in-the-roman-baths-1865In medieval times, many theologians associated cleanliness of the body with the foulness of the soul. A true christian should not treat the body as a holy temple of the soul, but rather as a source of evil, of temptation, something that belonged to the world which was plagued with sin. An obsession with cleanliness was a sign of love of the world, of someone trying to hide the foulness of the soul, of trying to entice and seduce others; bathing meant you´d have to touch yourself or be touched by maids or pages and that could lead to sinful thoughts and desires, and let´s not get into the medical theories of the times. It has not been always like that.


Mankind and societies´ attitudes towards body cleanliness and smell changed constantly throughout centuries. It is interesting to notice that men in many courts of Europe in the XVII and XVIII century did wear make up and fragrances. This differentiated them from the peasantry, hid the flaws in their skin, the smell of their long intervals between baths, gave them a certain appearance that identified them with class and rank. Same for women. Then, in the XIX century, a wave of conservatism and yet a burst of technological development pulled the trends in opposite directions.


The floral scents, scented waters, soaps and powders that were standard on a fine as respectable lady, had their counterpart in the stronger and flashier make up of prostitutes and women of more daring behaviour, the musks and the oriental fragrances, gourmands or vanilla, coumarine, cinnamon and the new chyprés that became the rave in France and sneaked into the most avant garde bourdoirs of Victorian women. Not just fragrances for laces, handkerchiefs and linen, but fragrances for the body, to be part of the individual identity or persona. Science was sanitizing. Or so it was becoming.

Semmelweis´s first observations of antipseptic procedures… he died at 47, committed to an asylum shunned by peers who thought it was just inconceivable that hands that “cured” could carry diseases and that something so simple like washing hands could save lives. Pasteur´s germ and Lister conception of sterile procedures. A world that was clean and headed to a healthy future. The new frontiers to mankind were Man himself. And the hygienic ideal of Man had so many implications! Eugenics among them!


The sanitizing nature of science clashed also with the old beliefs that fragrances had magical properties. The word profumo, derives from smoke, to burn something in order to create smoke. In ancient temples substances were burned to please or to appease the Gods. In the Bible you can find a recipe for the mix of herbs, woods and scented substances that should be burned in honour of The Lord. Frankincense and Myrrh were valuable goods. Flowers and herbs were used for their magical properties in ritual baths or dried next to people´s bodies, and these properties were often associated with their scent.

Science cleans, makes sense of reality on a clear and organized manner, science is often equated with method, men under the rules of method, method replacing God. And it is not a surprise that social “sciences” often; validation in method sciences (maths, physics…). A language that is universal, that could be understood throughout the universe. This science does have fragrances, ask IFRA and its crusade against natural compounds. Synthetic materials, safer… better? A mimic of nature, and also olfactory entities of their own. Method as God. There is the legacy of the XIX century, an unabashed love of science, and the death of God… and the Devil. You could smell that. We still can.


2 thoughts on “Sensualism…scents…

  1. The world of scents is a fascinating one that I love. Odours however are something else.
    I’ve often wondered how people could stand being close to each other in the past considering how bad public hygiene and bathing habits were. I also wonder how women coped with periods, especially if they were poor and travelling on long journeys.
    There’s no doubt some people smell naturally wonderful and others don’t. Apparently I have a great natural body scent, according to others. I still love perfume. I’d own a perfume shop if I could just to wear whatever I fancied according to my mood.
    Oh and of course the connection between scent, sexuality, appetite, desire can’t be denied. I think it can’t also be culturally specific. Asians apparently used to think Westerners stank of sour milk when they first encountered them.
    Anyway, much enjoyed your article.


    • Odours and people´s reaction to odour is something cultural and animal. Some scents, that of musk, for instance, is, to put it nicely, terrible. If you smell the gland from where you extract musk you might not like it at all. It smells of… goat. The so called animalic scents are classed among those which elicit hormonal responses from other mamals, they operate under the level of rationality. In today´s society, they´ve been largely replaced by synthetic versions which do not have 1/100 of their power (and stench)! 😉 There are writers from the sixteenth century who claimed to be sexually attracted by the smell of a stinky hairy pussy, claiming that smooth and clean vaginas where not womanly, but childish and held no sexual allure to him. Go figure, right?


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