Philobiblon: Scent or stench

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Scent or stench

So is our sense of smell socially determined?

Thais is a woman Martial obviously didn't fancy.

"Thais smells worse than a grasping fuller's long-used crack*, and that too just smashed in the middle of the street; than a he-goat fresh from his amours; than the breath of a lion; than a hide dragged from a dog beyond Tiber; than a chicken when it rots in an abortive egg; than a two-eared jar poisoned by putrid fish sauce." (p. 30)
*a pot filled with urine

While I have never smelt a lion's breath, I'm prepared to believe it mightn't be great, and from this description, and many others in Aroma, it seems clear that the ancients found many of the same smells offensive as do we.

And they were particularly concerned about bad breath, presumably for the same reason certain sex acts were poorly regarded - see earlier post. Aristotle was particularly puzzled: "Why is it that the mouths of those who have eaten nothing, but are fasting, have a [strong] odour?" p. 31)

As for "good" smells, it seems the ancients thought you could never get enough. Theatres (traditionally with saffron) and ampitheatres were scented, incense and perfumes were used at, and sometimes in, dinner parties. Pliny again: "some people actually put scent in their drinks and it is worth the bitter flavour for their body to enjoy the lavish scent both inside and outside". (p. 23)

Broadly, that seems to continue into the 18th century, when, it is suggested, rising personal cleanliness was accompanied by declining perfume use. There's an obvious end of the need for a cover-up there, but perfumes themselves came increasingly to be seen as unhealthy, excessive, particularly by the middle classes. The poor were associated with filthy stench, the aristocrats with flippant perfume excess, themselves with clean "olfactory neutrality". (p. 83)

Fashions in scent also changed. During the Renaissances strong scents of animal origin, including musk, civet and ambergris, were popular, but by the late 18th century these were consider too strong, too beastly. (Although the Empress Josephine bucked the trend by adoring musk.) (p. 71-73)

There was also a sudden gender division. Previously, the same scents had been worn by men and women - George IV of England first smelt his personal favourite worn by a princess at a ball, then adopted it as his own. But over the century sweet, floral smells came to be gendered as female; woodsy, outdoor scents such as pine and cedar as male. (p. 84)

So it seems while there is some innate division of good/bad smells, beyond that most of our views are culturally determined.

And I can personally attest that some time in the 20th century the use of scent by women definitely reached down into the working classes. I live in a block of council flats occupied primarily by elderly women - sometimes the perfume in the lift is suffocating, even after the user has left the building.

(See post below for reference.)

A tag:

3 Comments:

Blogger Badaunt said...

Reading this has made me realize that in Japan scent doesn't seem to have a historical role, at least that I've herad of. Aside from incense, that is. I'd have to check it out (I'm just going by personal knowledge which isn't much) but I don't think people wore scent here much.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the popularity of bathing?

3/17/2005 05:01:00 am  
Blogger Nathanael said...

Throwing a wrench into the works, Koelnerwasser (Cologne) was not intended to mask the wearer's scent but to mask the scents that were in the environment from the wearer. This was in part due to the fact that Cologne, the city, was the most densely populated urban area in the early 19th C when the use of Cologne, the fragrance, became popular.

3/17/2005 02:20:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I don't think you can lay the Japanese example down to bathing alone, since the Ancient Romans were as much into bathing as the Japanese, yet seem to have used scent - at least environmental scents and probably personal as well - profusely.

Cologne masking environmental scents is not at all in conflict with a medicinal role, I would have thought, since "bad air" was thought to be the source of disease.

3/17/2005 04:01:00 pm  

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