In the Middle Ages, diseases were believed to be caused by foul odors.
Conversely, powerful fragrances were considered essential to stay healthy.
What on earth did people use to think about the power of smell?
Medieval Europe was frequently ravaged by epidemics, and some 25 million people (a quarter of the population of Europe at that time) died in the Black Plague. Now we know that plague is caused by an infection of the plague bacillus, but the physicians of the time were convinced it was caused by “foul vapors” or “miasmas.” This was a time of dreadful hygienic conditions, and the stench of decaying matter and human corpses was greatly feared. It was even said that “the breath of a plague victim can kill a chicken,” and a tiny note of putrefaction in the midst of a crowd of people could lead to a minor panic.
To counteract any evil odors, people put on odoriferous substances. Using perfumes, ointments, medicinal herbs, liquors and other “powerful scents,” they tried to suppress the diseases brought about by malodorous airs. One result of these delusions was that bathing was prohibited. The reason was that bathing caused the pores to open up, making it easier for harmful air to seep into the body!
Spices that were considered efficacious against stenches were treasured as valuables, and in particular musk, ambergris, aloe and cinnamon traded at high prices. Wearing these scents was the privilege of the aristocracy. Spices that helped prevent food from rotting were also important, and meat and fish were flavored with ginger, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. Perhaps you remember from your history lessons about the Age of Exploration that what the Europeans were searching for was spices from Asia. Never mind the scientific grounds, that smells have played an important role throughout history is a fact.
In recent research it has been shown that newborn babies can tell their mothers by their smell. For an infant who can’t yet see very well nor tell voices apart, perhaps its only natural that the sense of smell is still the most reliable.
In Marcel Proust’s monumental novel Remembrance of Things Past fond memories are invoked by the fragrance of a madeleine cake dipped in a cup of tea. Probably all of us have some memory of an experience profoundly connected to a certain smell, perhaps the scent of the soil at your grandmother’s house in the country when you were a kid, or the aroma of the curry at summer camp.
However, these days the trend is to eradicate alls smells as far as possible. Young people are increasingly concerned about their breath and body odor, but they detest strong perfumes as well. The ideal seems to be “odorless.” We have come to rely almost completely on visual information, and to some small extent on auditory information. The awareness that we are also connected to the world through our noses has grown extremely thin. If you were to say of somebody that “I can smell that he is here,” you might well get accused of discrimination.
At the same time, aromatherapy is highly popular and many people enjoy the fragrance of tea or the bouquet of wine. It is not as if our sense of smell has withered completely yet, but we shouldn’t forget to give it a good workout now and then.