Keith Thomas in LRB:
I once asked the great historian Richard Southern whether he would like to have met any of the medieval saints and churchmen about whom he wrote so eloquently. He gave a cautious reply: ‘I think they probably had very bad breath.’ He may have been right about that, but it would be wrong to infer that this was something which didn’t bother them. The men and women of the Middle Ages may have had a greater aversion to unpleasant body odours than their descendants do now. If so, this was bad luck, for they were much more likely to encounter them than we are in our deodorised world.
In the tenth century the Welsh ruler Hywel Dda allowed wives a marital separation if their husbands had stinking breath. In later centuries, books on courtesy warned readers against inflicting their personal smell on their neighbours at dinner: for example, by blowing on their soup to cool it. In 1579 an Essex woman was reported to the archdeacon’s court for refusing to sit in her appointed place in church because it put her next to someone with ‘a strong breath’. The chaplain to James I’s wife, Queen Anne, held that of ‘all the noisome scents, there is none so rammish and so intolerable as that which proceeds from man’s body ... I will not speak of his filth issuing from his eares, his eyes, nostrils, mouth, navel, and the uncleane parts.’ Even Jacobean bees were sensitive to unpleasant odours: an authority warned their keepers against approaching a hive ‘with a stinking breath caused by eating leeks, onions, garlic, etc’, though he added helpfully that such ‘noisomeness’ could be corrected by a cup of beer. There was no such cure for the hideous smells of hell, which were variously compared to those of the pox, tobacco, polecats and gaols. By contrast, all offerings to God had to be sweet-smelling, as the Old Testament made clear. Hence the liturgical use of incense.
The literary critic Caroline Spurgeon once argued that Shakespeare had an acute sense of smell and was particularly sensitive to the bad odours of unwashed humanity and decaying corpses. He almost certainly shared Coriolanus’s disgust for the ‘rank-scented many’ and their ‘stinking breaths’. Conversely, his Venus tells Adonis that, even if she lost every sense save that of smell, she would still adore him: ‘For from the still’ory of thy face excelling/Comes breath perfum’d that breedeth love by smelling.’ Spenser shared this belief in the erotic power of body odour, comparing his beloved’s head and bosom to a sweet-smelling garden: ‘Such fragrant flowres doe give most odorous smell,/but her sweet odour did them all excel.’
None of this appears in Robert Muchembled’s Smells, whose lively account is much indebted to his compatriot Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant (published in an English translation in 1986) and is almost entirely confined to the history of odours in France. He makes no reference to the pioneering work on early modern smells by Mark Jenner, a British historian at the University of York. But Muchembled’s guiding assumption, that human reactions to smells are not innate, but are shaped by experience, is as valid for England as it is for France. Our pleasure in smelling a rose and our disgust at some rotting piece of carrion are equally matters of culture rather than nature; there is nothing intrinsic about them. Muchembled points out that it takes European children at least four or five years to learn to be disgusted by their own excrement.