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The Book of Smells


All of this funny stuff risks becoming more of a collection of curiosities than an act of scholarship, but Muchembled’s book is saved from the realm of “weird history” by its insistence on understanding why people had these relationships to smell—and how they changed over time. A chapter about women and their supposedly bad-smelling bodies shows how ideas about smell intertwined with misogyny, even in a time when everybody stank. Muchembled gathers evidence of widespread condemnation of women for smelling “off” during menstruation, absolutely repulsive during illness, and especially bad in their old age—which, in this time and place, was any age after a woman’s early 20s. Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, in his satirical essay In Praise of Folly (1511), described older women as “strolling corpses, stinking carcasses which everywhere exhale a sepulchral odor.” Accused witches supposedly smelled like the devil; young flirts, who masked their natural smells with perfume, were likewise subject to condemnation.

Even in browsing a delightful museum of everyday life like this book, we can’t escape reminders of our own time. Epidemics of bubonic plague in the 16th and 17th centuries, Muchembled writes, ushered in a fashion for the use of strong-smelling ambergris, musk, and civet, as “vital bulwarks against the Devil’s breath.” Smell was incredibly important to French people trying to stay uninfected; the body was seen as porous and could be “permeated” by air with plague in it. Doctors advised that they should wear white, burn sweet-smelling fires, and live life in moderation, to keep humors balanced.

Moralizing condemnations of the use of scent, which had been seen as a way for people to misrepresent their own bodily odors—to literally put on “airs,” in search of pleasure—vanished in the face of medical advice to use strong scent to ward off sickness. Glove-makers and perfumers thrived, since every bit of clothing had to be saturated with these concoctions. The plague also changed people’s understanding of personal space. In Arras in 1597, a public rule imposed on plague patients the need to carry a white rod, 2 meters in length, to keep people away. The use of strong scents did the same thing for the not yet infected, “creating a sort of isolation bubble around the individual.” The poor, unable to afford the fancy oils from the Americas their rich contemporaries used to forge this bubble, made do as they could.

Before the 18th century, when people became more convinced that modernizing sanitation practices would reduce the transmission of disease, smelling bad was just part of the human condition. Once these things changed, the upper classes emerged into a new world emphasizing hygiene and hopefulness (and regular baths); they began to favor perfumes with fruity and floral notes and to disdain older lifeways that accepted the smell of poop and pee and decay. “The body was no longer seen as a stinking prison for the soul,” Muchembled writes. Cities began to take steps like moving graveyards and slaughterhouses away from residential areas, out to the fringes.


Read entire article at Slate