Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

Article excerpt

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. By Jonathan Reinarz. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 279, notes, index. Paper, $25.00.)

Jonathan Reinarz is Reader and Director at the History of Medicine Unit, School of Medicine at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. He has chronicled the history of teaching hospitals in Birmingham and authored Medicine and the Workhouse (2013). His latest work Personal Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (in the series "Studies in Sensory History") is both a medical and social history.

Reinarz' book presents a very broad perspective in six themed chapters. Chapter One, "Heavenly Scents (Religion and Smell)" focuses on sacred scents and traces the role of smell in the Christian tradition. Religion and smell have been intertwined since time immemorial, and Reinarz notes the transition of ancient Christianity "from scentless practice to fragrant faith" (p. 51). He concentrates on the fourth century, since it was at this time that scent began to play an increasingly important role in Christian practice. Scent was a vital element in transforming the profane into sacred space; it was thought to convey the presence of divinity yet, at the same time, supposedly elicited erotic desires. Christians were thus exhorted from wearing scent that could be noticed by passers-by. It is interesting to note that the refusal to offer incense to the Roman emperor was a capital offense.

Most histories of scent trace the origins of the perfume trade to Egypt or Mesopotamia. Ingredients such as myrrh, cinnamon, and Damask rose were transported from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe, where the global trade in scent took root. In Chapter Two, "Fragrant Lucre: The Perfume Trade," Reinarz treats several aspects of the perfume trade, including how the spread of distillation techniques (so vital to the production of alcoholic beverages) impacted the manufacture of perfume in medieval Europe. This chapter provides numerous entertaining yet informative anecdotes of historical significance; Eau de Cologne, for example, was originally used as a medical remedy for constipation and plague.

Chapters Three, Four, and Five turn to the identities conferred by scent: race, gender, and class. In "Odorous Others: Race and Smell," Reinarz contends that each culture has included a subgroup deemed untouchable, "a status constructed through narratives rich in olfactory imagery" (p. …

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