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Past Scents

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Past Scents
    Book Description:

    In this comprehensive and engaging volume, medical historian Jonathan Reinarz offers a historiography of smell from ancient to modern times. Synthesizing existing scholarship in the field, he shows how people have relied on their olfactory sense to understand and engage with both their immediate environments and wider corporal and spiritual worlds. This broad survey demonstrates how each community or commodity possesses, or has been thought to possess, its own peculiar scent. Through the meanings associated with smells, osmologies develop--what cultural anthropologists have termed the systems that utilize smells to classify people and objects in ways that define their relations to each other and their relative values within a particular culture. European Christians, for instance, relied on their noses to differentiate Christians from heathens, whites from people of color, women from men, virgins from harlots, artisans from aristocracy, and pollution from perfume. This reliance on smell was not limited to the global North. Around the world, Reinarz shows, people used scents to signify individual and group identity in a morally constructed universe where the good smelled pleasant and their opposites reeked. With chapters including "Heavenly Scents," "Fragrant Lucre," and "Odorous Others," Reinarz's timely survey is a useful and entertaining look at the history of one of our most important but least-understood senses.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09602-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Picking up the Scent
    (pp. 1-24)

    Smell is a cultural phenomenon. Members of past societies relied on smell to understand and engage with both their immediate environment and a wider world of meanings. Thus, “The study of the cultural history of smell” has been described by leading sensory studies scholars Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott as “an investigation into theessenceof human culture.”¹ Other writers have similarly declared the evolution of the olfactory imagination and the other four sensory realms to be a grand story. According to German political economist Karl Marx, who was no stranger to such sweeping subjects, it is “a...

  5. 1 Heavenly Scents: Religion and Smell
    (pp. 25-52)

    Smells are thought to reveal things about the objects, people, and places from which they emanate. In their sweeping survey of aroma, Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott remind us that smells are drenched with meaning, often viewed as “intrinsic ‘essences’” with the potential to reveal inner truths.¹ Throughout history, such ideas have had a profound resonance, especially in the realm of religious practice. The very existence or absence of scent at particular moments significantly shaped the experiences of the devout and the meaning of religious practices, at both the individual and collective levels. In addition, the act of...

  6. 2 Fragrant Lucre: The Perfume Trade
    (pp. 53-84)

    While historical research on the role of scent in religion is relatively limited, the history of perfume is well documented and has been central to histories of aroma since studies on the subject first began to appear. Histories of the senses frequently contain considerable commentary on perfume and fragrance, and most histories of smell contain at least a chapter on the scent industry from ancient to modern times. Histories of perfume abound and are organized similarly. The fashion for such narratives appears to have been set relatively early by London perfumer Eugene Rimmel with the appearance of hisBook of...

  7. 3 Odorous Others: Race and Smell
    (pp. 85-112)

    As outlined in chapter 1, throughout human history scents have often functioned to unite people with their deities and other worshipers in religious rituals. Yet smells have also effectively divided populations and were regularly invoked to oppress certain groups. The Roman concern with “foreign stench” was only one of many ancient and openly expressed anxieties associated with the perceived corruption caused by outsiders.¹ As scent began to play a less important role in modern European society, Western travelers remained aware of traditional, “archaic” beliefs in rural and traditional communities, which either prioritized smell or produced unfamiliar aromas. Anthropologists also became...

  8. 4 Seduction and Subversion: Gender and Smell
    (pp. 113-144)

    Smell and gender are inextricably connected, as usually becomes apparent early in most histories of perfume. Edwin Morris, to take one example, begins his history of fragrance with the admission that he initially “felt embarrassed” at the outset of his research, as the subject appeared trivial to members of the general public, who generally regarded scent as “a pleasant extravagance for women to indulge in during their leisure hours.”¹ His views soon changed upon recognizing the importance of fragrance in determining, for example, behavior and trade in human history.² Nevertheless, his attempt to justify scent as a field worthy of...

  9. 5 Uncommon Scents: Class and Smell
    (pp. 145-176)

    Besides classifying primarily good and bad smells, most histories of smell describe it as the most elitist of the senses. Initially the preserve of the gods, or aromatic luxuries enjoyed primarily by ancient royalty, given their cost, perfumes and scented items were synonymous with the social success and refinement achieved by society’s elites.¹ It is only in the last hundred years that “perfumery has moved from the exceptional to the commonplace and from elite to mass market.”² And even then it is still more clearly associated with a life of leisure than one of labor. Throughout history, laborers were more...

  10. 6 Mapping the Smellscape: Smell and the City
    (pp. 177-208)

    Since the publication of Alain Corbin’s and Patrick Süskind’s very different but equally influential and inspiring volumes, the predominant discourse in histories of smell has focused on filthy cities and the coming of modern urban sanitation.¹ In fact, Alain Corbin began his own study of past scents with a discussion that focused on Jean-Noël Hallé, the first incumbent of the chair of public hygiene established in Paris in 1794. It was apparently while reading the French sanitarian’s memoirs that the idea of writing a book about the perception of odors first came to Corbin.² Indeed, in the first pages of...

  11. Conclusion: Beyond the Foul and Fragrant
    (pp. 209-218)

    In a foreword to Corbin’sThe Foul and the Fragrant(1996), the historian Roy Porter claimed that “today’s history comes deodorised.”¹ This long-acknowledged neglect of smell by academics, as outlined in the introduction to this volume, is credited to a reordering of the senses that occurred some three centuries ago. Enlightenment thinkers regarded the contribution of smell to everyday life as negligible, therefore situating the sense at the lower end of traditional sensory hierarchies. This decline in recognized importance has also been attributed to the reality of contemporary urban life. Aromas previously encountered in cities like London and Paris, including...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 219-266)
  13. Index
    (pp. 267-280)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-284)