All posts by colleenkennedy

Colleen Kennedy is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Ohio State University. Her research includes Renaissance drama, sensory history, histories of smell, early modern philosophies of the body, performance history, and the use of aromatic stage props. She is currently working on her dissertation called “Comparisons Are Odorous,” a study of representations of body odor in Renaissance literature.

Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

By Colleen Kennedy

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.

‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).

A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing

by Colleen Kennedy

Bathing in the Renaissance could be a fragrant and languorous event, especially for a lady with her own herbal garden (or the extra money to buy spices, flowers, and herbs) and some free time.  Even sweating could be aromatic, rejuvenating, and relaxing. This post  reconsiders early modern bathing and hygienic habits, in response to a short article by Dodai Stewart entitled “Tudor Fashion: Pretty, But Best Not to Think About the Stench” posted to the feminist newsblog Jezebel. While my first post considered the types of early modern baths, today I turn to women’s recipe books to explore especially sweet baths and the art of sweating.[1]

Ladies could partake in steam baths—called a vaporary or a moist stove. Women, whose humours tended to be colder and wetter, especially benefited from sweating.[2] Men with certain phlegmatic conditions could also be treated by sweating, and “the use of this is most convenient in the winter, and spring, as of the bath in summer” (Morel 200). This implies that bathing was not regulated to just the summer months when the bather could avoid a chill, but rather that this vaporary could replace cold bathing in winter months.

The bather would sit in a tub (or on a chair) and the bather’s body would be encircled by some sort of enclosed cover or canopy, with the head sticking out. Sir Hugh Plat’s frequently republished Delightes for Ladies claims that “I know that many Gentlewomen as well for the clearing of their skins as cleansing their bodies, do now and then delight to sweat” (Recipe 27: A Delicate Stove to Sweat In”).[3] Aromatic and medicinal plants (“such proportion of sweet hearbes, and of such kind as shall bee most appropriate for your infirmitie”) would be brought to a steam and filtered by means of a pipe into the canopy, and this perfumed steam “will breathe so sweete and warme a vapour upon your bodie as that you shall sweat most temperately.” Rather than sounding archaic or unsanitary, this moist stove quite resembles a modern sauna.

A Lady in Her Bath François Clouet (c. 1571) oil on oak National Gallery of Art We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: "The masklike symmetry of the bather's face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual." The painting, while alluding "to a happy, healthy home," also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman's life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub's sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather's left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a "leaky vessel."
A Lady in Her Bath
François Clouet (c. 1571)
oil on oak
National Gallery of Art
We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: “The masklike symmetry of the bather’s face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual.”
The painting, while alluding “to a happy, healthy home,” also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman’s life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub’s sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather’s left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a “leaky vessel.”

In addition to “delicate stoves,” there were many pleasurable recipes for relaxing baths and sweetly scented soaps found in recipe books.  The Accomplished Ladies’ Rich Closet of Rarities (1687) offers a scrumptious recipe for a “Sweet Bath”:

Take the flowers or peels of Cittrons, the Flowers of Oranges and Gessamine, Lavenderr, Hysop, Bay-leaves; the flowers of Rosemary, Comfry, and the seeds of Coriander, Endive and sweet Marjorum; the Berries of Myrtle and Juniper: boil them in Spring-water, after they are bruised, till a third part of the liquid matter is consumed, and enter in a Bathing tub, or wash your self with it, as you see occasion, and it will indifferently serve for Beauty and Health (63).[4]

Another recipe describes an equally balsamic bath:

“This bath is very good, Take two handfulls of sage leaves, the like quantity of lavender flowers and roses, a little salt, boile them in spring water and therewith bath your body; remembring that you are never to bath after meals for it will occasion many infirmities; bath therefore two or three hours before dinner, it will cleare the skin, revives the spirits and strengthens the body, the same effects hath this following” (37).[5]

