Monday, November 9, 2009

Perfume Use in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: myths and truths

It is not unusual to hear the Middle Ages considered as the age of the Great Unwashed or to think that Western Europe had by that time ceased to partake of the pleasures of perfume and aromatic components used for reasons of well-being, aesthetic advancement and spiritual therapy completely. Nothing is further from the truth, which we will try to clarify with this article on fragrance history.

It is often mentioned that the Middle East and Islam in particular were the harbingers of perfumes in the Dark Ages. It's certainly true that during the 7th and 8th centuries A. D. the Arabs engaged in extensive marine commerce with India and China, focusing on spices and aromatics, supplying them to the luxurious courts of the caliphs and the Byzantine emperors. Empress Zoë, in the Christian stronghold of Constantinople, emplyed court perfumers and indulged in fine scents.
However we would be mistaken to thus "interpret" the torch-being-held by the Middle East for that time-frame, which would on first thought seem logical because of their scientific advancements (indeed revolutionary in many scientific fields). For example, Avicenna was accredited with revolutionising the plants distillation process by introducing a refrigerated coil, therefore rendering the production of aromatic floral waters and essentials possible for a greater variety of plants, including rose. However archaeological evidence proves that plants were certainly distilled before this time in history and that the tradition had been kept in the west ~as archived through manuscripts, industriously being copied in...western monasteries, of all places!

Aromatic baths were taken, during those dark times, for medical, spiritual or even merely aesthetic reasons with various essences; and in fact the practice was not restricted only to nobility. Herbalists such as Hildegarde of Bingen and the author of Banckes' herbal recommended them. The strong smell of valerian musk and civet were quite popular as well, probably because they had the power to obliterate other offensive smells in the urban environment (which, due to inadequate plumping or garbage collecting, was thickened with the inevitable pong of the living) As far back as the 14th century there are texts mentioning these practices involving water and soap and other scented products:
"Without permitting anyone else to lay a hand on him, the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves. She then had herself washed and rubbed down by the slaves. This done, the slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed . . . They then took from the basket silver vases of great beauty, some of which were filled with rose water, some with orange water, some with jasmine water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them." ~Boccaccio's Decameron, 14th century
Scented tablets for perfuming are also documented as being a recipe for olfactory delight:
"Two pounds of rose water and a pound of citrus blossom water, a pound of benzoin and half of balsam, an ounce of amber and half of musk, a quarter of civet
[musk]. All together and ground, put it with the water in a flask, and put the flask on the fire over some embers. Stir it with a stick and cook until it reduces three parts [from?] one. And when it is reduced, remove the paste from that and make it [into tablets], if you wish tablets, and if not, keep it thus in paste" ~Manual de Mujeres, anonymous 16th century text in Spanish.[1]
Medieval people also made practical use of pleasurably scented herbs to discourage vermin and protect their clothes and linen. Tansy against flies; mint against ants; wormwood against mice; lavender and southernwood against moths (southernwood was so potent it was called garde robe, i.e. protector of garments); pennyroyal againts fleas and camphor as a general preventive means. By the 16th century there are literally hundreds of recipes for aromatic preparations for perfuming. Tome upon tome contained formulae for aromatizing clothes, linens and personal belongings as well as human skin.
Bulleins Bulwarke (1562) includes this formula:
"Three pounds of Rose water, cloves, cinnamon, Sauders [sandalwood], 2 handful of the flowers of Lavender, lette it stand a moneth to still in the sonne, well closed in a glasse; Then destill it in Balneo Marial. It is marvellous pleasant in savour, a water of wondrous swetenes, for the bedde, whereby the whole place, shall have a most pleasaunt scent" [2].
The Menagier de Paris hands down a recipe for drying roses to put among clothes:
"Roses from Provence are the best to put in clothing, but they should be dried, and in mid-August sift them over a screen so that the worms fall through the screen, and then spread them in your clothes."
The same opus also suggests ideas for hand-washing waters for the table (a widespread practice, usually water with rose or violet petals in it or infused with herbs):
"To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good". [3]
In Hugh Platt's Delights for Ladies (1594) there is this formula for "sweet water":
"To make a special sweet water to perfume clothes in the folding being washed. Take a quart of Damaske-Rose-Water and put it into a glasse, put unto it a handful of Lavender Flowers, two ounces of Orris, a dram of Muske, the weight of four pence of Amber-greece [ambergris], as much Civet, foure drops of Oyle of Clove, stop this close, and set it in the Sunne a fortnight: put one spoonfull of this Water into a bason of common water and put it inot a a glasse and so sprinkle your clothes therewith in your folding: the dregs, left in the bottome (when the water is spent) will make as much more, if you keepe them, and put fresh Rose water to it". [4]
And on and on right till the Queen's Closet Opened in the next century...Elizabethans in particular, long before the Victorian "language of flowers", kept scented nosegays terming them 'tuzzy-muzzy' as far back as 1500! (and even older, going by the Oxford English Dictionary)

