Thursday, February 8, 2007

Glorious stink

The ebb and flow of human taste and its modus operandi is an undecipherable commodity. What is considered appealing and desirable and what is not doesn’t obey any quantitative measure. Which of course accounts for trends, market research and lost fortunes in wrong assumptions side by side with the successful lucky guesses.
The same applies to smell and fragrance. More pointedly so when the aromas emanating from someone are of a more intimate nature.

Ever since the dawn of humanity homo sapiens has shared the biological fate of his ancestors in the olfactory field. His sense of smell has primarily directed him to opt for the healthy game and fresh produce and avoid the stale and rotten. It is also possible that it has directed him via odorata sexualis to suitable mates through which procreation might be consummated with the imperceptible help of pheromones, aroma materials that are emanated by individuals to attract. For millennia man has been content to do just that.

And then civilization came into the picture. In the great civilizations of antiquity such as Egypt, Greece and Rome, the desire to distance oneself from the animal nature and embrace the humane, as manifested in science, philosophy and the arts, has made man take measures as to maintain a level of cleanliness that is beyond the mere necessity of survival. All those civilizations have been very hygienic indeed, if we take into mind that there was no running hot water and no bubble baths in a million permutations.
Yet Herodotus talks about how the ancient Egyptians of his time bathed regularly shaving their body hair and even their scalps as to not let perspiration nestle in intimate parts of the body and fester bacteria (OK, he did not use the word bacteria precisely). How they had inward lavatories for their needs and how they took pains to maintain hygiene there. How they used sweet scented oils and incense to accompany the dead to their last dwelling place on earth.
The Greeks were by no means less clean. They too -living in a warm climate- had been taking regular baths using silver and golden basins followed by massage with aromatic oils of thyme and basil at every possible occasion, cleaning their clothes in the rivers with ash and aromatic herbs as described in the Odyssey and equating hygiene with sanity and longevity. Numerous are the mythological tales of gods and goddesses taking baths while mortals gazed hidden. It was Galenos who invented the first bar of soap mixing crushed flower petals, olive oil and ash from burnt logwood.
Ancient Rome was the apex of public baths, in which people of all ages intermingled and talked about state matters in elaborate buildings divided in unctuarium (where they chose the unguents with which they would groom themselves), the frigidarium (cold bath) and the caldarium (hot bath) and then on to the labrum for the final cold shower.
Even lavender that clean smelling herb is named after the roman word for bathing, because of its ubiquitous use.
The tradition of the bath as a civilization index is no more apparent that in Tacitus’ opus Germania where he mentions with some disdain that Germanians, considered barbarians at the time, bathed in rivers. At least they did bathe! Which is more than can be said for the squalor and filth in which Medieval Europe lived for centuries after the fall of Rome.

While Islam reveled in the luxuries of bathing (aided by the religious prerequisite to clean one’s head, hands and feet before every prayer, a phenomenon that occurs with frequent regularity throughout the day), western Europe inaugurated a practice of not washing up one’s body at all, for which the church can be found to be a great culprit.
Maintaining that mixed baths (as were previously tentatively explored) were corrupting the soul and that tending to one’s genitals might lead to impure thoughts, they condoned the absence of bath as a means of chastity while at the same time they traditionally equated holiness with the sweet smell of myrrh and incense. How those two could co-exist is beyond me, but this is not the only paradox one comes up against if one explores the matter further.

It was as late as 1750 according to Alain Corbin and his book “Le Miasme and la Jonquile”, which explores the adventure of sanitation and the desodorisation of society, that the élite chose to distance itself from the foul stench of the gutters and disease that were abundant in the crowded -by then- cities of France. A taste for the aroma of deer musk or of catty civet and of pure country air mingled in what was to become the height of French perfumery. The impression of cleanliness underscored by the reminder that we are all human, full of smells that could be perceived as disgusting in their pure state.
However perfumes seemed to be necessary still to repel the germs and bacteria through their cleansing properties as the tradition of filth continued, albeit a bit subdued: at least the clothes were as freshly clean as possible.
Louis XIV was said to have only bathed two times in his whole long life despite asking his guests and courtesans to wear a different perfume every day and the mere thought disgusts us today, earning a reputation of filth for Frenchmen which sadly has not been totally shifted if I judge by the miniscule pieces of sanitary paper that come out - one at a time!!- through the automatic devices at French toilets today.
On the other hand there was also an allure of the animalic and forbidden in similar practices when Napoleon infamously wrote to Josephine: “Je reviens en trois jours; ne te laves pas!” (I return in three days; don’t wash yourself).
The pair of them began a vogue for heavier smells as Josephine was madly in love with the smell of musk, to the point that her boudoir at Malmaison still has an aura of the aromatic essence present. Napoleon on the other hand preferred her in violets.

