Historians launch encyclopaedia of smells

All too human: The five senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight © Wellcome Collection

Are smells the key to history? The EU is to spend £2.5m capturing ancient aromas. They hope this will help bring the past alive. Others say we will never know what it felt like at the time.

It was the morning of 18 June 1815 – the day that would decide Napoleon’s destiny. Victory in the imminent battle at Waterloo would make him master of Europe; defeat would leave him nowhere to turn. The emperor pulled on his boots, slid his arms into the sleeves of his jacket – and splashed his face with his favourite perfume, Acqua Mirabilis by Farina.

Napoleon liked the scent partly because he thought it made him more attractive to women. But that day it would serve the more practical purpose of masking the smells of battle, from blood to gunpowder. It would also, he believed, help protect him from the diseases that inevitably spread in a large army.

It is moments like this that a ground-breaking new project hopes to recreate and preserve. Odeuropa aims to “capture the smells of Europe as part of our cultural heritage”.

“Smells shape our experience of the world, yet we have very little sensory information about the past”, explains the project’s head, Professor Inger Leemans. “Odeuropa will dive into digital heritage collections to discover the key scents of Europe and the stories they carry, then bring them back to our noses today.”

Her team includes historians, computer scientists, chemists and art historians. The idea is to search for references to smells in historical books and works of art – for example, in a picture of a pomander. These will be collated in an online Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage.

The project will also reconstruct smells for use in museum exhibitions and historic buildings. According to one of the historians, William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University, these could range from herbs such as rosemary which were seen as a protection against plague, to the smelling salts used in the 18th and 19th Centuries to revive people who had fainted.

He hopes the project will give us a fairer picture of our ancestors. “We live in a much cleaner, nicer world today, but one of the points of the project is to get us away from just obsessing about the stinky past and trying to encourage people to think of the foul and the fragrant.”

Tullett is particularly interested in tobacco, since it exemplifies how the social significance of a smell can change: “It is a commodity that is introduced into Europe in the 16th Century that starts off as being a very exotic kind of smell, but then quickly becomes domesticated and becomes part of the normal smell-scape of lots of European towns”.

He believes that the current health emergency has made Odeuropa all the more important. “Covid-19 has illustrated the profoundly negative effects that smell loss can have on wellbeing”.

Are smells the key to history?

Scent dissent

Some say, yes: of all the senses, smell is the key to memory, as both poets and scientists attest. If history is defined as an effort at collective cultural memory, it is obvious that we should pay much more attention to the smells of the past. A whiff of gunpowder or Napoleon’s aftershave is better "history" than a battle plan of Waterloo.

Others point out that smell is notoriously subjective. Even today, one person’s delicious supper can be another’s horrible stench. How can we possibly experience smells as they would have been experienced 200 years ago?

You Decide

  1. What is the best smell in the world?
  2. “Smells remind you of experiences more powerfully than photographs.” Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Make a list of your five favourite smells. Try to describe each in a few words.
  2. Imagine you are caught up in the battle of Waterloo. Write 300 words focussing simply on the smell of it.

Some People Say...

“The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world.”

Karl Lagerfeld (1933 - 2019), German fashion designer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that one of the most evil-smelling episodes in history was the Great Stink of 1858, which almost brought London to a standstill. It was caused by a huge build-up of raw sewage in the River Thames, which started to ferment as the result of a heatwave. The Houses of Parliament were badly affected, and MPs rapidly passed a law to stop further pollution. It involved the introduction of a much-needed sewage system, designed by the distinguished engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is the world’s greatest novel. Its theme is memory, and in a key episode the taste of a cake carries the narrator back to his childhood. Proust writes that “the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory”. Scientists say smell is the stronger of the two because it affects how we taste.

Word Watch

Waterloo
A town in Belgium. Napoleon’s French army was defeated by British, Dutch, Belgian and German forces.
Emperor
Napoleon took the title of emperor in 1804, to the disgust of many people who had seen him as a champion of the French Revolution.
Acqua Mirabilis
The name means “wonderful water”. Created in 1792, it can still be bought today as 4711 Eau de Cologne.
Gunpowder
A mixture of potassium nitrate, sulphur and powdered charcoal, it was first invented by the Chinese.
Pomander
A perforated container for scent. Made of gold or silver, pomanders were usually spherical, but were sometimes shaped like books, ships, hearts or skulls.
Smelling salts
Usually based on ammonia, these work by making the muscles which control breathing work faster.
Introduced into Europe
One of the first Europeans to bring tobacco back from America was Elizabeth I’s favourite, the writer and soldier Sir Walter Raleigh.

Subjects

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