Scents and Sensibility in 17th Century England and France (with a recipe)
– Sheila Dalton –
I mention bad smells and perfumes several times in my novel, Stolen – both seemed everywhere in 17th century England and France, and often in tandem.
As my heroine, Lizbet Warren, is escorted by a constable into London’s New Prison, falsely accused of begging, she says, “There was a smell that made me think of things long dead. The constable put a thick cloth to his nose. We prisoners had no such recourse.”
Though the constable in question was likely not fortunate enough to have a perfumed hankie, it was common for people of the merchant and noble classes to resort to them when assaulted by the many odours in the air, from the reek of muck in the streets to the unwashed bodies of their fellow humans. In addition to fragranced handkerchiefs, pomanders filled with wax-based solid perfumes were also used, or scent pendants which might consist of a piece of perfumed cloth inside a locket. It was an age, after all, of infrequent washing of clothes or skin, no sewers or flush toilets. City dwellers were given to emptying their bodily wastes from chamber pots into the streets.
Body odour was definitely a problem. Water was not easy to access in either England or France. Even a decade later in Paris, the fountains were few and ill kept up. Accounts from the time also make it clear that bathing was rare, and frequently mention people burning herbs, spices and tree branches such as juniper, to drive out bad smells.
But I also read that perfumes were used for subtly erotic purposes, particularly scents made with animal ingredients, such as musk. These were actually intended to accent the human body’s natural odours, not mask them, and were considered sexually alluring.
This was perhaps behind my character Jean Vallée’s use of pomade (scented ointment) in his hair. Vallée is a privateer and wealthy merchant, and it was common in France for men of his standing to scent their hair. (Readers of a certain age may be interested to know that Brylcreem – ‘A little dab’ll do ya’ – was a pomade.) In the 17th century, common ingredients were bear fat and lemon peel, pig grease and clove oil, or lard and oil of lavender. Pomades made the hair shine, and were applied then combed or brushed through the hair instead of using soap and hard-to-acquire water to wash it.
Perfumes of the time ranged from floral to musky. For an example of a light, floral scent frequently worn by both men and women, see the recipe below. In addition to its scent, this aromatic water was also used to treat various nervous disorders. It’s not hard to make. Angelica stem can be found in many health food stores in the dried herb section:
The 17th century Carmelite nuns produced this famous toilet water by combining
* 2 tablespoons lemon balm leaves
* 1 tablespoon finely chopped lemon peel
* 1 sprig sweet marjoram
* 1/2 cinnamon stick
* 5 whole cloves
* 1 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
* 3/4 inch piece angelica stem
* 1 1/4 cup vodka
Using a mortar and pestle, crush the dry ingredients. Place in a small bottle, add the vodka, and set aside for 10 days. Shake daily. Strain the liquid through a sieve into bowl. Then drip the liquid through a coffee filter into a freshly sterilized bottle. Close tightly, and let stand at least 2 weeks. Keep in a cool, dark place.
Sheila Dalton has published novels and poetry for adults, and picture books for children. Her YA mystery, Trial by Fire, from Napoleon Press, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. Her literary mystery, The Girl in the Box, published by Dundurn Press, reached the semi-finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, and was voted a Giller People’s Choice Top Ten. Stolen is her first book of historical fiction.
Devon, England, 1633: Lizbet Warren’s parents are captured by Barbary Corsairs and carried off to the slave markets in Morocco. Desperate to help them, Lizbet sets out for London with Elinor from the Workhouse of Abandoned and Unwanted Children, the only other survivor of the raid. The unlikely pair are soon separated, and Lizbet is arrested for vagrancy. Rescued from a public whipping by a mysterious French privateer, she is taken to his Manor House in Dorchester, where he keeps her under lock and key. Later, Lizbet is captured at sea by the pirate Gentleman Jake, and forced to join his crew. Her quest leads her to the fabled courts and harems of Morocco and the tropical paradise of Barbados.
Based on true events, Stolen is the story of a brave but very human young woman who perseveres in the face of incredible odds to establish her place in a new world.
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