Even the most common of cleansing activities, the washing of the face and hands were not necessarily just plain well water. Hugh Plat offers a recipe for hand-washing water “very cheape” using items founds in any well-stocked house or garden: “Take a gallon of faire water, one handful; of Lavender flowers, a few cloves, and some orace powder, and foure ounces of Benjamin: distill the water in an ordinarie leaden still…” (Plat, Recipe 2: “An Excellent handwater or washing water very cheape”). In The French Perfumer, almonds could be scented with flowers, and after the oil was extracted, the remains could be used as exfoliating “cakes of almonds” to wash the hands (47).[6]

Such baths, we can see are pleasurable, sensuous, cosmetic, hygienic, and employ common medicinal and scented herbs for both their aromatic and therapeutic virtues.[7] Furthermore, we see that bathing was not limited to the face and hands, but to the whole body. Finally, we discover that even hands and faces could have fragrant soaps and sweet waters. Bathing, then, when it occurred could be a pleasure for all the senses.


[1] See my previous post: “Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing.”

[2] For more on the colder, wetter humors of early modern women and the depiction of women as “leaky vessels,” see Gail Kern Paster’s erudite The Body Embarrased: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). For visual representations of women at their bath and humoral theory see Zirka Z. Filipczak’s Hot Dry Men/ Cold Wet Women: The Theory of Humors in Western Europe Art 1575-1700 (American Federation of the Arts, 1997).

[3] Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies, to adorne their Persons, Tables, closets, and distillatories. London: Printed by Peter Short, 1602.

[4] J. S. The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities: or, The ingenious gentlewoman and servant-maids delightfull companion. London : printed by W.W. for Nicholas Boddington in Duck-Lane; and Joseph Blare on London-Bridge, 1687.

[5] Jeamson, Thomas. Artificiall embellishments, or Arts best directions how to preserve beauty or procure it. Oxford : Printed by William Hall, 1665.

[6] Barbe, Simon. The French perfumer teaching the several ways of extracting the odours of drugs and flowers and making all the compositions of perfumes for powder, wash-balls, essences, oyls, wax, pomatum, paste, Queen of Hungary’s Rosa Solis, and other sweet waters, London : Printed for Sam. Buckley …, 1696.

[7] I would like to return to these same bath recipes and crosslist the ingredients for these baths with the medicinal qualities described in standard herbals to cover the range of restorative effects.

Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing

Recently, the feminist newsblog Jezebel posted a short article by Dodai Stewart entitled “Tudor Fashion: Pretty, But Best Not to Think About the Stench.”  The article highlighted a portraiture exhibit of 16th and 17th century nobles In Fine Style: the Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, currently showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and cites at length noted art historian Brian Sewell’s musings on the stenches beneath the bombast and slashed sleeves, the malodours caught in the layers of velvet and satin, and the pong of not wearing underclothes. Many Jezebel readers questioned early modern English hygienic practices and several cited familiar reeking anecdotes. One reader wondered:

 “I have always thought this about the hygiene during those years. If you don’t wash your hair after a while it smells downright rank. And what about brushing your teeth? Cleaning your pits? When did these people bathe?”

Half-length portrait of Anne of Denmark Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1614 Oil on panel In this detail, we see the layers of pearls, the golden buttons on the bodice, the delicate lace cuffs, and finely wrought fabric of her gown. This detail is prominent on both the exhibit’s homepage and in the “Jezebel” article.

I hope to challenge prevailing beliefs and misconceptions about early modern bathing practices and hygienic rituals.  My intervention here is based on Mark Jenner’s nuanced approach to early modern hygienic practices and the histories of smell; while I am questioning the modern metanarrative of stench and the lack of bathing, I embrace the conflicting descriptions of bathing found in these primary sources.[1] In this first post, I tackle the concept of “bath” in the Renaissance.

Some early modern physicians lament the lost tradition of bathing so well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans: “It was most usual of old among the Romans for pleasure, but now a dayes only used for the recovery of health, and resisting of diseases” (Morel 197).[2] Nevertheless, this does not mean that all early modern English people avoided bathing and walked around stinking.

