The current situation has given new impetus to olfactory history. For hundreds of years foul smells were thought to be responsible for the spread of diseases (think of terms as ‘malaria’ which literally means ‘bad air’) and doctors recognised diseases by their sense of smell. On the other end fragrances and strong smelling substances were expected to counter foul smelling miasmas by transforming the air, rendering it more ‘elastic’ and therefore healthy. Strikingly, people still connect clean and fresh air to health and bad smells to hazard and it is a known fact that diseases – covid-19 among others – have a specific scent.
Here you can find a top 10 of smells that were considered particularly effective in preventing diseases.
The smell of goats has intrigued great scientists for centuries. The botanist Linnee even classified it is a separate category: ‘Hircine’. As many of you know the smell of a (male) goat is very peculiar and can be perceived from afar. In the treaty ‘How to avoid the Plague’ from 1630, an author recommended sharing a space with this capricious animal. Its strong scent was thought to operate as an antidote against the Plague, because its voluminous emanations prevented the atmosphere from being polluted by miasmas.
How to avoid the plague, 1630
- The ‘Tussie mussie’ or ‘posie’
To protect oneself from pestilent air in Victorian times people carried around ‘posies’ or ‘tussie mussies’ which were bundles of fragrant herbs or flowers. The nursery rhyme ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’ is actually a reminder of that habit:
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down
One of the most popular posies to carry around was the highly fragrant ‘wallflower’ or ‘Erysimum cheiri’. The second name indicating the species was given because ‘cheiri’ means ‘hand’: the place people kept it so they could sniff it at at will. Its scent is as sweet as it is fresh and sour, voluminous and honey-like; a scent that was once well-known and associated to medicine instead of spring in which it blooms. Wallflowers are arguably depicted in an allegory of smell by Guillaume Collaert on which I wrote this blog (in Dutch).
Wallflower and detail of ‘Allegory of Smell’ of the same flower by Guillaume Collaert, 17th century.
Theriaca was used in Europe for almost 2 millennia. It consisted of a sticky mixture made from about 50 precious fragrant and venomous substances like opium, myrrh, rosemary, pearls, flesh of poisonous snakes and blood of ducks fed with toxic substances. Mithridates VI Eupator – toxicologist and king of Pontus (120-63 B.C.) developed Theriaca out of fear of being poisoned, but later on it was primarily used against plagues.
After Mithridates’ death, Theriaca was taken to Rome, and it was there that I smelled Theriaca in the ‘Antica Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala’. During my residency at the Dutch Royal Institute a friendly monk gave me and a couple of other residents a tour through usually restricted areas. I found myself grasping for air when he lifted the lit of a huge vase that contained a very dark dried up substance. It was very exciting because after all that time it still turned out to be fragrant. Some of us clearly perceived rosemary and myrrh.
The intriguing part is that these substances might actually have been effective to some extend: they are highly antibacterial and antiseptic. The plants in question (and many others) contain them to protect themselves from diseases, viruses and bugs.
Apothecary shop where Theriaca was made and sold. Illustration from Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century.
The word ‘pomander’ is derived from the French ‘pomme d’ambre’ or ‘apple of ambergris’. Pomanders – which are often spherical in shape – were hung from a neck chain or from a ‘chatelaine’ around the waist so they could be brought to the nose at any desired moment. One of the substances carried around in these metal jewels was ambergris; the highly priced strong smelling secretion of the sperm whale. Other strong substances such as musk, and civet were also utilised against pestilent air. Sometimes they contained several partitions, in each of which was placed a different perfume, like in this specimen from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After the 19th century pomanders were merely worn as aesthetically pleasing objects and some couldn’t even be opened, losing their original function. This is indicative of a paradigm shift: after Pasteur’s discovey of germs, people stopped fearing stench.
Anonymous, pomander, ca. 1600 – 1650, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
- Planting grass
William of Orange’s court physician knew exactly what to do when the plague hit the town of Delft in 1657. It was feared that the accumulation of so many contaminated and decomposing corpses at the graveyard (some graves contained 70 bodies) would spoil the air and result in a new outbreak of disease. However, on the advice of Foreest, the city decided to sow grass, and with the desired results. The disease had raged out and did not return to the city.
