Keywords

An Analysis of Noli Me Tangere and what it says about Philippine Culture

Noli Me Tangere is a novel by Jose Rizal that is considered an important part of Filipino culture. Its main theme is the oppression of the Filipino people by Spanish colonialists. It also touches on many other themes such as class struggle, education, and religion.

We can see how much this novel has impacted Philippine culture when we look at how it has influenced literature in the country to this day. The book has given rise to many films, TV series, and even comics that have been made in its likeness.

Hidden messages in noli me tangere

Noli Me Tangere is translated to “Touch Me Not” in English. It was published in Berlin, Germany in 1887. This novel was written by Jose Rizal as a response to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines and its brutal treatment of Filipinos.

This novel is about Crisostomo Ibarra who returns from his studies abroad, but he has an accident on his way home and goes into hiding for seven years before he can return to his family again. The novel is a chronicle of the life and times of Ibarra from his birth to death, including his struggles and dreams, his intense friendships as well as the ways he reconciles with society. The novel is not linear. The first six chapters are told in chronological order, but chapter 7 is set in 1892 and tells the story of Ibarra’s youth. You can read a summary of the novel here – Noli Me Tangere Buod 2022.

Noli me Tangere is also considered one of the most important novels in Filipino literature because it paved the way for Philippine independence from Spain and America.

The Mechanism Behind Noli Me Tangere’s Success as a Novel in Philippine History

Noli Me Tangere served as a catalyst for the Philippine Revolution against Spain. The novel is considered as a masterpiece of Filipino literature and has been translated into many languages.

The novel was able to spark the revolution because it was written in Filipino, which was then the national language of the Philippines. This made it accessible to more people who could understand and relate to its message, which encouraged them to take action against Spain’s colonial rule over them.

Selected Topics in Humanities and Social Sciences Vol. 4


The Noli Me Tangere Novel: An Instructional Model for Teaching

  • Joel Q. Mabalhin

Selected Topics in Humanities and Social Sciences Vol. 4 , 4 August 2021 , Page 44-52 https://doi.org/10.9734/bpi/sthss/v4/3239F Published: 2021-08-04

  • View Article

This study covers the analysis of selected utterances from selected 25 chapters of Noli Me Tangere novel of Dr. Jose P. Rizal through semantic and pragmatic views. The researcher analyzed the whole book and look for the difficult utterances in every chapter. It should pass through three stages. First is focusing on the analysis of the utterances based on linguistic-semantic interpretation. Second is through pragmatic, which actually based on two important contexts; the linguistic and physical contexts. And the third stage is to identify the relationship of the interpretation between semantic and pragmatic views. Validators were given copies of the analysis to double-check and recommend some modifications of the interpretation. After which, the researcher, make an instructional model for reading using the different strategies in teaching.

  • Noli Me Tangere
  • linguistic context
  • physical context

How to Cite

  • Endnote/Zotero/Mendeley (RIS)
  • Abstract Viewed : 283 times

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Noli Me Tangere: Social Touch, Tactile Defensiveness, and Communication in Neurodevelopmental Disorders


  • 1 Department of Psychology, Educational Science and Human Movement, University of Palermo, 90128 Palermo, Italy.
  • 2 Department of Educational Sciences, University of Catania, 95124 Catania, Italy.
  • 3 Clinic of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry, Department of Mental Health, Physical and Preventive Medicine, Università degli Studi della Campania "Luigi Vanvitelli", 81100 Caserta, Italy.
  • 4 Dipartimento Promozione della Salute, Materno-Infantile, di Medicina Interna e Specialistica di Eccellenza "G. D'Alessandro", 90127 Palermo, Italy.
  • PMID: 31842265
  • PMCID: PMC6955721
  • DOI: 10.3390/brainsci9120368

Tactile defensiveness is a common feature in neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs). Since the first studies, tactile defensiveness has been described as the result of an abnormal response to sensory stimulation. Moreover, it has been studied how the tactile system is closely linked to socio-communicative development and how the interoceptive sensory system supports both a discriminating touch and an affective touch. Therefore, several neurophysiological studies have been conducted to investigate the neurobiological basis of the development and functioning of the tactile system for a better understanding of the tactile defensiveness behavior and the social touch of NDDs. Given the lack of recent literature on tactile defensiveness, the current study provides a brief overview of the original contributions on this research topic in children with NDDs focusing attention on how this behavior has been considered over the years in the clinical setting.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs); sensory reactivity; social touch; tactile defensiveness.