On the whole, Medieval times are grossly misunderstood by the general public, perhaps due to their unfortunate emphasis on didactical, pontificating religion which seems so backwards to our modern minds: In all reality the people were not as barbarian or underdeveloped as generally thought of! Especially through the Romanesque and Gothic eras people were significantly cleaner compared to the Enlightenment era of the 18th century!

Renaissance is briefly saved by the grace of its profligation of the arts in regard to the general public's perception of bathing and perfuming rituals. Still, it is customary to begin the iterations of perfume history in pamphlets, advertising copy of perfume firms and even serious books solely by the mention of Catherine de Medici and her introduction of Florentine fragrancing methods via her perfumer to the French Court. The latter certainly was the stepping stone to the culmination of Grasse into the fragrant producing capital of Europe but it is not the whole story!

The real reason that a somewhat diminished supply of aromatics and perfumes happened in Western Europe at some point is much more prosaic than philosophical anathematisation of the "corrupt" powers of perfumes: Namely, the loss of the monopoly of the Venetian Republic of the products of the Spice & Silk Route, till then the sole purveyor under gold-sealed agreements with all the powers of the time in exchange for ports protection against other enemies by its mighty fleet. The Mediterranean commerce was conducted principally by Italian cities during the Middle Ages:. Bari, Salerno, Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi reigning above them all, all prominent during the 10th and 11th centuries AD, while Pisa and Venice became the ruling city-states during the 12th to 15th century while conducting the Levant commerce. Acre on the Palestine coast was the most important harbour for scented products ~incidentally the last city in the Holy Land held by the Christians (falling to the Mohammedans in 1291)~, Famagusta on Cyprus, and, Lajazza on the bay of Alexandretta (a junction port for Western and Eastern commerce); they all strongheld the precious commodities which Europe was paying heavily to partake of.
However there is an interim between the loss of Venice's might in economic and trade issues (in part due to the Crusades ~which destabilised the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also brought back copious aromatics to the west~ as well as to the regeneration of the trade by the Byzantins who claimed part of trafficking such precious materials themselves under the Komnene Dynasty) and the discovery of alternative navigating routes bypassing the Mediterranean ~le fin du voyage for the above mentioned ancient routes of the trade with the East~ when the Portugese circumnavigated Africa in 1498 and conquered Ormuz). These factors briefly left Western Europe with a diminished supply of the scented commodities, yet with increased amounts shortly thereafter, by their very fluent nature.

