Uses of the aromas of herbs, spices and resins
Incenses and Fumitories * Strewing Herbs * Moth and insect repellents * Clothing Scents * Potpourris, dry and moist * Body Powders * Essential Oils * Soaps * Waters and splashes * Hair Rinses * Pomanders * Rose and Spice Beads * Nosegays or Tussie-mussies * Scented baths & Saunas * Insomnia recipes * Mouthwashes * List of Resources
There is a long-standing tradition (pre-dating ancient Egypt) of burning dried herbs, barks and resinous gums either for the appreciation of the gods (incenses) or to purify the air (fumitories). Cumin, dill and mint were all mentioned as tithes in the old testament, presumably to be used for incense. Sandalwood and Rosewood (Lignum Rhodium) have long been known as bases for incense or incense on their own. Rosemary, lavender and o ther ‘astringent’ herbs were burned as fumitories, to keep away the noxious humors of the plague and other illnesses, and to clear rooms where illness had been. Mixed incenses were often made into ‘pastilles’ (tablets) for burning. Sandalwood, Frankincense, rosewood, myrrh, cloves, cinnamon were all used as single incenses and in blends.
To make perfume to burn:
Take half a pound of Damask Rose-buds, Benjamin [benzoin] 3 ounces beaten to a powder, half a quarter of an ounce of Musk and as much of Ambergris, the like of Civet. Beat all these together in a stone Mortar, then put in an ounce of Sugar, and make it up in Cakes and dry them by the fire.”
From Sir Kenelm Digby, Reciepts in Physick and Chirurgery, 1668.
Strewing herbs were used mixed with, or instead of, rushes or straw to cover floors.
From Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry:
“Strewing Herbs of all sorts:
- Bassell [basil], fine and busht, sowe in May.
- Bawlme [Lemon Balm?], set in Marche
- Camamel [Camomile]
- Costemary [Costmary/Bible Leaf]
- Cowsleps and paggles.
- Daisies of all sorts
- Sweet fennell
- Hop, set in Febru arie.
- Lavender spike
- Lavender cotten [santolina]
- Marjorom, knotted, sow or set, at the spring.
- Peny ryall [Pennyroyal]
- Roses of all sorts, in January and September
- Red myntes [peppermint?]
- Winter savery.”
Gerard mentions using meadowsweet aka queen of the meadow as a strewing herb and to ‘deck up houses’.
With no access to bugkillers and exterminators, medieval people made use of scented herbs to discourage vermin. Tansy was considered proof against flies; lavender, lavender cotton, and southernwood against moths, camphor against anything, and pennyroyal, then as now, against fleas. Southernwood was considered so strong a preventive that it was called ‘garde robe’. Wormwood was considered to be a mouse preventive, and mint was used against mice and ants. Rue was grown in gardens to discourage pests. Apparently, strongly scented moth repellents work by confusing the mother moth so that she does not lay her eggs in the protected clothing, so they have no effect against existing infestations.
Though this doesn’ t count as a scented recipe, it is an herb use against insects: Hildegarde of Bingen says, “Pound the nigella, and mix honey with it. Where there are many files, you may streak it on the way, and the flies on tasting it will sicken and fall dead.”
“To prevent damage by moths to clothes:
Take wormwood and rue and boil them in water/and brush your clothes with the same water.”
— from Manuscript Pepys 1047, late 15th century, published as Stere Hit Well, modernized by G.A.J. Hodgett
Laying herbs with your clothes would scent them; the Menagier de Paris gave directions for drying roses to put among clothes: “Roses from Provence are the best to put in clothing, but they should be dried, and in mid-August sift them over a screen so that the worms fall through the screen, and then spread them in your clothes.” Linens might also be scented by herbs added to the wash-water, or, when starch became popular, to the starch solution.
Jeanne Rose quotes a ‘Sweet Water for Perfuming Clothes’ which she says is a sixteenth-century recipe:
“To 1 qt. rose water, add the following: 1/2 oz. lavender, 2 oz. orris, 1/2 oz. jasmine flowers, 1 t. musk, a pinch of ambergris and civet, 5 drops of clove oil. Put it all into a glass jar, fasten down the lid, and place it in a sunny window for 10 days. Then strain and set aside the liquid for use.”
From Bulleins Bulwarke, 1562 (quoted by Jacqueline Heriteau, in Potpourris and other Fragrant Delights):
Sixteenth-Century Sweet Water for Linens
Three pounds of Rose water, cloves, cinnamon, Sauders [sandalwood], 2 handful of the flowers of Lavender, lette it stand a moneth to still in the sonne, well closed in a glasse; Then destill it in Balneo Marial. It is marvellous pleasant in savour, a water of wondrous swetenes, for the bedde, whereby the whole place, shall have a most pleasaunt scent.
