Scentimental Vignettes

By the 1200s, the warlike lifestyle of the Middle Ages had mellowed and in castle and cottage garden alike, there grew plans for pleasure as well as those meant to battle against illness. During the Crusades, through contact with the pleasure-living courts of the East, and interest in fragrance for its own sake was reawakened in Europe. By the time Philip II of France came to power late in the 12th century, perfumers were being granted charters and when Charles the Wise took over, acres of flowers were grown to produce fragrant materials. Perfumes distilled from alcohol appeared in the 1300s. With the increase in culture in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, the uses of perfume multiplied, and by the 17th century almost everything was scented, from gloves to ink.

Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Francis I in the 1500s and later of Henry II, was a patroness of perfume; Henry III had his linens scented with sachets of violet-scented orris-root powder, dried leaves of fragrant red roses, sandalwood, benjamin, storax, calamus root, cloves, ambergris, coriander and lavender. Cardinal Richelieu perfumed his rooms by blowing with a bellows a scented powder of roses, cypress root, marjoram, cloves,     benjamin, storax. Potpourris & Other Fragrant Delights by Jacqueline Heriteau. Penguin Books Ltd.

Masters of aromatics, the Egyptians had many uses for cedarwood: in mummification, as incense, and to protect papyruses from the assaults of insects. Cleopatra’s cedarwood ship, on which she received Antony, had perfumed sails; incense burners ringed her throne, and she herself was scented from head to toe. I return to her now because she was the quintessential devotee of perfume. She anointed her hands with kyphi, which contained oil of roses, crocus, and violets; she scented her feet with aegyptium, a lotion of almond oil, honey, cinnamon, orange blossoms, and henna. The walls were an aviary of roses secured by nets, and her regally perfumed presence arrived before her, like a kind of calling card in the scent drenched wind. As Shakespeare imagines the scene: “From the barge/A strange invisible perfume hits the sense/Of the adjacent wharfs.” Romans became famous for their spa-like grandeur, but they actually borrowed the bath from the sybaritic Egyptians. In the ancient world, royal architecture itself was often aromatic. Builders of mosques used to mix rosewater and musk into mortar; the noon sun would heat it and bring out the perfumes. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, Chapmans.

Aromatherapy Quarterly, Winter 1997.