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This article examines the figure of death in Eugenio Hernández Espinosa's play María Antonia (1967) and Sergio Giral's cinematic adaptation (María Antonia, 1990), focusing on the gendered performance of death through the character of Cumachela and her relationship with the work's eponymous protagonist. First considering the depiction in the play of death (Ikú) as a figure with whom the living can interact within the framework of the Cuban Santería/ Regla de Ocha religion, I then explore the presentation of Ikú as an omnipresent agent within the play and the manner in which this female iteration of death both reinforces and challenges patriarchal social and religious frameworks examined therein. Further, I draw on work by scholars of urban decay in Havana to analyse the inscription of death into the fabric of the city and the ways in which Cumachela/ Ikú's performance renders her part of the palimpsest of the Cuban capital through her physical and conceptual association with its ruins. Resumen En este artículo se propone examinar la figura de la muerte en la obra teatral María Antonia de Eugenio Hernández Espinosa (1967) y su adaptación cinematográfica de Sergio Giral (María Antonia, 1990), centrándose en la representación generizada de la muerte, encarnada en el personaje de Cumachela, y en la relación entre ésta y la protagonista epónima de la obra. Primero, se considera la manera en que la obra representa a la muerte (Ikú) como una figura dentro del marco religioso cubano de la Santería/ Regla de Ocha con que los individuos pueden interactuar; desde allí se explora la omnipresencia de este personaje en María Antonia, tanto como la manera en que esta versión femenina de la muerte reafirma y cuestiona simultáneamente las estructuras sociales y religiosas del patriarcado examinadas en la obra. Es más, recurre a los estudios del declive urbano en La Habana para analizar la inscripción de la muerte en el entramado de la ciudad y el proceso por el cual Cumachela/ Ikú se convierte en una parte del palimpsesto de la capital cubana por medio de la asociación física y conceptual que surge entre ella y las ruinas urbanas.

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Raman Spectroscopy in Cultural Heritage Preservation pp 355–369 Cite as

“Noli Me Tangere”: A Renaissance Original? A Holistic Analytical Spectroscopic Challenge

  • Howell G. M. Edwards   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4850-0122 13 ,
  • Peter Vandenabeele 14 &
  • Philippe Colomban 15  
  • First Online: 14 October 2022

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Part of the book series: Cultural Heritage Science ((CUHESC))

A prime conclusion that can be derived from the interpretation of analytical scientific signatures of pigments and associated materials in an artwork relates to the potential for its chronological placement to a period which is consistent with that of the putative artist – in a forensic art context. In some cases, this has been a highly successful enterprise and on several occasions the presence of a faked or forged artwork has been revealed from the presence of chronologically out-of-context pigments; however, the analytical data themselves are deemed to be rarely sufficient to determine solely and unambiguously whether the work of art is genuine to the satisfaction of discerning and acknowledged art experts. Generally, supporting historical documentation and some kind of provenancing information is also required in support of the attribution of the art work and for its acceptance in the community. In the case study offered here, a comprehensive Raman spectroscopic analytical study of the pigments and ground layers of a damaged painting on the Biblical theme of “ Noli me Tangere ” indicates that the artwork can be assigned confidently to the Renaissance period but the complete absence of provenancing and associated documentation is an apparent stumbling block to its acceptance as an original work of art. However, the recent discovery of similar themes and potentially later artwork versions of this theme which have received some similar treatment and rather curious superficial details to the painting under investigation offers another interesting avenue for the correct chronological assessment of this painting as advised by the scientific spectroscopic data, which can perhaps sensibly reopen the case for its considered placement as a Renaissance masterpiece and worthy of its cultural heritage restoration and preservation.

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  • Provenancing
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Edwards, H.G.M., Vandenabeele, P., Colomban, P. (2023). “Noli Me Tangere”: A Renaissance Original? A Holistic Analytical Spectroscopic Challenge. In: Raman Spectroscopy in Cultural Heritage Preservation. Cultural Heritage Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-14379-3_16

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    Noli Me Tángere (1887)—which translates to "Touch Me Not" in Latin—is a novel written by Filipino writer José Rizal.The novel tells the story of Don Crisóstomo Ibarra, a young man of Filipino and Spanish descent who returns to the Philippines after a seven-year trip to Europe.Upon his return, and because he is now old enough to better understand the world, Ibarra sees the oppression ...

  10. Learning without Reading Noli me tángere: The Rizal Law ...

    Totanes, Stephen Henry. 1987. The historical impact of the Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo. In The Noli Me Tangere: A century after: An interdisciplinary perspective, ed. Soledad Reyes ...