The Victorian age reveled in pure and simple smells as a contrast to the more decadent Empire style, using single floral waters (soliflores) for men and women alike. But it was the Puritans more than anyone else that began the hysteria for cleanliness with their desire to eliminate all traces of animalic tendencies from man. Sadly this is an insurmountable task, as the human body has to produce bile and bacteria to break down food which accounts for a smell that cannot be completely eradicated however hard one tries.
Indoor plumbing and hot water at the click of a button made taking baths an easy and swift procedure that is as an automatic reflex for today’s men and women as brushing one’s teeth. Technological progressions made the manufacture of industrial strength deodorants to put under one’s armpits as a necessity of every day life that is a god sent if you’re ever stuck up in a crowded underground wagon on a hot day of August. Perfumed products in an array of mind arresting variety are manufactured to lure as in and buy more, more, more…

And yet in all that progress we seem to have lost what has once been ours in ancient years: the conjugation of mind and body, the clean with the human.
The examples of complete perfume bans in offices in latter days, the denial of the sensual and natural in favour of the sanitized and deodorized has permeated every single aspect of today’s life. Everything around us is artificially scented with a chemical aroma that defies every law of nature. We scrub fanatically to remove any trace of human smell from our bodies and then we apply perfumed products that would supposedly give us back what nature intended to give us in order to attract a mate. We seek to find “clean” but at the same time “sexy” smells. Above all we do not want to offend. Being accused of smelling of body odour is the height of mortification for anyone beyond infancy. (since kids do not really “smell”; there have to be sexual hormones at play to do that…)
In an overcrowded planet that has no room for any more bodies, this was to be expected.
And this is what accounts for the recent resurgence of perfumes that aim to regress in the stink and funk of our human condition: from the goat-y magnificence of Muscs Kublai Khan by enfant gaté Serge Lutens to the dirty smell of Kiehl’s Musk eau de toilette and from the soft caress of a slightly sweaty body that has been active in human activities of L’air de rien by Miller Harris (with the collaboration of Jane Birkin) to the gimmicky Sécretions magnifiques by état libre d’Orange which recalls semen and blood (sounds the recipe for some tabloid article)…

It is clear that one yearns for what one is denied of. And the reason why isn’t very hard to see.

Artwork by Patric Boivine for


  1. If I may correct you in a few details... well, Middle Ages weren't Ages of Filth. I would have to dig up some sources to give exact quotes but I'm sure that the Benedictine rules said that monasteries be built somewhere with running water so that the latrines can be kept clean and monks have a place where to wash themselves - and St. Benedict was probably a jolly good fellow, allowing a certain amount of wine to every brother (it's disputed how much it was since the given measure is unknown today). It was the Irish missionaries who were rather harsh on such luxuries... and the Eastern achorites seemed to think that the dirtier, the holier.
    During the Medieval times, at least the upper classes enjoyed bathing and so did the Renaissance folks. There were logistic problems with transporting water there and back and they might not have bathed daily but certainly they did. Public baths were, at least to a certain extent, places of various passtimes and people went there to play backgammon or something, drink and socialize (and indeed the socializing might involve ladies whose reputation was negotiable) and surely there were sermons against public baths as there were sermons against fashionable clothing or any luxury; I think some of the preachers were pretty crazy but that's another matter.
    and the public baths fell from favour after syphilis was brought from the New World. It was the Baroque folks who were such pigs - on the other hand, a gentleman was supposed to change his shirts every day so, at least, some ideas of hygiene existed.
    And, people did appreciate fine smells. I'll take the liberty to sum it all up without too much specifying, I don't really feel like writing an academic paper. Anyway, fresh grass or flowers or hay or twigs were often spread on the floors before a banquet - because then the room would smell nice and due to table manners which were somewhat like Throw it on the floor and the dogs will eat it... or not - and I've read somewhere how a gentleman should go and puke away from the table, should he have the need - the whole floor covering could be wiped away with all the mess.
    In Central Europe, in the Late Gothic period, young people of both sexes used to wear wreaths of fresh flowers on their heads.
    Perfume making was close to alchemy but people did burn fragrant herbs to make their rooms smell nice, in areas where trees with fragrant wood grew, these were used for furniture.... I'm a Medievalist so I don't know much from late 14th century on but I'd say that people didn't prefer to be dirty and stinky as such, it was rather a lack of resources and technological development. It was only the 16-17th centuries when people stopped washing themselves although I don't know about any explanation. And even then, a gentleman was supposed to change his shirts every day.
    End of rant, which is moreover very late for the party but I couldn't resist, I was always fascinated by the everyday history.