From Hugh Platt’s Delights for Ladies, 1594 (quoted by Jacqueline Heriteau, in Potpourris and other Fragrant Delights)
To make a special sweet water to perfume clothes in the folding being washed. Take a quart of Damaske-Rose-Water and put it into a glasse, put unto it a handful of Lavender Flowers, two ounces of Orris, a dram of Muske, the weight of four pence of Amber-greece [ambergris], as much Civet, foure drops of Oyle of Clove, stop this close, and set it in the Sunne a fortnight: put one spoonfull of this Water into a bason of common water and put it inot a a glasse and so sprinkle your clothes therewith in your folding: the dregs, left in the bottome (when the water is spent) will make as much more, if you keepe them, and put fresh Rose water to it.
Sachets or Sweet Bags
Powdered ingredients, sewn up in sachet bags to be stored with linens were popular by the end of period. Hugh Platt’s Delights for Ladies (1594) gives a recipe that he claims will keep seven years. But a simpler one is Gervase Markham’s:
‘Take of Orris six ounces, of Damask Rose-leaves as much of Marjerom and sweet Basil of each an ounce, of Cloves two ounces, yellow Sanders [sandalwood] two ounces, of Citron pills seven drams, of Lignum Aloes one ounce, of Benjamin one ounce, of Storax one ounce, of Musk three dram; bruise all these, and put them into a bag of Silk or Linnen, but silk is the best.’
Potpourris had their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, though they may be older. There are two kinds of potpourris, dry and moist: dry are made with crisp-dry herbs and spices, plus fixatives and possibly oils; moist are made with half-dry herbs and flowers, mixed with spices and salt or brandy. I have not yet found a period recipe for either type.
Essential to prevent chafing as well as achieving that fashionably pale look, body and face powders were concocted by mixing powder bases (rice powder, talc, ground orris root, ground calamus root, starch) with various ground spices and herbs: cloves, dried rose petals, lavender. Discorides says that powdered myrtle leaf is good spread on moist thighs and underarms.
‘An Excellent Damask Powder’ (from Ram’s Little Dodoen, 1606, cited by Jeanne Rose), lists the ingredients: rosepetals, cloves, lignum Rhodium (rosewood?), storax, musk, and civet.
Essential Oils can be obtained by distillation, enfleurage (soaking blossoms or herbs in liquid and collecting the oil that floats to the top), and other means. Tusser lists ‘Herbs to Still in Summer’: blessed thistle, betonye, dill, endive, eyebright, fennell, fumetorie, hop, mints, plantine, roses (red and damaske), respies, saxifrage, strawberries, sorrell, suckerie, woodroffe (for sweet waters and cakes).” The earliest mentioned essential oil is actually otto of roses; oil of lavender and oil of spike (lavender) were widely known by the fourteenth century. Culpeper warns against oil of peppermint, as it is too sharp and strong.
Scented soaps, made by mixing Castile soap with aromatic herbs and waters, seem to have been known at the end of period. Ram’s Little Dodoen (cited by Jeanne Rose) calls for orris, cypress, calamus, rosepetals and lavender flowers, ground fine and mixed with Castile soap dissolved in rosewater. The Queen’s Closet opened (1655), cited by Jeanne Rose, gives a recipe for an Ipswich ball, incorporating castile soap, rosewater, marjoram, winter savory, oil of spike, oil of cloves, musk, ambergris, and almond flour. Thyme, lavender, and other herbs were used in bathwaters and as oil rubdowns from the time of the Greeks onward.
There is a scented lye-based soap recipe in The treasurie of commodious conceits, & hidden secrets by John Partridge (Imprinted at London : By Richarde Iones, 1573).
“To Make Muske Soape Take stronge lye made of chalk, and six pounde of stone chalk: iiii, pounde of Deere Suet, and put them in the lye; in an earthen potte, and mingle it well, and kepe it the space of forty daies, and mingle and [styr? fyr?] it, iii, or, iiii times a daye, tyll it be consumed, and that, that remayneth, vii, or, viii, dayes after, then you muste put a quarter of an ounce of Muske, and when you have done so, you must [sty?re] it, and it wyll smell of Musk.”