  11. The Noli me tangere : a century after, an interdisciplinary perspective

    5. Philippine studies: the Noli me tangere viewpoint / Vivencio R. Jose; 6. Reform and revolution: the impact of Rizal's Noli and Fili on the Tagalog novel / Soledad S. Reyes; 7. Noli me tangere: creating an idiom to legitimize a new paradigm of power / Florentino H. Hornedo; 8. Values in the Noli me tangere: a critical hermeneutics / Manuel B ...

  12. Noli me tangere: The Profaning Touch That Challenges Authority

    From No li me ta nge re to Noli me credere The desire to touch does not onl yd eal with sacred bodies, but als ow ith sacred ob- jects. ² ⁸ This is the case for saintl yr elics ,t he cults of ...

  13. Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal Plot Summary

    Noli Me Tangere takes place in the Philippines during the time of Spanish colonization. In the opening scene, a wealthy and influential Filipino man named Captain Tiago hosts a dinner party to welcome Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra y Magsalin back to the Philippines. Ibarra has spent the last seven years studying in Europe. In talking to the various guests at Captain Tiago's dinner party, he ...

  14. Philippine Literature: Understanding The Message Behind Noli Me Tangere

    April 16, 2022June 7, 2022. Noli Me Tangere, one of the most well-known Filipino novels, is a work of fiction written by Jose Rizal. It was first published in 1887 and it is considered to be the most important novel in Philippine literature. It tells the story of two friends: Juan Crisostomo Ibarra and Elias who are both from wealthy families.

  15. The Noli Me Tangere Novel: An Instructional Model for Teaching

    This study covers the analysis of selected utterances from selected 25 chapters of Noli Me Tangere novel of Dr. Jose P. Rizal through semantic and pragmatic views. The researcher analyzed the whole book and look for the difficult utterances in every chapter. It should pass through three stages. First is focusing on the analysis of the utterances based on linguistic-semantic interpretation.

  16. PDF Questioning the Status of Rizal's Women in Noli Me Tangere and El

    Abstract. To an arguable extent, the novels of José Maria Rizal are European novels of the Belle Epoque, despite their setting., and, as such, they reflect the attitude toward women current in Europe in that era. In his novels Rizal's female characters appear more as stereotypes than archetypes in several broad categories: the good mother ...

  17. Noli Me Tangere: Social Touch, Tactile Defensiveness, and ...

    Noli Me Tangere: Social Touch, Tactile Defensiveness, and Communication in Neurodevelopmental Disorders ... the current study provides a brief overview of the original contributions on this research topic in children with NDDs focusing attention on how this behavior has been considered over the years in the clinical setting.


    Noli Me Tangere brilliantly described Philippine society with its memorable characters. The melancholic fate of Maria Clara and the insanity of Sisa characterized the country's pitiful state, which was once beautiful, turned miserable. Reading Noli Me Tangere will open one's mind about oppression and tyranny.

  19. Noli Me Tangere Character Analysis

    Sisa. Crispín and Basilio 's mother, who goes crazy after losing her boys. Sisa wanders the town and forests in vain, hoping to find her children, though when she actually meets Basilio, she is apparently unable to recognize him at first. When she does, she dies of surprise and happiness.

  20. (PDF) Noli Me Tangere: Social Touch, Tactile Defensiveness, and

    Proximity to others, particularly within touching distance, is often difficult to tolerate (Doherty et al, 2022;Strömberg et al, 2022). Tactile defensiveness can lead some autistic people to ...

  21. "Noli Me Tangere": A Renaissance Original? A Holistic Analytical

    An large easel oil painting (Fig. 16.1), measuring 2 m × 1 m, depicting the "Noli Me Tangere" theme of the resurrected Christ appearing near His garden tomb to the three Marys who have come to prepare His body after His crucifixion, has recently been analysed by Raman spectroscopy and the pigments have unequivocally been found to be consistent with the Renaissance period (Burgio et al ...

  22. Noli Me Tangere

    Noli Me Tangere. Mark H. Crawford Authors Info & Affiliations. Science. 2 Mar 1990. Vol 247, Issue 4946. p. 1036. DOI: 10.1126/science.247.4946.1036.d. PREVIOUS ARTICLE. Wyngaarden to NAS. ... and research, free to your inbox daily. Subscribe. LATEST NEWS. News 22 Mar 2024. Horse remains found near Buckingham Palace reveal birthplace of ...

  23. (PDF) Noli me tangere

    Noli me tangere 79 ... Join ResearchGate to discover and stay up-to-date with the latest research from leading experts in Literature History and many other scientific topics.