  2. L,

    hi! And thanks for taking the time to conduct such a long comment, very interesting.

    If you had caught this when it was first writen (before a blog meltdown I had experienced about a year and a half ago) you'd have caught a very interesting discussion in the comments (sadly now lost) which focused exactly on the religious practices and the whys. If you haven't read Corbain's book btw, it's HIGHLY recommended (although no Mediavelist as such)

    But to return to your comments. I don't profess myself as an expert to the St.Benedict canon especially. I am much more going from how the ideas were followed, whereas for instance mixed baths were devoid of soap and scrubbing (the mere jumping into a pool of water was considered cleaning) and windows in western cities were used as a disposing method of garbage and waste, well documented in the plans of city mapping. There is an interesting article on this link.

    In general however it seems to be as you say and I am not disagreeing: the beginning of the Middle Ages was cleaner (most people bathed with some regularity and wasn't the saying Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere! of this age?) with a steady progression to filth. The apotheosis came indeed in the Baroque period. Here is where Corbain's theory of "miasma" enters: the body and its skin and the nose were considered an entrance to disease, hence there should be a layer of smegma on so that the pores wouldn't absorb the pollutants. The air was protected and "purified" through heavy smells too, some of which you describe (of course people appreciated a nice smell even back then), which distanced disease fumes in the minds of people (And here is where the quacks' beaks enter too! They were filled with aromatic substances to counteract the stench of disease upon visiting the sick).
    So it was said of Louis that he only bathed twice in his lifetime and it was for fear of disease.
    One can see the pots for urination hidden under the beds (unthinkable in small cottages in the East where there were outhouses since forever) and even the long instruments which were brought to bed to aid farting away from your bed-mate!! Time brought about the change of stance later on (in the late 18th and 19th century) where the idea of miasma was dispelled and the city sanitation concept began to develop fully.

    Of course Diane de Poitiers (and others) liked to take a cold bath every morning to which some attributed her beauty! So nothing was written in stone, it was an individual thing, especially among those with means.

    I very much agree that the lack of hygiene was often a lack of resources and technological advancement, as the ice-cold water of most northern countries is not exactly conductive to washing and heating it up was a task.
    The mixed baths idea IMO firmly blossomed in Kashiwaya Besso, Hoshi Onsen, Aoni Onsen in Japan...a very clean people anyway, as the water is scalding hot.

    It's all very interesting!

  3. This is such a broad theme that we could be discussing it forever...
    I sometimes have the teachery approach of explaining, debunking and re-explaining and I never know whether I'm starting to be annoying, though.... and yes, my eternal pain, long and tangled sentences. I need an editor and I'm an editor myself. Bah.

  4. It is a broad subject but you're not annoying, not in the least. I like to have lively discussion on such topics! In fact I welcome it :-)

  5. Anonymous23:07

    I always admired Elizabeth the 1 for she was bathing once a month. Some of her contemporaries - Philippe of Spain? maybe - washed 2 times in his life - when christening and before the coronation. I don't understand how his skin breathed...

  6. J m'en F,

    it's really odd how they survived (one would think their parts would fall off through sheer indignation for the malfunction received), but somehow they did. The whole "unwashed" thing was deeply ingrained into the theory of miasma, that bathing left the pores open for the ill/bad scents in the air (of which there were plenty at the time due to poor living conditions) to "invade" the body and make one ill. In a way contrary to what we consider today (that the body should "breathe" through its pores).
    I was always fascinated with the body coverage painting that geishas do (the "covering up" much like leaving on a film on skin), leaving a spot on the nape evokes both the "breathing" skin need and the allure of the promise of peeling the layer off. :-)


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