Making Good Scents: Fragrance in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
By Barbara D. Diggs
Renaissance Magazine, Vol.14:1 (February 2009)
Introduction: If asked to imagine the smell of the medieval world, most people would probably crinkle their nose in disgust. The Middle Ages have a reputation for being one of the smelliest periods in history. And it’s not unfounded: the gutters of medieval cities and villages brimmed with all kinds of malodorous refuse, from tangled piles of animal entrails to human waste to the occasional bloated carcass of a horse or pig. But the sanitation problems of the time didnt mean that the people were indifferent to the foul odors around them. To the contrary, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, fetid odors were indicative of disease, low social rank, and moral corruption.
The well-kept medieval and renaissance citizen had a deep appreciation for beautiful fragrances, and took great pains to surround his home and body with pleasing scents to starve off bad smells. For medieval and renaissance housewives and servants, keeping a house sweet-smelling was an endless battle. Cottages and castles alike tended to be damp and musty. Chamber pots and privies left a lingering stench, even when emptied regularly or discreetly situated, and it wasn’t unusual for servants or other household members to occasionally use a corner to relieve themselves. The presence of dogs and cats and the unpleasant smell of tallow candles were also frequent contributions to the olfactory hullaballoo.