‘Waters’ are the ancestors of both alcoholic cordials and modern alcohol-based perfumes and bodycare products, being herbs, vegetables, etc, mixed with wine or beer and distilled. The best known waters are rose and orange flower, both by-products of creating oils (rose and neroli). Simple herb and vegetable waters of all kinds were the rage also in the 16th century, made by either ‘cold’ distillation or by mixing the vegetable matter with wine or spirits and ‘hot’ distilling. However, other recipes included Water Imperiall (for wounds) and aqua vitae (for healing), Hungary Water, Carmelite Water, etc. Hungary Water, the first documented perfume using distilled spirits, seems to have included rosemary, and perhaps lavender and myrtle, among its original components. Waters were also used as astringents and handwashes, and as well as medical drinks. Rosewater is a special case: we have a number of rosewater recipes from various sources. Clarkson, in Magic Gardens, quotes William Lawson, William Lawson (1600):
“The rather because abundance of Roses and Lavender, yeeld much profit, and comfort to the senses: Rose-water, Lavender, the one cordial (as also the Violets; Burrage [borage] and Bugloss) the other reviving the spirits by the sence of smelling, both most durable for smell, both in flowers and water.”
Plain handwashing waters were used at the medieval table, being water with rose or violet petals in it, or an infusion of herbs. Le Menagier de Paris (as edited & translated by Tania Bayard), says:
To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.
Parkinson says, “The ordinary Basill is in a manner wholly spent to make sweet, or washing waters, among other sweet herbes, yet sometimes it is put into nosegays. ”
From Hugh Plat (Delights for Ladies):
“Diverse sorts of sweet handwaters made suddenly or extempore with extracted oyles of spices.First you shall understand, that whensoever you shall draw any of the Oyles of Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs or such like, that you shall have also a pottle or a gallon more or lesse, according to the quantity which you draw at once, of excellent sweet washing water for your table; yea some doe keepe the same for their broths, wherein otherwise they should use some of the same kinds of spice.
But if you take three or foure drops only of the oyle of Cloves, Mace, or Nutmegs (for Cinamon oyle is too costly to spend this way) and mingle the same with a pinte of faire water, making agitation of them a pretty while togther in a glasse having a narrow mouth, till they have in some measure incorporated themselves together, you shall find a very pleasing and delightful water to wash with and so you may alwaies furnish yourself of sweet water of severall kinds, before such time as your guests shall be ready to sit downe. I speake not of the oyle of Spike (which will extend very far this way) both because every Gentlewoman doth not like so strong a scent and for that the same is elsewhere already commended by another Author. Yet I must needs acknowledge it to be the cheaper way, for that I assure myself there may be five or six gallons of sweet water made with one ounce of the oyle, which you may buy ordinarily for a groat at the most.”
William Edward Mead, in The English Medieval Feast (1931, reprinted in 1967) gives suggestions for how to offer scented wash waters.
Boccaccio’s Decameron (14th century) mentions washing waters in a love scene (from the translation by Richard Aldington, courtesy Melandra of the Woods):
“Without permitting anyone else to lay a hand on him, the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves. She then had herself washed and rubbed down by the slaves. This done, the slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed . . . They then took from the basket silver vases of great beauty, some of which were filled with rose water, some with orange water, some with jasmine water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them.”
Modern folk medicine recommends rosemary washes to remove residue & gunk in the hair, sage for dark hair and camomile for light. I haven’t yet found documentation for camomile as a light hair wash in period. However, a strong infusion (tea) of herbs, or herbal vinegar in water, seems to have been used to scent the hair.
Trotula gives the following recipe for a scented powder to brush into the hair:
“But when she combs her hair, let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.”
Pomanders were generally made by softening resinous substances and mixing them together, often with dirt or clay, or wax. These pomanders were generally carried in metal cases, with piercings to let the scent out. Cases were used as weights on belts, cane-tops, pendants and other jewelry accessories. Some pomander cases had sections for several different scents of pomanders, as well as compartments for a sponge soaked in aromatic vinegars. Clarkson also says that nutmegs, mounted in silver, were used as pomanders on their own. Pierced cases or hollowed out fruit were also stuffed with herbs and spices.
The ‘cloven fruit’ flirting game is NOT period. However, the use of clove-studded fruit, dusted with ground spice mixes, as pomanders, were introduced by the Arabs.
