Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Ambergris and Early Modern Languages of Scent

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Ambergris and Early Modern Languages of Scent

Article excerpt

Some time around the early 1650s, the body of a large sperm whale was washed up near the town of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. Sir Thomas Browne, doctor, naturalist and chronicler of curiosities, went to inspect this phenomenon, and a brief account of what he found makes it into the third edition of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica,or Vulgar Errors.1 Browne's scientific curiosity leads him to record his impressions of the beast's size and shape ("no less than sixty foot in length", with "the head somewhat peculiar" and "the eyes but small"), and his taxonomic concern prompts him to determine its kind: "this of ours", he decides upon consulting Purchas His Pilgrimage, a contem- porary compendium of travellers' tales, "was more agreeable unto the Trumpa or Sperma- Ceti Whale".2 Purchas may also have given Browne and his fellow researchers an idea as to the direction their explorations might have taken under more favourable circumstances; the earlier work reproduces a commission for whalers off the coast of Greenland in Elizabeth's time which draws particular attention to another valuable commodity asso- ciated with their strange flotsam: "In this sort of Whale is likewise found the Ambergreese, lying in the entrals and guts of the same, being of shape and colour like vnto Kowes dung". Nothing is said here of its smell, though the terms of the comparison presumably encode a broad hint. In case the enterprise does not sound particularly appealing, the mariners are reminded that "Ambergreese [is] a matter, as you know, of good worth, and therefore not slightly to be regarded".3 Whether or not the Wells whale harboured any such thing in its vast interior, however, could not be determined; Browne's account of the episode ends with a paradox, and a joke:

In vain it was to rake for Ambergreece in the panch of this Leviathan,asGreenland discovers, and attests of experience dictate, that they sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the Sea; insufferable fetour denying that enquiry. And yet if, as Paracelsus encourageth, Ordure makes the best Musk, and from the most fetid substances may be drawn the most odoriferous Essences; all that had not Vespasians Nose, might boldly swear, here was a subject fit for such extractions.4

The decaying whale gives off such a fearful stench that no one is prepared to look inside, not even for a substance that has at times fetched a higher price than gold.5 The paradox, of course, is that ambergris is valued chiefly as an ingredient in the rarest and most expensive perfumes; if an exquisite scent can indeed be derived from something utterly repugnant, Browne jokes, then this stinking hulk must surely represent a promising source.6

In seeking to correct vulgar errors concerning the nature of spermaceti ("some conceived it to be flos maris, and many, a bituminous substance floating upon the sea"),7 Browne perpetuates another confusion over the precise identity of ambergris in asserting that sperm whales "sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the Sea". It would be ungenerous to blame Browne for his misapprehension; though it has been accepted since the late eighteenth century that ambergris is a naturally-occurring product of the whale's intestinal processes, its precise origin was not definitively established (if indeed it has been, even now) until a decade ago. And besides, the knowledge that ambergris is in fact "a faecal product of the sperm whale",a"coprolith", would only have served to sharpen Browne's paradox of sweet from the strongly-smelling.8 In what follows, I will use the sui generis example of ambergris to trace some conjunctions of science, scent and poetics in seventeenth-century thought. Though the curious had wondered about it since it was first attested in the ninth century by an Arab trader, and though the 1600s ended with no very clear consensus on what it was and where it came from, the era of the new science - following closely on from that of discovery and exploration - saw the most intense and inventive attempts to categorise ambergris as a natural phenomenon and as a luxury commodity. …

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