History of Perfume: the Middle Ages

Perfume at Middle Ages: discover how aromatics and other scents were used in medieval times...

We have already explored the origins of Perfume through a journey into Antiquity until the fall of the Roman Empire. To continue our set of articles on the history of Perfume, today we lay down our hat in the medieval era. Despite a certain decline compared to the profusion of fragrances of ancient Rome, this new age will give life to new scented rituals. Welcome aboard and be ready for an immediate embarkation for a trip back in time to understand how the perfume was used in the Middle Ages.

The perfume in the Middle Ages: symbol of frivolity

After the invasion of the Roman Empire in 410 by the Goths, Rome is plundered and considerably weakened. Finally, the Empire collapses a few decades later. After this, the Roman splendor and the frenzy of scents disappear from the western world to be reborn in the Byzantine Empire. The nobles still perpetuate a Greco-Latin way of life. The perfume then takes an important place in its most sophisticated uses. In the West, perfumery becomes almost nonexistent from the 5th to the 11th century. Even the religious and cosmetic functions of perfume, then popular during Antiquity, are no longer topical. This decline of the perfume finds a religious explanation. In the Middle Ages, Christianity becomes the religion of reference. In fact, men of the cloth strongly condemn the profane use of perfume. Indeed, it is considered as the breach of moral standards and the symbol of pagan traditions.

The Gauls are not great lovers of scented products. Yet they develop important knowledge in terms of botany and pharmaceutical care.

Perfume as a cure

In front of these new recommendations, fragrances are no longer an attractive feature but during Middle Ages, perfume is used only for its medicinal properties. At the time, the monks cultivate different aromatics in the abbeys gardens. These plants such as lavender, rosemary or sage are called “simple” in opposition to complex remedies. Once harvested, these herbs and spices enter into the preparation of various odorous compositions. These scented solutions helped to protect against “bad air” and to cure many ill health. Indeed, it was thought at the time that bad smells were vectors of disease. They entered our body by breathing nauseating smells. Pharmacy and perfumery are therefore intimately linked.

And this use will be even more accurate from 1347. A Genoese boat, returning from the Black Sea, brings back plague in its holds. This epidemic, which will devastate more than a quarter of the European population, will further fortify the therapeutic function of perfume. To fight this pandemic, aromatherapy is used. Doctors and other apothecaries concoct various “anti-plague” preparations. The body is covered by the “four thieves’ vinegar”, a composition including rosemary, wormwood, mint and camphor. People use all sorts of plant-based purification methods: inhalation, fumigation or sprinkling. Laurel and rosemary are also burned into homes to purify the air.

Towards new scented roads

With an important decrease in the interest for perfumes, some fragrances are forgotten for many years. But the crusades conducted between 1100 and 1290 and the development of trade with the Orient open new paths conducive to still unknown odors. Thanks to its strategic position at the crossroads of maritime trade throughout Europe, Venice becomes, between the 10th to the 15th century, the new epicenter of perfumery. The city ensures an increasingly regular supply of scented products. Camphor, nutmeg, pepper and other balms pass through this commercial platform. The influence of the Arab world and the need for hygiene contribute to the renewed success of the perfume.

Thus, little by little, spices and new scents are introduced again into the habits of Westerners. Warm and intense scents appear alongside the floral perfumes of the time, as with musk, amber, sandalwood or myrrh. In addition to new scents, new perfumed rituals from the East will also conquer the nose of wealthy Westerners.

The pomander

In 1174, King Baudoin of Jerusalem gives a small object then unknown, a pomander, to the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. This jewel is a hollow sphere made of gold or silver. Inside this “scented apple”, its French name, we insert aromatic preparations that are reinforced by animal substances, then known for their therapeutic virtues, such as musk, amber or the civet. It is very popular with the aristocracy and the most fortunate bourgeois, who assign healing but also aphrodisiac virtues to the pomander. This object is worn everywhere: neck, belt or ring to both mark its social position but also to push harmful scents away. Gradually, the perfume of the Middle Ages is emerging from its therapeutic functions to become a sign of wealth.

A new preoccupation: cleanliness

It is also during this period that people start to feel the need for hygiene. Contrary to popular opinion, cleanliness and therefore perfume become an important preoccupation during the Middle Ages. At the greatest banquets, the hosts offer bowls of scented water to clean guests’ hands because they ate with fingers. The wealthier ladies already appreciated lavender and orange blossom perfumes. They hid flowers under their petticoats and had cushions – small sachets that held perfumed powder – in their laundry.

The bath

At that time, the bath is also a ritual that everyone appreciates. It is practiced at home by aristocrats and is given in large vats made of metal, stone or wood, covered with a sheet and in which we infuse spices. As for the people, they go to public baths that offer hot and flavored baths for a modest sum ok money. Real meeting place, men and women stir together to enjoy a moment of relaxation. This moment of pleasure could even be prolonged after the bath since four-poster beds were available for visitors to luxuriate in charming company.

The end of a ritual

But from 1348, the greatest doctors of the time begin to advice against doing this practice and especially hot baths that open pores, leaving the door open to all bacteria. The pressure of the Church, which condemned these places of depravity, added to the medical recommendations, will end up to the definitive closing of these establishments at the beginning of the Renaissance.

The perfume in the Middle Ages takes shape in different ways: in scented compositions with aromatics, grown in gardens, in flavored baths or with pomander for the well off people.
From left to right, the cultivation of various aromatic plants, the pomander worn by a noble and the illustration of public baths, a colorful meeting place.

Alcohol: a turning point in perfumery

Thanks again to the Arab influence, a new form of perfumery appears with the still and the coil, which allow a distillation with alcohol. It is in Salerno, Italy, that apothecaries test these techniques to replace the oil then used as an excipient of perfume. From the 12th century, they discover how to obtain ethanol, then called spirits of wine. This period marks a fundamental step in the evolution of perfume manufacturing techniques and paves the way for a new form of alcohol-based perfume. Fragrances are lighter and fresher. It is at this time that the Queen of Hungary Water (and later just Hungary Water) appears. This formula, created from alcohol and rosemary, will meet a phenomenal success. This water is rubbed all over the body to protect against infections. Some even drink it to enjoy even more its extraordinary virtues.

Next step: Renaissance

At the end of the Middle Ages, the fear of water in the ritual of the toilet sets in and the Renaissance will see these scented practices change. The use of aromatic vinegars among the more affluent classes thus replaces the bath. You want to learn more about the evolution of Perfume through the ages? See you here in a month to continue our journey through time !

Did you think that the use of perfume was common in medieval times?

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