Xerjoff Magazine

A book entitled “La civilization des odeurs” analyzes the revolution of the sense of smell


The scholar Robert Muchembled reconstructs Europe’s history, between 16th and 18th centuries, through the diffusion of perfume and the revolution of the sense of smell.

We often complain about the bad odors we smell in big cities. It is true, but the unpleasant smells that we are inhaling nowadays are nothing like those the European cities inhabitants had to breathe in the past. For example, in Paris centuries ago, vessels on the Seine were carrying sewage, and the smell was so horrible that those who lived along the river could not open the windows of their homes because the fumes would discolor silver ware and mirrors. The most surprising factor is that people did not feel any repulsion towards these bad smells. Even doctors use body excrements for pharmaceutical and beauty remedies. How was this possible? Because, the sense of smell is not innate, but it is a result of a learning experience. This is the thesis of the scholar Robert Muchembled who – in a book entitled “La civilization des odeurs” (Les Belles Lettres) – analyzes the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe starting from the revolution of the sense of smell and the evolution from bad smells to perfumes. A revolution that began in the 1600’s, period when several pestilences -including plague- spread in Europe and when people began to identify stench with Satan reacting to this by adopting the medical principle of “similia simillibus”, which involved “like cures like”.

The reeks were covered with other stronger, sharper and more pungent smells like musk, civet and amber; the first two extracted from animal glands. These remedies arrived in Europe from Italy and travelled to France with Caterina de’ Medici and Renato Fiorentino. The 1700’s, period of Enlightenment, led to an end of this olfactory phase: water (previously considered the responsible of the contagion of epidemics) as well as simple baths and body pleasures were rediscovered. Also, essences and fragrances changed: the animals’ scents were replaced by fruity, spicy, floral, exotic aromas completing the revolution of the sense of smell that makes perfume today a sign of great elegance and refinement.