Anonymous, engraving after design by
- Vinaigre de Quatre Voleurs, or Four Thieves Vinegar
An old legend tells of a group of thieves during an outbreak of the plague who were robbing the dead and the sick without falling ill. When they were caught, they offered to reveal their secret recipe in exchange for leniency.
An allegedly original bottle containing the miracle concoction was shown at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, much to the surprise of perfume expert Robert de Montesquiou who wrote in his treaty ‘Pays des Aromats’ (1900) that:
“this bottle has never been opened and still contains the well-known scent”
The recipe was documented by Septimus Piesse in ‘The Art of Perfumery’ (1857):
“Take fresh tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint, and rue, of each, 3/4 oz.
Lavender flowers, 1 oz. Garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, each, 1 drachm.
Camphor, 1/2 oz. Alcohol or brandy, 1 oz. Strong vinegar, 4 pints.
Digest all the materials, except the camphor and spirit, in a closely covered vessel for a fortnight, at a summer
heat; then express and filter the vinaigre produced, and add the camphor previously dissolved in the brandy or
- Strewing herbs (meadowsweet)
The plague treatise by Jean Vigier mentioned one plant more often than any other: meadowsweet. Its flowers (not blooming until june/ july) indeed smell particularly sweet with hints of hay and coumarine. It grows in meadows and next to water and was known as the favorite ‘strewing herb’ of Elizabeth I. Strewing herbs were cast on floors of castles and churches, allowing those that stepped on it for the herbs to give off of their sweet aroma, purifying the air. It was used in vast quantities. A Dutch traveler wrote about a toilet in Elizabeth’s castle as ‘very fragrant’. You can see a reenactment of how meadowsweet was used here.
- Plague masks
We all know the archetypical and somewhat gloomy beak-shaped plague mask. It was worn by doctors or those that had to get rid of infected bodies.
The leather mask covered the entire head, including the eyes, just like some worn in hospitals nowadays. The beak allowed for the necessary space to store herbs and spices to prevent inhaling pestilent air. Lavender, rosemary, cloves, myrrh, cinnamon and mint were most often used. In France the concoctions were sometimes burnt inside the beak to provide enhanced olfactory protection through ‘per fumum’ (through smoke) diffusion.
Doctor Schnabel von Rom (plague doctor), engraving, 1656.
Vinaigrettes were tiny boxes, sometimes designed as rings or pendents, containing vinegar and perfumes. Not only did the smelling salt prevent women (wearing corsets) from fainting, but it also safeguarded them from diseases. Septimus Piesse wrote the following about creating vinaigrettes in 1857:
“All these concentrated vinegars are used in the same way as perfumed ammonia, that is, by pouring three or four drachms into an ornamental “smelling” bottle, previously filled with crystals of sulphate of potash, which forms the “sel de vinaigre” of the shops; or upon a sponge into little silver boxes, called vinaigrettes. The use of these vinegars had their origin in the presumption of keeping those who carried them from the effects of infectious disease, doubtless springing out of the story of the “four thieves’ vinegar” (see number 6).
- Tar water
Tar water was a popular medieval medicine that consisted of pine tar and water. In 1737 the Irish bishop George Berkeley opened a shop for the concoction of tar water. He had learned about its healing and purative qualities from native Indians. It could supposedly be used against the plague, as well as against fevers in both animals and humans. It was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ in which Young Pip and his brother-in-law, Joe, were often force fed it by Mrs. Joe, Pip’s elder sister, whether they were ill or not, as a sort of cruel punishment. Tar water has a very bitter taste and dropped in popularity until it was rediscovered in Victorian times.
The relation between air or atmosphere and health and sickness remains an intriguing one. Miasma-theory was successful because it was effective. Getting rid of stench and replacing it with other fragrances worked to a certain extend because of the disinfecting qualities of resins and spices. After all – just like scent – many diseases are airborne, so it makes sense people held a sickening atmosphere accountable for the spread of diseases. Furthermore smells can warn us and keep us away from dangerous unhygienic situations.
Smells impact our lives and well-being to a much larger extend than we realize. It makes one question what the role of smell as a diagnostic and medicinal tool could be today.