Today, I’ve lost my writing mojo and have found myself plodding around in Martha Wenlock’s era. I don’t know where I’m going at the moment with my storyline. While searching on the internet for an idea of what the interior of a 15th century house might have looked like, I came across an interesting article.

So maybe I haven’t just been wasting time. The article has given me a new angle to use in my plot. In our modern world, we are reliant on our sense of smell and taste. All over the media we are bombarded with advertisement for detergents, perfumes, body sprays, shampoo, air fresheners etc. We are told that these products will bring the outdoors into our homes. Full of natural fragrances, they will keep our clothes, sheets and towels smelling fresher longer in our cupboards. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the wonderful smells of food, freshly baked bread, burgers, fish and chips all to entice us in to buying them.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Stepping back in history, we find that smell wasn’t the first of the five senses on anyone’s list. According to the article, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, put the sense of smell behind sight, hearing but before taste and touch. In today’s world since Coronavirus disease, rolled across the world, smell has finally found itself at the top of the symptoms list. We were told to test ourselves, if we suddenly loss our sense of smell and taste.

Can you imagine being accused of witchcraft by the way you smelt?

Well, this is what happened to many an innocent person during the witch hunts. It was believed that the devil smelt bad, so it was likely anyone who associated with him smelt of evil too. In the smoky atmosphere of the early 14th century, along with the lack of personal hygiene, open drains and sewers one can imagine towns and cities across Britain and Europe stunk to high heaven. Disease was associated with smells thus marginalising certain members of society.

If you remember from your history lessons, the wealthy carried sweet smelling nosegay and posies to ward off disease. It seems strange that Christian societies didn’t adopt the Romans or ancient Greeks habit of daily bathing both as a social custom and for religious purposes. Then after bathing, they anointed their bodies with scented oils. These salves were carried in small bottles tied at the wrist.

People at a Turkish Bath in Istanbul, Turkey. Vintage halftone etching circa late 19th century.

The earliest known perfumeries date to the Roman Empire. By the 5th century A.D. scented oils and incense were used in religious rituals in Judaism and Christianity, even though some branches of the Christian churches believed such indulgences were linked to pagan religions. While some clergy exalted religious incense, they derided perfume as sinful, decadent indulgence and for several centuries many Christians rejected bathing, seeing it as a sin, because its link to vanity and pride. This might explain why they were seen as dirty and malodorous by the rest of the developing world. In the Islamic communities they kept to the tradition of bathing alive by the ritual cleansing of the hands and feet.

By the 11th century, the returning Crusaders brought back the tradition of Turkish baths to Europe. Chemists in the 13th century mastered the art of distilling essential oils and made a quick-drying perfume, but unfortunately, this coincided with the first wave of bubonic plague across Europe which led to the closure of the public bathhouses. The death of a third of the population led to the belief in Miasma or Malaria (bad air) that the plague like diseases were contagious through the air simply because they had no understanding of germs.

So, when you have Christian-base religion like the puritans, who didn’t believe in bathing and associated pleasant smells as being heavenly and godly, while foul smells were linked to death and diseases, it’s then easy to understand why witches were called, foul-smelling creatures of the devil. During the witch trials there were direct references to smell. The smell of sulphur being linked to the devil. Therefore, if someone smelt strongly of body odour, smoke from open fires, and unwashed clothes they had no hope of being spared from being labelled a witch. This was all that was needed for incriminating evidence that they were practising witchcraft. If something smells bad, it was evil.

Check out the article: The Suspicious Smell of Witches.

I hope you enjoy reading this. I better get back to Martha and take another look. I feel like I’m information dumping at the moment.

“Just get it down, Paula and edit it out later!” I hear you shouting!

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