Despite the constant ebb and flow of the perception of perfume as either a holy commodity or alternatively an unethical, even dangerous, substance through history, it is interesting to note that the dissent to the use of eastern-brought perfumes first arose among ancient Greek society and philosophical circles. The confrontation was poised on the cultural antithesis with the East as a place of unharnessed luxury and ethically-corrupting abundance, tied to their despotic governments: The Spartan values of the Greeks and their strong belief in the freedom of the individual within a law-abiding state, where even the rulers are bound by laws, were considered their cultural and moral supremacy over eastern people and the reason that they had alone remained free from imperialistic attacks (such as the one by the Persians). This is why Socrates said that "using perfume made free men smell the same as slaves" (i.e. a free man is not a "slave" to pleasures and material goods). Few adhered to his words, nevertheless. There was also an economical reason: As the expenses of using pyre aromatics imported by Arabia was so high in his time (so widespread was their use), one of the 7 wise men of antiquity and law-maker of Athens, Solon, had to abolish their use by law. Later they caught on again with a vengeance, especially at the time of Alexander the Great when the fusion of cultures was the vision of the legendary Greek leader.

It increasingly looks like practical reasons are hiding behind any relative diminuation of perfume use in Western Europe in the Middle Ages rather than an ideological aversion to its use. The relationship between man (and woman) and scent is truly indestructible!

[1]The Manual de Mujeres via
Cervantesvirtual, translation by Dana Huffman
[2][4]quoted by Jacqueline Hériteau, Potpourris and other Fragrant Delights, Penguin 1978
[3]edited & translated by Tania Bayard

Pic credits:
Girl bathing on the Luttrell Psalter from East Anglia c.1325-1335 (via
Bains mixtes from The Romance of Alexander c.1388-1344 in the Bodleyan library 264 via, Catherine de Medici attributed to François Clouet via and Venetian canals via


  1. At this year's Chelsea Flower Show there was a whole perfume garden, with a machine full of rose pretals at the centre. I doubted how much use it would be as a distiller, but they were selling a perfume inspired by the ingredients in Elizabeth I's scent. It was a very sugary rose.

  2. Fascinating and illuminating! Thanks for the efforts you go to in writing these informative posts for us, Helg.

  3. Rappleyea14:59

    Love your history articles (The Past in the book! ;-) ) so much! One of my favorite stories when I was learning aromatherapy was the story of the thieves bouquet. To keep from getting sick, thieves wore lavender, rosemary and thyme tied around their necks when robbing victims of the Plague.

  4. Fiordiligi15:52

    Oooh, absolutely marvellous. Thank you so much, dearest E! I absolutely love this historical perspective on things. Have you read the marvellous book "Clean" which is all about hygiene and related matters? If not, you really should.

    Personally, I like the idea that in the past, monarchs put on clean linen very regularly, but without having bathed!

  5. M,

    it must have been great to see. Yes, it should have been a sugary rose, because Elizabeth the 1st did include sugar in her perfume (I realise this was an import from the colonies, snatched by English pirates, so her fragrance choice might have a political connotation as well! I must devote a post on this)

  6. My dearest Suzanna, thank you very much for saying so!!

  7. D,

    I know! You are well catered for, you can't complain, eh?
    What a lovely inclusion, the thieves' bouquet! Illustrates perfectly the profylactic use of plants at the time.

  8. D,

    history is close to our hearts, we can't help it :-)
    Along with the Smith book I believe Corbin's treatise is a must in that historical context. The body was considered a sealed by its skin entity, so bathing would disrupt that shield, or so they thought and never bathed: makes for fascinating dinner conversation! (seeing some jaws drop)

  9. L'Hermite Aromatique17:03


    Fascinating blog entry, indeed, the whole blog...

    Just wanted to point out, that Alexander wasn't Greek....he was Macedonian...The more sophisticated Greek city states considered the Macedonians bucolic and crude, until Alexander finished what his father Phillip had started, and conquered a lot of the known World....

  10. Hermite,

    thank you very much for your most kind compliment and hope to see you often on the blog!

