top of page
  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

OLFACTORY HISTORY: Or, Smells to you and me!

The publication this month of a book, entitled 'Smells: A cultural history of smells in early modern times' by the French historian Robert Muchembled, might not seem the most enticing of historical subjects. Yet, there is now quite a large body of academic literature on the subject. It is a sub sect of Cultural History, as the full title of Muchembled's book illustrates.

I first talked about the subject over ten years ago on a history course in Essex, and have remained relatively interested since. But the publication of the book mentioned above has fully reawakened my interest.

Obviously there are, and always have been, good smells and bad smells. In terms of historical writing good smells have centred around a history of perfume. But, perhaps most interest has been in bad smells, their causes and solutions over time. Any visit to The Jorvik Viking Centre in York will see hordes of people gathered around the latrine inhaling noxious smells, and enjoying the experience!

I have just finished, under lockdown, Pliny the Elder's Natural History. In addition to being an author, Pliny was also an Admiral and perished during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in

79 AD. But it is for his Natural History for which he is remembered today. He attempted to record all the known knowledge of the natural world. One of the thousands of topics covered is that of perfume. He seeks to enlighten us on the origins of perfume, writing, 'Forests are valuable in the realm of perfumes inasmuch as individual essences are not sufficiently remarkable in themselves, and luxury delights in compounding them to make a single perfume. This led to the invention of perfume..' He ascribes to the Persians the first use of perfume, which was used by both sexes. He tells us that the use of perfumes came to the West when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King, Darius, and seized a chest full of perfume from his wagon train. But Pliny, ever the Puritan, does not approve, 'Perfumes are the most pointless of all luxuries, for pearls and jewels are at least passed on to one's heir....'

Often perfumes, especially in the past, were used not as luxuries but to mask unpleasant smells. This is perhaps why they were first developed in the hot conditions of The Middle East. One example of masking is the fact that judges in England attending County Assizes were presented with a posy of sweet smelling flowers to keep them safe from gaol fever. I had an insight into this when a great friend of mine, Norah Warren, Horticultural Adviser in Warwickshire LEA's Education Department, was asked to create a posy for the upcoming Assizes. She made a posy of wild flowers and received a severe ticking off; only for the judge to remark that this was the first time he had received an historically correct posy. Norah was always a force to be reckoned with, and one day, perhaps, I will write a little more about her.

Perfumes were also used in religious ceremonies and rites, as indeed they still are in catholic churches today. The Egyptians popularised this use across the Mediterranean, and trade in myrrh, frankincense and camphor testifies to this. Recent archaeological evidence from Israel highlighted the use of cannabis oil in religious ceremonies in ancient Judaea. This would have had an intoxicating effect on the celebrants.

A further use of good smells was not just to mask the smells of ill health but to seek to cure the illnesses themselves. For example it was thought at the time of The Great Plague of London in 1665 that hanging oranges with cloves, pomanders, stuck in them was beneficial. Many continue this tradition at Christmas time to create the 'authentic smell' of the season. Staying with medicine a moment, doctors still smell urine to detect some infections; from around 6000 BC up until Victorian times urine was a primary diagnostic method of the medical profession.

One of the recurring themes of cultural historians is that if a person from today was transported back in time the first thing they would notice would be the overriding presence of bad smells. In fact those of us of a certain age can be transported back by merely thinking of life in the 1950s when smog, tobacco smoke, people's body odour, and general industrial smells were an ever present. You might say well yes, I agree but I don't remember them as being particularly obnoxious. That is because we became like all our forebears so tolerant of the smells around us every day that we ceased to notice them. However, if you have recently been in a supermarket and passed someone whose personal hygiene is not what it should be you will have been brought up smartish, yet in the '50s you would not have noticed. Culture changes in other words as to what is and what is not acceptable. This change in our attitudes began with the passing of The Clean Air Act of 1956, following the large number of deaths during The Great Smog of London of 1952. This was quickly followed by the launch of commercial television in 1959 and the many soap advertisements, including Lifebuoy's famous, 'Say No to BO'. None of us - young men at least - had ever heard of BO.

Tobacco is an interesting cultural case for opinions changed and changed again over time. James I described taking it as, 'A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.' A view held today, if only with less dramatic language. But in between the 17th and the 21st centuries there were times when the smell of tobacco was a welcome smell, masking less desirable ones in industrial Britain.

There are some great historical examples of bad smells, from The Great Stink of London in

the summer of 1858, which was described in a letter to a friend by Charles Dickens, 'I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature', to the much much earlier burial of William I. William was a big man and when it came to placing him in the coffin they found he wouldn't fit. In forcing the body in Orderic Vitalis tells us, 'the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd.' We are told the service was foreshortened as mourners raced for the doors and fresh air. The same fate awaited the mourners at Henry VIII's funeral where noxious matter burst from the coffin and filled the church with a foul smell.

Some of you might be asking, what gives me the right to comment on smells. Well, I live in Worthing which for many years was subject to a terrific pong of seaweed from the beach. So much seaweed was deposited that farmers brought carts down to the shore in order to take loads back inland to use as fertiliser on their fields. Today there is far less seaweed and farmers are banned from removing any. Indeed there is so little seaweed that there are now plans to restock the seaweed beds off this part of the Sussex coast so as to restore the eco system of the sea. The culprits have been named as large trawl nets which have destroyed the beds.

So to conclude. Everything has a history from perfumes to seaweed. I might write about some other odd aspects of history later. But to finish where I began with Robert Muchembled's book; one of his chapter headings is intriguingly entitled, ' When women did not smell of roses', and another 'the perfumed glove trade'.

40 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

Read On! A General Booklist

Selection of new history books Herod the Great Martin Goodman An African History of Africa Zeinab Badawi Beyond the Wall (East Germany) (now in pbk) Katya Hoyer Killers of The Flower Moon

Select Booklist for Lockdown Lecture 20 May

The Islamic Enlightenment C de Bellaigue The Enlightenment and why it still matters A Pagden The Enlightenment J Robertson Pathfinders: Golden Age of Arabic Science J Al-Khalili The Ottoma

Lockdown Lecture Synopsis for 20 May

CHRISTIAN & MOSLEM ENLIGHTENMENT Terms Definitions & Lecture's Argument Western ideas of superiority Above belief challenged by World History Studies The Arab Golden Age precedes both Renaissance and

1 Comment

Jun 02, 2020

Fascinating, William. The story of your namesake!!! and all the others. Great little snippets to pull out at the next cocktail party!

bottom of page