Scents and Sensibility

I was delighted to teach a class on scents of historic cultures this past weekend. I named the class “Scents and Sensibility” because a catchy name is always a plus, right?

Anywho, I wanted to post all the information we discussed as well as the recipes I spoke about for those who took the class and those who follow this blog. I hope you enjoy the references and recipes!

As far back as there were people, there were people who wanted to smell good. In my studies I’ve found that theme among all the females (and males) of Romano-Italo lineage (my personal research track). So I’d like to briefly cover how Romans, Sicilians, Florentines, and Venetians used scent to enhance their bodies (skin/ hair/ breath), their dining halls (linens/ tablecloths), their storage areas (chests/ cellars), and their clothes (gloves, undergarments, veils).

Our focus in this post are these cultures:

    Roman (1st Century BCE – 4th Century Coptic Period)
    Sicilian (10th Century Arab, 11th/12th Century Norman)
    Renaissance Florence & Venice (14th Century – 17th Century)

Living history enthusiasts will be able to duplicate these examples using the redactions listed at the end of this post. Always consult modern-day references along with medieval sources when using period recipes because some popular medieval herbs can be extremely hazardous to your health.

roman garb

So, you want to smell like a Roman?

Distillation was at a very early stage, so alcohol perfumes were primitive even in 1st Century Rome, according to Pliny. So although modern-type perfume was not possible they *were* using perfumed oils. Oil or fat could absorb and retain odor (e.g., animal fat, castor oil, almond oil, olive oil) which made it a great carrier. Enfleurage is a method where various flowers and herbs are steeped in oil, laid out in layers, left to absorb those oils, then pressed. The resulting perfume oil had an intense scent, so the method of enfleurage was very popular. This is a labor intensive effort and oils created with this method today are very expensive.

Enfleurage of gardenia petals
Enfleurage of gardenia petals

How did they use perfume oils? To scent their baths, skin, hair, scalp, undergarments, papyrus, hair accessories, and even their pets.

Pliny states that the Egyptians were masters of unguents (perfumed balms) to scent the skin. In fact, one of the prized perfume unguents was a Mendesian one made of balanus oil, resin, myrrh, bitter almonds, cardamom, sweet rush, honey, wine, and galbanum.

Since the latin verb to burn (incendere) and the word for the aroma of smoke (per fumum) have the same literal meaning, I include incense when I speak about perfumes. Two of the most popular Roman incense, Frankincense and Myrrh, were from Africa and Arabia. These were burned to scent open spaces in the home.

Frankincense (also known as Olibanum) is a fragrant gum-resin and comes from trees of the Boswallia genus. Whiteness a prime feature showing quality, the more milk-white in appearance, the better the frankincense. It was burned by the Egyptians and the Romans for aroma and chewed to perfume the breath.


Myrrh is also a fragrant gum-resin and is a yellowish-red color. It comes from from balsamodendron and commiphora tree species.


Fast forward 1000 years to 12th Century Sicily and the publication of De Ornatu Mulierum (On Adorning Women) also known as a Trotula Text. The text suggests that you start with a clean body. First, bathe or have a steam bath then, after sweating appropriately, wash yourself, rinse, and dry off with a linen cloth. Rinse your hair with a cleansing solution and allow it to dry. Use quicklime to remove unwanted body hair. Then… scent away. Recipe #248 is for a hair powder you mix with rose water and apply to the comb and to the scalp.

Made by Kaye Bee. Photo by Alex Sears.
#248 Made by Kaye Bee. Photo by Alex Sears.

Recipe #249 states: “Also, noblewomen should wear musk in their hair, or clove, or both, but take care that it not be seen by anyone. Also, the veil with which the head is tied should be put on with cloves and musk, nutmeg, and other sweet-smelling substances.”

Cloves from Mattioli's Herbal ca. 1590
Honeysuckle from Mattioli’s Herbal ca. 1590

These are all ideas that a living history participant can easily copy.

In the 12th Century gloves became part of fashionable dress for wealthy Florentines and Venetians. Scented gloves became a luxury, and that practice lasted well into the late Renaissance. Scenting bed linen, tablecloths, napkins, partlets, and undergarments was a common practice for the Italians. In the Dialogues of Pietro Aretino (1536) a character states, “They had set out a table very prettily, spreading over it a cloth that looked like white damask, perfuming it with lavender more pungent than the musk the muskrat makes…”

In Boccacio’s Decameron (14th Century) scent plays a major part in the scene described here,

“… the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves. She then had herself washed and rubbed down by the slaves. This done, the slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed… then took cruets of silver, some filled with rose water, some filled with orange water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them.”

The next morning, the characters in that scene wash their faces and hands with the scented flower waters.

In the book Gli Secreti de la Signorna Isabella Cortese (1588) there is a recipe for a moisurizing handwash. I tried this wash when I entered it in an Arts & Sciences competition a few years ago and loved the results:

“Take some lemon juice and the same quantity of rose water and place it on the fire to boil. While this is boiling, stir in powdered almond skins, making a soap [paste]. Wash your hands with it, and it will make your hands white and beautiful.”

A simple rosewater recipe can be found in Askham’s Herbal:

“Some do put water in a glass and they put roses and they make it to boile, then they set it in the sune tyll it be readde and this water is beste” – Askham’s Herbal 1550

Simply do as I have done to replicate this quickly; place rose petals in a pot, cover with water, bring to boil, let cool overnight, and strain. Rosewater made this way is a great facial toner, make-up fixative, and skin refresher.

For a less involved method of enfleurage: Dry fresh, organically grown flower petals on paper towels for two days. Place the petals in a mason jar. Cover the petals in the jar with oil (e.g. olive, sunflower, sweet almond, apricot kernel). Cover the mason jar with cheesecloth and secure with a few rubber bands. Place the jar in a dark, cabinet for 3 or 4 weeks. Voila!

rose petal infused oil

To make a scented spray for linens, veils, and undergarments: Mix 1 cup flower water (rose/orange), ½ oz orris root, 10 drops scented oil (rose), and distilled water (fill the rest of the spray bottle). Shake well before use. Use lavender instead to make a calming pillowcase spray for use before bedtime.

To make my favorite perfume spray for your body (also great for glove and gamurra linings): Mix ½ cup vodka, ½ cup rose water, ½ cup orange water, ½ cup orris root, 10 drops sandalwood oil, distilled water (fill bottle). Shake before use 🙂

Mistress Stasi is visiting from the Kingdom of An Tir and stepped in to talk about making scented rose petal beads. I will ask her if she would post the information here for you all to read (I’m sure she’d love to!).

Here is a copy of my handout with all the recipes:
Scents and Sensibility Presentation

If you have questions, message me on facebook or email me anytime 🙂

Giada at Gulf Wars 2010

Aretino, Pietro. (1995) Dialogues. Marsilio Publishers Edition.
Berry, Jan. (2013). Peppermint Rose Lip Balm (Oil and Balm Recipe Photos)
Boccaccio, Giovanni. (2003). Decameron. Penguin Classics Revised Edition.
Cortese, Isabella. (1588). Gli Secrete di Isabella Cortese. Venice.
Lucas, A. (1930). Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. Volume 16.

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