Materials commonly used in pomanders:
- Benzoin (Benjamin)
- Storax (Styrax)
- Gum Traganth (Gumdragon), usually in Rosewater
- Gum arabic
- Labdanum (resin of the rock rose)
- Calamus (Sweet Flag) Root
- Orris Root
- Nutmeg & Mace
- Lavender, oil of lavender (spike)
- Otto of roses, Rosewater
- Lignum Aloes
‘A Comfortable Pomander for the Brain’
Take Labdanum, one ounce, Benjamin and Storax of each two drams, Damaske powder finely searced, one Dram, Cloves and Mace of each a little, a Nutmeg and a little Camphire, Musk and Civet a little. First heate your morter and pestle with coales, then make them verie cleane and put in your labdanum, beate it till it waxe softe, put to it two or three drops oil of spike, and so labor them a while; then put in all the rest finely to powder, and work them till all be incorporated, then take it out, anoynting your hands with Civet, roll it up and with a Bodkin pierce a hole thorow it.”
Ram’s Little Dodoen, 1606. [Quoted in Jeanne Rose’s Herbal]”To make Pomanders, take two penny-worth of Labdanum, two penny-worth of Storax liquid, one penny-worth of calamus Aromaticus, as much Balm, half a quarter of a pound of fine wax, of Cloves and Mace two penny-worth and of Musk four grains: beat all these exceedingly together, till they come to a pe rfect substance , then mould it in any fashion you please, and dry it.”
Gervase Markham, The English Housewife.
To make Rose beads, you supposedly take fresh or half-wilted rosepetals, add rose water to cover, cook over a low heat in an iron pot for an hour, then allow to cool. Repeat once a day for three days. It will be rendered into black, oxidized pulp; you can then oil your fingers with rose oil and form beads, then pierce them with a needle and string; allow to dry for several days, rotating on the string so they don’t stick. Spice scented beads are made by mixing dry spices with binders like benzoin and gum acacia and glycerin, and forming beads. I have not yet found a period recipe for rose ‘beads’: I suspect these are a special case of pomanders. On the other hand, the Spanish work Manual de mujeres en el cual se contienen muchas y diversas recetas muy buenas, has a recipe for Rose pastilles:
“101 Receta para hacer pasticas de perfume de rosas Tomar una libra de rosas sin las cabezuelas, y siete onzas de menjuí molido. Echar las rosas en remojo en agua almizclada y estén una noche. Sacar después estas rosas y expremidlas mucho del agua, y majadlas con el menjuí. Y al majar, poner con ello una cuarta de ámbar y otra de algalia. Y después de majadas, hacer vuestras pasticas y ponedlas cada una entre dos hojas de rosas, y secadlas donde no les dé el sol.
Recipe for making rose-scented tablets
Take a pound of roses without the flower heads, and seven ounces of ground benzoin. Put the roses to soak in musk water for a night. Remove these roses afterwards and thoroughly squeeze out the water, and grind them with the benzoin. And when grinding, put with it a quarter of amber and another of civet [musk]. And after [they are] ground, make your tablets and put each one between two rose leaves, and dry them away from the sun.”
Text from http://cervantesvirtual.com/; translation by Dana Huffman.
For those who could not afford the expensive resin pomanders and their cases, or enough cloves for cloved fruit, bouquets of aromatic, astringent herbs like sage, rosemary, and rue, as well as flowers such as roses and violets served to keep off ‘Noxious Odors’. The concept of flower messages was popularized by the Victorians, but Elizabethans and before kept such scented nosegays– the term ‘tuzzy-muzzy’ and its variants, used for scented nosegays, are dated to 1500 and before by the Oxford English Dictionary. Elizabethans sometimes concealed messages in their flower choices– consider Ophelia’s flower speech in _Hamlet_:
“There’s Rosemary, that’s for Remembraunce. / Pray loue remember: and there is Paconcies, that’s for / Thoughts . . .There’s Fennell for you, and Columbines: ther’s / Rew for you, and heere’s some for me. Wee may call it / Herbe-Grace a Sundaies: Oh you must weare your Rew / with a difference. There’s a Daysie, I would giue you / some Violets, but they wither’d all when my Father dyed… “
We all know about the scented oils and ointments that rich women supposedly used after their baths; but putting herbs in a steam bath (sauna) seems to have been a favorite trick of herbalists like Hildegarde of Bingen and the author of Banckes’ herbal. Margaret Freeman cites the Booke of Nuture: “To give your soveriegn a’bathe or a stewe so-called,’ says Russell,you should have ready ‘a basin full in your hand of herbs hot and fresh and with a soft sponge in hand his body…wash’. William Langham’s Garden of Health (1579) suggests Rosemary: ‘Seethe much Rosemary, and bathe therein to make thee lusty, lively, joyfull, likeing and youngly.'” (Clarkson, Magic Gardens, p 118). Parkinson advocates spearmint in the bath ‘as a help to comfort and strengthen the nerves and sinews’.
