How did people in the Middle Ages think about smells? It’s a question that Dr. Katelynn Robinson avidly explores in her ongoing research (which includes Visual Odors, a website she created to trace how scents were depicted in medieval European art) and her book, The Sense of Smell in the Middle Ages: A Source of Certainty (Routledge), out next week in paperback. It’s the first comprehensive investigation of the period’s olfactory understanding, which Dr. Robinson compiled by reading Latin texts produced between the 11th and 15th centuries—material that’s largely untranslated and unedited by modern scholars. Wading through writings by academics and doctors, she learned about the overarching factors—including Greek and Arabic studies, philosophical and medical texts, and pious authors who imbued the information with spiritual meaning—that contributed to popular opinions of odors and how they played out in everyday life.
“Smell was an important source of knowledge about the world during the medieval period,” Dr. Robinson says. “That seems pretty obvious, but scholarship on the sense, from ancient to modern times, has been hampered by the idea that smell is animalistic, and [not so important] for more evolved humans—and that’s not true at all. I’m trying to rectify that.” We recently spoke with the author about some of the aromas that defined the era, and the connotations associated with them.
You’ve studied how smell was viewed in medicine, the built environment, and religion during the Middle Ages. What specifically did specialists in these fields believe?
Medical experts thought that odors were an indicator, and also a preventative, for epidemic diseases. They believed that rotten particles were getting into the air—released by things such as stagnant water, trash, sewage, and human and animal corpses—corrupting it, and making people sick. They simultaneously thought that odors could fend off ailments: If you used a “good odor,” you could clean the air, kind of like using an air freshener. People would burn herbs and spices in their fireplaces to purify the atmosphere when there was a plague, in the hopes that they wouldn’t fall ill. They’d also carry something good-smelling with them when they went outside, like a nosegay, [a sweet-smelling bunch of flowers], or pomanders, [wood or metal balls that were scented with] expensive, often imported perfumes. If you couldn’t afford those indulgences, medical texts advised carrying bread soaked in vinegar. They believed its strong stench would override the bad smells that caused epidemic diseases.
It seems like a lot of medieval conceptions about smell stem from an attempt to prevent illness. Were there legal efforts to keep fetid, potentially disease-causing odors out of densely populated areas?
Definitely. If somebody caused a bad smell, a neighbor could complain or stop it by issuing a clean-up order. City-wide rules were enacted, too. For example, the slaughter of large animals was banned in late medieval London because the butcher shops caused so much mess and so many bad smells. Butcher shops, tanners, and leather makers were usually located on the outskirts of town because they were so stinky.
Were there any good smells during the Middle Ages?
If you needed to locate a bakery, it’d be fairly easy—entire streets were full of bakers, emitting the scent of bread cooking in their ovens. There were also spice markets and apothecaries. In fact, early medieval Constantinople mandated that spice markets be in a particular location in the city, so that the aroma of the spices would drift into churches—and also, not coincidentally, into the imperial palace. Incense was used in many church rituals. Every religious person, including priests, monks, and nuns, must’ve smelled like incense, because the odor surely permeated their clothing and hair. You’d know who they were by the way that they smelled.
It’s fascinating how olfactory conventions like that differ from the ways we think about the sense today.
The number one thing that people need to understand in the history of science is that science is culturally determined. That’s something that isn’t really acknowledged as much as it should be. Just like modern science no longer accepts the idea that odors corrupt the air and cause epidemic diseases, future scientists will find out that some of our [current] accepted scientific truths are not actually correct. We need to be aware that science is a product of human culture, and that it changes over time.
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“Perfume has a wonderful ability to immerse people directly inside of a world,” says David Moltz, the self-taught perfum To be parked on various blocks throughout New York City, with on-the-fly location updates posted to the brand’s social mD.S. & Durga Fume Truck will soon hit the streets. In a city known for its not-so-glamorous sidewalk odors, this is one experiment we’re eager
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Early August marks the start of planting season for celery. Picked in fall and early winter, it makes for a sweet and crcleansing benefits, or an easy snack on its own—though the scent of celery, curiously, is always much stronger than its taste. As a scent,
What does our sense of smell have to do with philosophy? In her new book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind (Harvard University Press), cognitive scientist and sense historian Ann-Sophie Barwich delves into the perceptual dimen
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Rose expert Peter Kukielski, the author of Roses Without Chemicals: 150 Disease-Free Varieties That Will Change the Way You Grow Roses and former curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, tells us about the rose-bloom
April showers bring May flowers, as the age-old saying goes—and with both comes the scent of freshly dampened soil that New Atlas, geosmin is produced by certain bacteria from the genus Streptomyces as a way to attract a specific arthropod, called a springtail, which helps spread its spores. Researchers suggest that ta hand soap and a hand-sanitizer spray (the candle option, sadly, is sold out, at least for the moment), offers a close-to-the-real-thing alternative in a bot
Breu resin, a shiny, white sap extracted from the almécega tree found in the Amazon rain forests, as well as from various reBreuzinho is used to enhance focus and attain peace of mind, and is scientifically shown to have various medicinal properties as breu incense from the Brooklyn-based company Incausa, in stick form, coated in resin and sprinkled with chips of palo santo; as well as in its more natural, raw form, as a hunk of solid oleoresin from Costa Brazil, fashion designer Francisco Costa’s beauty brand, which pairs it with a ceramic tray. To enjoy the ar
Smell is among the earliest senses that babies develop—long before they learn to walk, talk, or even focus their eyes toSmithsonian Magazine, this is a “carefully concocted perfume of biological manipulation, evolved to trigger maternal bonding.” Hospitals eve
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As most of us remain stuck indoors, the spring days passing us by, inching toward summer and conjuring attendant escapisClaus Porto’s handsomely wrapped and scented soaps and let your mind wander to Portugal. Or head over to Positano by way of a bottlEau d’Italie shower gel. Famously stocked at the spectacular, immaculate Le Sirenuse hotel, it captures the salty-citrus musk of Italy’s Amalfithis beautiful green Scändic farmer soap made with stone-ground grits and geranium, patchouli, and lemongrass essential oils, meanwhile, has us imagining an endKorean Kiln Sauna Soap. Made with pine, activated charcoal, and red clay, it transports us directly to a long, relaxing day on South Korea’s J
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Everyone has a natural essence—we have our pheromones to thank for that—and scientists even consider our personal odors as unique as our fingerprints. Rather than mask yours with an off-the-shelf scent, certain speciality perfumeries offer the option of buying completeLondon-based Floris, you can book in-person scent consultations with their team of experts for the ultimate bespoke experience. Afterwards,
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Natural perfume-maker Mandy Aftel was hiking through old ghost towns in California’s Gold Rush country when she found un
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The earliest recorded uses of incense in Japan date back to 595 A.D., around the same time Buddhism arrived to the countthe multi-colored Horin assortment packs that are nearly as compact as a matchbox, and as visually pleasing as a fresh set of pastels. It’s the small details thmon-koh, a multisensory and ceremonial appreciation that translates to “listening to incense.”
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A new traveling exhibition gives visitors a whiff of global travel—just not the scents you’re wont to remember. “Pollution Pods,” a collaboration between artist Michael Pinsky, the innovation lab IFF, and a coterie of perfumers, simulates the condit