Perfumes and perfume-making in the Celestina

Perfumes and perfume-making in the Celestina

By Lesley K. Twomey

Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. 86, (2009)


Introduction: Celestina’s house, as Dorothy Sherman Severin notes, is at the same time ‘a bawdy house, a factory for perfumes and cosmetics, and a symbol of the misrule of a woman empowered by her illegal professions of sorceress, witch and bawd’. In these pages I will endeavour to set Celestina’s skills in the context of making perfume and uses of it in the early 16th century.

Material culture together with all the portable objects which belong to it ‘is dictated by people’s economic and social power, and their need to give physical expression to their status and aspirations’. Fernando de Rojas’s description of Celestina’s workshop lists an array of items used in her craft, including both ingredients and the vessels employed to mix them. Severin indicates that the ‘paraphernalia was influenced by the set-piece of the witch’ in Mena’s Laberinto de Fortuna. Celestina’s laboratory possesses a formidable battery of items of different types and of different values: ‘tenía una cámara llena de alambiques, de redomillas, de barrilejos de barro, de vidrio, de arambre, de estaño, hechos de mil facciones’.

Alambiques are documented in all contemporary perfume-making handbooks and, according to Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco, are vessels used for distillation. He describes them as a ‘cierto género de vaso torcido en muchas vueltas e injeridos en él otros vasos menores, adonde de uno en otro se va evaporando o destilando lo que se saca por el alambique con la fuerza del fuego, templado al modo que conviene’.

Redomas are wide-mouthed flasks, which can be used by pharmacists, according to Covarrubias. Celestina possesses glass vessels and Covarrubias indicates that both alambiques and redomas are made of glass, without mentioning the possibility of their being made of another substance. Both, as well as redomillas, or vials, are standard household items. Hinton’s classification of the relative cost of each type of vessel shows that glass vessels cost twice as much as pewter ones, while a single pewter pot cost the same as twelve in clay. In the Manual de Mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçeutas muy buenas, the vessels used are of a higher quality than Celestina’s, with gold and silver as well as glass vessels used to store perfumes. The Manual indicates that civet-based unguent, for example, is best kept in gold or silver receptacles.

In addition, Celestina’s workshop contains barrilejos, according to Covarrubias ‘vaso de tierra de gran vientre y cuello angosto, en que ordinariamente tienen los segadores y gente del campo el agua para beber’. Clay was the least expensive way of making vessels and one which was to be found in the homes of some of the poorest members of society.

The possession of copper vessels marks Celestina out as having turned a tidy penny from her craft, because tin and copper vessels were more costly than clay ones. Hinton describes how copper alloy vessels found in Wales were personalized with a warning to potential thieves about the perils they would face hereafter if they stole them. Hinton notes that spending on copper alloy cauldrons and other vessels and utensils is one ‘indication of greater spending on commodities from the end of the 13th century onwards’ among the artisan class. In Celestina’s case, her various offices were in decline and her possessions may indicate vestiges from a more prosperous life. In any case, they denote a willingness to have invested in the necessary equipment for this aspect of her business.

Click here to read this article from theBulletin of Hispanic Studies

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