    In regards to Alexander being Greek, I chose the word very purposefully because he was indeed Greek. Please let me explain at some length as it would be useful for people perusing the blog to come across the facts:

    The term Macedonian (deriving from Homer btw meaning "long" or "vast" denoting its wide plains) was a subdivision of Greece and a larger geographical term for what is today's half of the central basin of the Balkans and did not refer to ethnicity in ancient times. However, since FYROM became a state about 18 years ago (and there is the ongoing dispute about its official name; they insist on calling themselves as Macedonians) there is an ongoing, very agressive propaganda, especially on US soil, on claiming Alexander as their own, something that clearly is not true and isn't based on ANY solid historical data. The only argument which they bring is the anti-Philipic speeches of Demosthenes, an Athenian orator especially hateful of Phillip ~because he threatened the Athenian colonies in Chalikidiki in which he had strong interests~ who used whatever derogatory adjective ("barbarian", aka Non-Greek, included) he could think of to belittle his opponent. This, I repeat, is the ONLY historical argument that FYROM brings into the game. But as you can plainly see, it is largely related to interpretation. And with that agrees Professor Robin Lane-Fox of Oxford University, who is the greatest living authority on Alexander and the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia.

    The very names Alexander and Phillip are clearly Greek.(Alexander means "the one who repels men" funnily enough, while Phillip is "the friend of horses") And so are the inscriptions on the archaeological finds because there is no ancient Macedonian language, the modern Macedonia/Furom language derives from the Slavic branch of Languages.

    Regarding the southern city-states, they included Alexander the 1st (Alexander the Great's grandfather) in their Olympic Games, a festival in which strictly Greeks ONLY were admitted, which proves that they fully well realised the kinship (there are mentions of this in both Herodotus and Pausanias).
    Additionally, the tale of the Vergina 5-prong star is originating from the city-state of Argos, which is in the Peloponnese, aka in Southern Greece. You can search for it as "Perdika's story" in Herodotus.

    Last but not least, even the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Denk Malevski, of FYROM/Macedonia admits the whole story of how they derive from the ancient "Macedonians" is a complete fabrication!!
    Watch the video here (please watch it in its entirety, it's truly fascinating).

    He does have a point that this whole mess is in part due to the Greek refusal to accept this newly-formed country at its northern extremities; I guess a more friendly approach might have prevented the more extremist/mationalist parties gaining advantage in Fyrom/Macedonia.

    Sorry for the lengthy (and possibly boring) explanation, but it was a prime opportunity to set some things straight. I realise that to an American or Western European this whole mess sounds like one hell of a mix-up, but I assure you it is a dangerous and insidious effort of usurping cultural heritage and then claiming of ethnic minorities on Greek soil (something untrue), which is no laughing matter...

    1. Anonymous06:37

      Not boring at all.

  11. Hello E, a lovely post, academic but very interesting- a combination lots of historians find challenging I find! I always ponder just how it must have smelled back then- back to even a few centuries ago. I suppose the truth is the nose blocks out familiar, harmless even if horrid smells quickly and they must have all been immune to much of it.

  12. K,

    glad you enjoyed it. I try to restraint myself when quoting, citing sources etc. LOL
    I believe you're absolutely right: people must have been blocking offending odours while living cooped up in the cities, couldn't be possible otherwise, but I think the air was purer and that should have contributed to a different perception of smells (when they were other than the usual), a more keen one, perhaps.
    Anyway, it's a fascinating subject to ponder on, isn't it?

  13. *grumble grumble* I can see you were reading my website (the sequence of recipes from ... would it have hurt you to refer to it?

  14. *scratching scratching* (my head)

    Perhaps we have been consulting the very same books, especially since they're quite popular and considered standard reading for that sort of research, such as the Heriteau and Lawless reference guides. If you peruse the site more you will see I have an extensive library on scent and fragrant plants and materials. Additionally Google search especially if you search in quotes/books brings the very passages to the surface.
    At any rate, since your page is noteworthy you're welcome to mention it, as you have here. Thanks for providing the link. As you can see I have not deleted or edited your comment in any way.


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