[Sca-cooks] Smell according to Woolgar was Spices: a thought and a question

Johnna Holloway johnnae at mac.com
Mon May 4 05:46:57 PDT 2009

As I suggested late on Saturday, C. M. Woolgar's The Senses in Late 
Medieval England
is probably a good starting point. Chapter 7 of the book is devoted to 
"Smell", pages 117-146.
Briefly to summarize the chapter starts with mentioning smells cannot be 
stored of course so we
are dependent on the descriptive language of the age for attempting to 
understand smells. This is
a rather complicated business for the medieval period
because humoral theory plays its part. (Smells might cool or heat the 
body.) Woolgar notes "men with a
predominance of melancholy or of evil complexion avoided what smelled 
good and associated with
places that smelled bad - 'loveth stynkeng place' - as did those who 
could not smell or who smelled
bad themselves, such as lepers, who fitted both categories." There's a 
strong spiritual dimension here.
Descriptions abound that when holy men or women died, oftentimes 
suddenly pleasant
and good smells suddenly appeared at the time of death. Opening a 
saint's tomb would release
the scents of heaven ("Sweetness of the air of heaven" or pleasant 
odors. Visions of Saints were
accompanied also by pleasant smells. The Church also employed incense as 
"symbolic for prayers."
"Fragant flowers and odours were generally accepted as signs of virtue 
and grace, sometimes
considered a foretatse of Paradise."

Bad smells were associated with evil, Hell, and the Devil. Hell reeks of 
corruption. A 'stinking' describes
those whose activities might be hypocritical or nefarious. It was also a 
term of abuse and people
objected mightily if they were called 'stinking.' Eating onions, leeks, 
and garlic were at various times
as mentioned as marking bad things and even bad habits. Bad breath might 
also might irritate a wound.
Physicians were cautioned by John Arderne (1307 – 1392) to avoid 
menstruating women because
their breath irritated wounds. Likewise, physicians shouldn't sleep with 
a menstruating woman or eat
garlic or onions. Anyone that sinned might also acquire a stench. 
(Prostitutes and old and ugly women
were associated with bad smells.)
Some sins/stenches might be erased through the washing of baptism.
There was also the widely spread belief that disease might well come 
from bad air or miasma.
Standing pools of water were seen as corrupt, dangerous, and even deadly.
Bad air might lead to the spontaneous generation of flies and spiders.
Areas around slaughterhouses, tanneries, and the workplaces of the 
fullers were noxious.
Certain professions were also noxious; these included cess pit cleaning, 
latrine and street cleaners.
Lepers were, of course, excluded in part because "their dreadful stench 
marking them as spiritually
deficient as well as physically afflicted." Being so afflicted, lepers 
could be safely given bad foods, including
measled or bad meat.

Woolgar mentions the association of carnal pleasure with the dimension 
of smells and notes "monks were
urged to confess both their delight in smells, such as the good-smelling 
herbs they might spread in places where
they wanted to sleep, or the smell of spices, sauces and foods, such as 
meat cooking, which might provoke
a desire for a more luxurious diet: and, at the same time, their 
unreasonable turning away from
bad smells, those of disease or the sickness of one of their 
colleagues." (page 126)

Woolgar mentions the role of perfumes, pomanders, fumigation, flowers, 
gardens, and the role of washing. One washed
because it was gentile to wash. One washed at the start of the day and 
before meals. (Washing hair might be seen
as a vanity, especially if done on a Sunday when it might lead to madness.)

But in the end the chapter does not associate the eating of spices to 
mask the odors of dining companions.

Hope this helps,

Johnnae llyn Lewis

> James Prescott wrote:
>> Might a small, but not negligible, contributing factor towards
>> the period consumption of spices have been to mask, while eating
>> a meal, the smell of *humans* and their habitations?
>> Has this question been discussed?

More information about the Sca-cooks mailing list