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Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)

Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4214-0234-5. Hbk $65

Reviewed by Sally Pointer

[1]  Focussing on early modern English evidence, Dugan argues that ‘smell is culturally and biologically central to human life, yet it often seems enigmatic’ and stresses the role that metaphors play in the material history of smell. She argues that they function as a ‘historical archive of sensation’, and explores the diverse vocabulary of the period (5). Many of these words are no longer in current use: we no longer describe objects as civeted or ambered, though we might recognise the intent behind the description. Other terms are entirely unfamiliar—to describe something as halited, smeeked, or suffite today would get you a blank look in most cases. Tracing the experience of smell allows a unique insight into the everyday world of the English Renaissance.

[2]  The tone is scholarly, particularly in the introductory chapter where Dugan provides plentiful references to academic discussion and theory. The result is thought provoking, challenging the reader from the start to question how our modern assumptions about smell affect our understanding of smell, and its effects, in previous generations.

[3]  Six aromas dispersed in various ways in specific places are focussed on: the scent of incense in church, rosewater at court, sassafras in the contact zone, rosemary in the household, ambergris in luxury shopping markets and jasmine in pleasure gardens. To explore these, evidence is drawn from manuscripts and recipes to anatomies, herbals, gardening manuscripts, pomanders, censers and even prosthetic noses. Balancing each ingredient against a method of dispensing it and the environment in which it would be encountered, Dugan weaves together the evidence to create an understanding of both the scent itself and the world in which it was experienced.

[4]  In Chapter 1, ‘Censing god’, the association of scent with divinity is explored with specific reference to frankincense, investigating its uses both in organised religious practice and in secular interaction with religion. The overlap between ‘censing and sensing’ is illustrated through reference to religious plays and their use of aromatics both as dramatic props and as ways of conveying the nature and concerns of the key characters.

[5]  Rosewater is the focus of Chapter 2, highlighting the way in which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used luxury goods to reinforce their role and position. We are invited to view the damask rose, newly cultivated in England, as the sensory embodiment of the Tudor Rose emblem, and the process of distillation as both a transformation and an olfactory expression of the understanding of kingship in the sixteenth century. In contrast to the previous chapter, the use of aromatics is also seen in firmly earthy scenarios, as accessories to erotic dalliance and a part of contriving a public image and indeed a national identity. As people start perfuming their bodies more, the smell of one’s body becomes firmly linked with sensual pleasure.

[6]  Chapter 3, ‘Discovering Sassafras’, addresses how reports of the New World written by explorers in the 1580s stressed the strong sensory impressions created by the fragrant vegetation and dramatically varied environment. Sassafras is chosen here to represent the aromatic botanical riches sought and traded over vast distances.  Prized as a potential cure for syphilis, it paradoxically also conjured associations with luxury and sensuous perfumery due to its distinctive aroma. Behind the trade in sassafras is a story of hope in its potential as a panacea, of hardship for those that sought and shipped it, and of the interactions of the Anglo-Indian contact zone.

[7]  In Chapter 4, ‘Smelling Disease’, Dugan writes, ‘the presence of any strong smell was a reminder of how the body was vulnerable to its environment and to unseen influences circulating within it’ (89). Exploring theories about the dangers of breathing ‘dangerous’ air during outbreaks of plague and other disease, we examine rosemary and its mixed role both as a symbol of promise and as a preventative of death. Sensory perception of foulness carried real as well as perceived dangers and was thus a matter for great concern in the early modern period. Miasmas were dangerous, and perfumes offered potential prevention or cure, though the user must also take care not to fall foul of the moral culpability associated with the use of exotic scents.

[8]  The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a vogue for perfumed gloves which had a profound impact on the economics of the perfume industry and also on how perfume was conveyed from wearer to nose. Most luxurious of all was expensive ambergris, and in Chapter 5, Dugan offers evidence to show that its use was widespread both professionally and in more domestic contexts. Gloves indicated rank and power whether perfumed or not. The social and political niceties of their manufacture, use, and giving, allows us to explore many facets of society whilst also observing the emergence of the perfumes and luxury goods markets.

[9]  The desire of the jaded city populace for a fragrant garden paradise of their own introduces the scent of jasmine and its role both in poetic and real pleasure gardens and potpourris, explored in Chapter 6. Coming into our story relatively late both in time and as the closing focus aroma of the book, jasmine represents both bucolically natural, and artificially eroticised, aroma. Sex and perfume have a long partnership, and Dugan explores the realms of seductive olfactory delight with reference to the many diversions of the seventeenth century pleasure garden and the function of the potpourri vase in domestic interiors, both defining sensual spaces.

[10]  Dugan’s concluding pages consider Linnaeus and the effect of the methodological taxonomic approach on previous theories of olfaction and aromatic substances. Her studies of the ephemeral history of perfume cover several centuries of changing attitudes to scent, and explore a variety of material objects. Dugan considers both the relative futility and the meditative value of attempting to recreate scent to experience it as the people cited in this book did centuries ago, no matter how we try, ‘the world has changed and we along with it, musks and all’ (187).

[11]  This book is both a useful scholarly reference and a genuinely interesting read. I had thought I was well read in the subject of European Renaissance perfumery, but I found plenty of material that was new to me and discovered fresh insights into otherwise familiar sources. Perhaps most importantly, this book challenges the reader to reassess material they felt they knew well and to look for evidence of scent as not only a product and as a metaphor in its own right but also as a way of gaining insights into some of the key concerns and changing attitudes of this period of history and as a way of exploring how our own analytical approaches and ideas about olfactory stimulus have changed over time.

September 2012