Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Of Sweet Scents By Eleanour Sinclair Rohde


"Scents are the souls of flowers: they may be even
perceptible in the land of shadows. The tulip is a flower
without a soul, but the rose and the lily seem to have one."

"If odours may worke satisfaction, they are so soveraigne in plants and so comfortable that no confection of the apothecaries can equall their excellent Vertue."—John Gerard, The Herball, 1597.

"Smells and other odours are sweeter in the Air at some distance. For we see that in Sounds likewise they are sweetest when we cannot hear every part by itself. . . For all sweet smells have joined with them some earthly or crude odours and at some distance the sweet which is the more spiritual is perceived and the earthy reaches not so far."—Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum.

The Malmesbury Chronicle tells us that when Hugh the Great, the father of Hugh Capet, asked in marriage the sister of King Athelstan of England, he sent her gifts of perfumes the like of which had never before been seen in England. We have always lacked the skill of the professional perfumers of the Continent, but when English women were wise enough to make their own perfumes, sweet waters, washing-balls, pomanders, and sweet linen bags from their herb gardens, they were unrivalled. We know that at least as early as the twelfth century the French perfume-makers were of sufficient importance to be granted a charter, but there was no such trade in England for centuries later, and even in Chaucer's day it was only possible to buy perfumes from the mercers. From crusading days the far-famed perfumes of the East were valued gifts amongst the nobility of the Continent, but in England they never found so much favour; and when perfumes became the fashion in Elizabeth's reign, it was to the herb garden the English women turned rather than to the products of Eastern lands. For at least two hundred years rose-water was the perfume most in request, and it was always used after banquets for washing the hands. When one remembers that as late as James I's reign it was regarded as foppish to use a fork, one realises that these salvers of rose or sweet waters must have been more of a necessity than a luxury. The custom of having scented gloves and jerkins was introduced by that Elizabethan dandy Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, on his return from Italy. Queen Elizabeth the same year had a pair of scented gloves, with which she was so delighted that they were painted in her next portrait, and she was mightily pleased when another courtier gave her a "gyrdle of pomanders." Excepting during the Puritan rigime the use of perfumes in every way became rapidly so popular that all the small country houses soon had their still-rooms, and the delightful custom of scenting rooms with fragrant herbs was almost universal.
Of this custom Sir Hugh Platt in his Garden of Eden writes: "I hold it for a most delicate and pleasing thing to have a fair gallery, great chamber or other lodging, that openeth fully upon the East or West sun, to be inwardly garnished with sweet Hearbs and Flowers, yea and Fruit if it were possible. For the performance whereof, I have thought of these courses following. First, you may have fair sweet Marjerom, Basil, Carnation, or Rosemary-pots, etc., to stand loosely upon fair shelves, which pots you may let down at your pleasure in apt frames with a pulley from your Chamber window into your garden, or you may place them upon shelves made without the Room, there to receive the warm Sun, or temperate Rain at your pleasure, now and then when you see cause. In every window you may make square frames either of Lead or of Boards, well pitched within: fill them with some rich earth, and plant such Flowers or Hearbs therein as you like best; if Hearbs, you may keep them in the shape of green borders, or other form. And if you plant them with Rosemary, you may maintain the same running up your windows. And in the shady places of the Room, you may prove if such shady plants as do grow abroad out of the Sun, will not also grow there : as sweet Bryars, Bays, Germander, etc. But you must often set open your Casements, especially in the day time, which would also be many in number; because Flowers delight and prosper best in the open Air. You may also hang in the Roof, and about the sides of this Room, small Pompions or Cowcumbers, pricked full of Barley, first making holes for the Barley, and these will be overgrown with green spires, so as the Pompion or Cowcumber will not appear."

Extravagance in perfumes was never so great in England as in France where during the reign of Louis XV it reached its high-water mark. The court then was in truth la cour par/untie, and the strict rules of etiquette prescribed the use of a different perfume each day. Madame de Pompadour spent 500,000 livres a year on perfumes for the use of her household at Choisy. Nor have we in England raised the sense of smell to an art like the Breton peasant of whom Dideron tells us in his Annates Arch&ologiques. This peasant, after musing over the scents of the flowers in the fields, claimed to have discovered the harmonious relation between odours. He came to Paris to give a concert of perfumes, but they took him for a madman. Perhaps, like so many madmen, he was only in advance of his times; and is not modern science returning to the ancient belief in the value of wholesome and refreshing scents?

The old herbalists were never weary of teaching the value of the scents of our aromatic herbs. How great was the popular belief in rosemary to ward off infection may be gathered from the fact that during the great plague in Charles IPs time small bunches of rosemary were sold for six and eightpence. Before the plague an armful cost but twelve pence. Till recently there were at least two curious survivals of this belief in herbal scents—the doctors' gold-headed cane which formerly contained a vinaigrette, and the little bouquets carried by the clergy at the distribution of the Maundy money in Westminster Abbey. "Physicians," wrote Montaigne, " might in my opinion draw more use and good from odours than they do. For myself, I have often perceived that according unto their strength and quality they change and alter and move my spirits and make strange effects in me, which makes me approve the common saying that the invention of the incense and perfumes in churches so ancient and so far diffused throughout all nations and religions had a special regard to rejoice, to comfort, to quicken, to rouse, and to purify our senses so that we might be the apter and readier unto our contemplations."

Artificial scents have had a long enough reign in England, and perhaps we shall be wise enough to return to the simple old home-made rose, lavender, jasmine and other sweet waters, the pomanders and scented wash-balls of our greatgreat-grandmothers. And is not a garden full of fragrant herbs a perpetual delight? Are there any bought scents so delicious and exhilarating as wild thyme, marjoram and rosemary? There is something so clean and wholesome in them that one feels the old herbalists were right when they said that to smell these herbs continually would keep any one in perfect health. They are so full of sunshine and sweetness that it seems there can be no tonic like them, and it is curious how appreciative invalids are of sweet-scented herbs. Flower scents are often too heavy for them, but a bunch of fragrant herbs seems a perpetual joy. In London, where one can buy all the costliest and most beautiful flowers in or out of season, does anything bring a breath of the country air so perfectly as a boxful of lavender? "There are few better places for the study of scents," says Mrs. Bardswell, " than the herb garden. Here fragrance depends more on the leaves of plants than on the flowers. One secret is soon discovered. It is the value of leaf-scents. Flower-scents are evanescent; leaf-odours are permanent. On the other hand, leaf-odours though ready when sought, do not force themselves upon us, as it were, like flower-scents, which we must smell whether we will or no. Leaf-scents have to be coaxed out by touching, bruising or pressing; but there they are. After all, that is the great point, and long after the summer flower-scents
have departed we can enjoy the perfumes of the sweetleaved Herbs and plants such as Rosemary, Bay and Thyme. Even when withered in the depth of winter, how full of fragrance are the natural Herb gardens of the south of Europe, where one walks over stretches of dry Thyme and Lavender, every step crushing out their sweetness."