The Book of Smells

Historian Robert Muchembled’s new history is full of disgusting, delicious details about early modern France.

A long-haired woman holds her nose.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

How did people live in a world where sewage flowed freely down the street? A world without indoor plumbing or regular baths? A world where dead horses were left where they dropped for days on end? “The stench in centuries past was dreadful and omnipresent, the air saturated with nauseating emissions and dangerous pollution,” writes French historian Robert Muchembled in his disgusting, delicious book Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times, now available in an English translation by Susan Pickford. Bygoners knew the stench was bad, but there was nothing to be done: “People simply lived with it as best they could.”

The “as best they could” part is the subject of Muchembled’s study. His book is about smells and smelling in French culture during the Ancien Régime (roughly the 16th, 17th, and part of the 18th centuries). Muchembled covers a range of topics as dizzying as the fumes rising from a communal piss barrel—provided on French streets for passersby to relieve themselves, with the resulting soup of pee saved for use by textile and leather workshops. If you’ve ever wondered how living without modern technologies of sanitation might have shaped the surrounding culture, this book is for you.

Smells is full of gross details about the olfactory past, like that piss barrel. I learned about charivari, a folk custom in France in which people mock-serenaded weddings they disapproved of, adding to the proceedings “the stench of a donkey carcass being burned.” I learned that doctors in this period advised the ingestion of all kinds of weird and awful things—rat droppings to treat kidney stones, peacock poop for epilepsy—and that, to ward off airborne contagion, they prescribed sniffing a ripe latrine in the morning. In one hilarious passage, I learned that in the court of Louis XIII, people would pee anywhere: fireplaces, staircases, corners, wall hangings, or right on the floor where they stood.

Many entertaining primary sources, some excerpted quite generously, show how even the elite came to terms with the stench of humanity, before regular bathing and modern sewer systems removed most of it from our lives. Farting, for example, was the subject of a treatise called The Art of Farting (1751), by a Pierre-Thomas Hurtault, who gave advice on ways of hiding the sound of farts. Muchembled summarizes Hurtault’s taxonomy of farts:

Household, virgin, fencing master, young lady’s ‘with a little taste of off you go again,’ married women, bourgeois women, country women, shepherdesses scented with wild thyme or marjoram, old women, bakers, clay potters, tailors, tasting of plums, geographers, cuckolds, soft and sudden.

All of this funny stuff risks becoming more of a collection of curiosities than an act of scholarship, but Muchembled’s book is saved from the realm of “weird history” by its insistence on understanding why people had these relationships to smell—and how they changed over time. A chapter about women and their supposedly bad-smelling bodies shows how ideas about smell intertwined with misogyny, even in a time when everybody stank. Muchembled gathers evidence of widespread condemnation of women for smelling “off” during menstruation, absolutely repulsive during illness, and especially bad in their old age—which, in this time and place, was any age after a woman’s early 20s. Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, in his satirical essay In Praise of Folly (1511), described older women as “strolling corpses, stinking carcasses which everywhere exhale a sepulchral odor.” Accused witches supposedly smelled like the devil; young flirts, who masked their natural smells with perfume, were likewise subject to condemnation.

Even in browsing a delightful museum of everyday life like this book, we can’t escape reminders of our own time. Epidemics of bubonic plague in the 16th and 17th centuries, Muchembled writes, ushered in a fashion for the use of strong-smelling ambergris, musk, and civet, as “vital bulwarks against the Devil’s breath.” Smell was incredibly important to French people trying to stay uninfected; the body was seen as porous and could be “permeated” by air with plague in it. Doctors advised that they should wear white, burn sweet-smelling fires, and live life in moderation, to keep humors balanced.

Moralizing condemnations of the use of scent, which had been seen as a way for people to misrepresent their own bodily odors—to literally put on “airs,” in search of pleasure—vanished in the face of medical advice to use strong scent to ward off sickness. Glove-makers and perfumers thrived, since every bit of clothing had to be saturated with these concoctions. The plague also changed people’s understanding of personal space. In Arras in 1597, a public rule imposed on plague patients the need to carry a white rod, 2 meters in length, to keep people away. The use of strong scents did the same thing for the not yet infected, “creating a sort of isolation bubble around the individual.” The poor, unable to afford the fancy oils from the Americas their rich contemporaries used to forge this bubble, made do as they could.

Before the 18th century, when people became more convinced that modernizing sanitation practices would reduce the transmission of disease, smelling bad was just part of the human condition. Once these things changed, the upper classes emerged into a new world emphasizing hygiene and hopefulness (and regular baths); they began to favor perfumes with fruity and floral notes and to disdain older lifeways that accepted the smell of poop and pee and decay. “The body was no longer seen as a stinking prison for the soul,” Muchembled writes. Cities began to take steps like moving graveyards and slaughterhouses away from residential areas, out to the fringes.

But change came slowly. Some parts of the urban population would just “put up with the stench rather than pay the significant cost of the works required by the authorities,” the historian writes. Odor pollution was also a matter of history and tradition; some of it came from “deeply ingrained habits” that were difficult to eradicate. People in particular trades, for example, had “dung heaps” outside their doors that were signs of wealth, because they showed that the proprietor in question had a prosperous business, and that business required a lot of poop. The transition to a better-smelling public sphere was uneven—and it’s still in progress. (You could still smoke cigarettes on American airplanes until the 1990s.)

Muchembled’s book is a capsule history of smells and smelliness in one time and place, though the author occasionally marshals evidence of the traditions and habits to make a larger argument about human nature. Your mileage may vary as to whether you buy that case. (Take this simplistic, heteronormative interpretation of the role of smell in attraction: “And though we are unaware of it, it is our noses that lead us to the man or woman of our dreams, the Romeo or Juliet who will help us perpetuate our genes and thus protect the future of the species.”) But these small moments are forgivable—like a courtier peeing on a tapestry in the court of Louis XIII. As diversionary history to read in a pandemic summer goes, this is a good one.