Apparently, fragrances were used then as now to combat insomnia. Rosemary was tucked under the pillow to assure dreamless sleep; little stuffed pillows of dill seed were tucked into babies’ cradles to sooth them. Ram’sLittle Dodoen (1606) gives the recipe:
“Take drie rose leaves keep them in a glasse which will keep them sweet and then take powder of mynte, powder of cloves in a grosse powder, and putte the same to the Rose leves thanne putte all these togyther in a bagge and Take that to bedde with you and it wyll cause you to sleepe and it is goode to smelle unto at other tymes.”
Rosetta Clarkson gives a narcotic pomander recipe which “calls for opium, mandrake, juice of hemlock, henbane seed and winelees ‘to which must be added musk that the scent it will provoke him that smells unto it. Make a ball as big as a man may graspe in his hand; by often smelling to this it will cause him to shut his eyes and fall asleep.'” I’d say it would!
The Manual de Mujeres gives a perfume recipe which may or may not be a body perfume:
109 Pasticas de olor para perfumar
Dos libras de agua rosada y una libra de agua de azahar, una libra de menjuí y media de estoraque, una onza
de ámbar y media de almizcle, un cuarto de algalia. Junto todo y molido, ponerlo con el agua en una redoma, y poner la redoma al fuego sobre unas brasas. Menearlo con un palo y cueza hasta que mengüe de tres partes la una. Y desque haya menguado, sacar de aquella pasta y hacerla, si quisieres pasticas, y si no, guardarla así en pasta.Scented tablets for perfuming
Two pounds of rose water and a pound of citrus blossom water, a pound of benzoin and half of balsam, an ounce of amber and half of musk, a quarter of civet [musk]. All together and ground, put it with the water in a flask, and put the flask on the fire over some embers. Stir it with a stick and cook until it reduces three parts [from?] one. And when it is reduced, remove the paste from that and make it [into tablets], if you wish tablets, and if not, keep it thus in paste.
Text from http://cervantesvirtual.com/; translation by Dana Huffman
A number of recipes for tooth powders and mouthwashes were suggested. Banckes advocates mint sodden in vinegar, and polishing the teeth with the ashes of rosemary. Clarkson, in Magic Gardens (p. 118), says “Halitosis was a matter of consideration even in the time of Gerard, who says, ‘The distilled water of the flowres of Rosemary being drunke at morning and evening first and last, taketh away the stench of the mouth and breath, and maketh it very sweet, if there be added thereto, to steep or infuse for certain daies, a few cloves, Mace, Cinnamon, and a little Annise seed.'”
* Includes selections of period recipes.
Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth[: The first English Gardening Book]. ed. Richard Mabey. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) ISBN: 0-19-217763-X. Illustrated with reproductions of woodcuts & paintings from a wide variety of sources.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife: containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman…, Chapter III: “Of distillations and their virtues, and of perfuming.” first printed 1615. Published 1986 by McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal; edited by Michael R. Best. ISBN: 0-7735-0582-2.
Le Menagier de Paris. translation of cookbook sections by Janet Hinson: http://www.best.com/~ddfr/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html
Nostradamus, The Elixirs of Nostradamus: Nostradamus’ original recipes for elixirs, scented water, beauty potions and sweetmeats. edited by Knut Boeser. (Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1996) ISBN: 1-55921-155-5
“De Ornatu Mulierum /On Women’s Cosmetics.” in The Trotula : A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine . edited and translated by Monica H. Green. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001)>
Parkinson, John. A Garden of Pleasant Flowers: Paradisi in Sole. (NY: Dover Publications, 1991.) ISBN: 048626758X
Pepys 1047, in Stere htt Well: Medieval Recipes and Remedies from a manuscript in Samuel Pepys’s Library. Modern English version by G.A.J. Hodgett. (Adelaide: Mary Martin Books, s.d.)
Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies. 1594. (Herrin, Ill., Trovillion Private Press, 1942) Note: here are a selection of rosewater recipes from it.
Strabo, Walafrid. Hortulus. Translated by Raef Payne. Commentary by Wilfrid Blunt. (Pittsburgh: Hunt Botanical Library, 1966)
Tusser, Thomas. His Good Points of Husbandry, “Of Herbs and Flowers.” 1557. Published 1931 by Country Life Limited, London; edited by Dorothy Hartley.
A few web resources:
Modern safety information can be found in
Julia Lawless, The illustrated encyclopedia of essential oils: the complete guide to the use of oils in aromatherapy and herbalism. (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995) ISBN: 1-56619-990-5
1998-2004. Last updated July 13, 2004
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used.
Jadwiga’s herbs homepage: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html