Even those who warned against the dangers of bathing, such as James Hart–who suggested not bathing more than three or four times a year in contrast with the Germans, who bath once a week, and was especially averse to bathing in cold water—still suggested washing of the hands and face (up to three times a day) as well as frequent foot washes. Hart did not proscribe outright against baths, however: “With us these bathings are not so much in request; although I deny not, they might now and then discreetly used prove profitable for the body…” (295).[3]  He then goes on to describe varieties of baths and their benefits.

The very variety of names for baths described in medical tracts demonstrate that there were a number of bathing options. People tended to bathe in cold water in spring or summer—these are usually in natural water sources such as springs, rivers, and ponds and are often referred to as “natural baths.” In the colder months, people might partake in an “artificial bath,” washing in a tub or basin of heated water. There were “stoves” (dry or moist heated baths, akin to modern saunas), “fomentations” (the ladling or sponging onto particular parts of the body heated liquids), “irrigations” (basically an early form of the shower, “a pouring of Liquor from high, like rain on any part (but chiefly the head) making it distill out of a snowted vessel” (203), and the “petty bath”: “between a Bath and Fomentation, larger than this, lesser than that” (195).[4]

Albrecht Durer, "Woman's Bath" dated 1496 Although Durer's image is dated before the closing of the public bathhouses, we see several different sorts of bathing practices occurring in this image. Beginning at the top right corner, the standing woman carries aromatic herbs. Behind her we see water being heated for the bath. The women clean themselves before entering the large, recessed communal pool at the far right. Moving clockwise, we see an elderly woman whose feet are in the public bath and she is receiving a "petty bath" by the centrally located woman in a headdress. In front of the central woman, we see an ointment jar, a sponge, and a lathering brush. To her left, we see another woman cleaning her genitals (probably with a sponge) as two younger children await their baths. A peeping Tom looks through the doors. One woman combs her hair and another scratches at her dry skin. Unlike many other Renaissance representations of women bathing (often classical scenes such as Diana and Acteon or Biblical scenes such as Susanna and the Elders or Bathsheba), this scene does not seem particularly erotic, but instead captures a realistic rendering of different women (with decidedly different body types) cleansing themselves.
Albrecht Durer, “Woman’s Bath” dated 1496
Although Durer’s image is dated before the closing of the public bathhouses, we see several different sorts of bathing practices occurring in this image. Beginning at the top right corner, the standing woman carries aromatic herbs. Behind her we see water being heated for the bath. The women clean themselves before entering the large, recessed communal pool at the far right. Moving clockwise, we see an elderly woman whose feet are in the public bath and she is receiving a “petty bath” by the centrally located woman in a headdress. In front of the central woman, we see an ointment jar, a sponge, and a lathering brush. To her left, we see another woman cleaning herself (a “fomentation”) as two younger children await their baths (probably full baths or ablutions in the nearby basins). A peeping Tom looks through the doors. One woman combs her hair and another scratches at her dry skin. Unlike many other Renaissance representations of women bathing (often classical scenes such as Diana and Acteon or Biblical scenes such as Susanna and the Elders or Bathsheba), this scene does not seem particularly erotic, but instead captures a realistic rendering of different women (with decidedly different body types) cleansing themselves.

Morel describes the variety of liquids that may be used in a fomentation:

“The SIMPLE Liquor that is wont to be prescribed for a Fomentation, as to its quality, is either hot or warm water, when we would relax in pains that come from over-much fulness; or Wine, when we would discusse and strengthen; or wine and water together where we would do both at once, or either temperately; or milk in great paines, or oyl common, or other where we would mollifie in relation to the paine, and digest as to the scope; or water and oyl, Vinegar and water, or Vinegar of Roses in hot affections, or Lee of Vine ashes in cold affections, if we should digest and dry strongly.” (191)

Even with the simple “cold bath,” we often find contradictory advice, sometimes even in the same source. William Vaughan extols the virtues of cold baths, but he limits who can partake:

“Cold and natural baths are greatly expedient for men subject to rheumes, dropsies, and gouts. Neither can I easily expresse in words how much good cold baths do bring unto them that use them: howbeit with this caveat I commend bathes, to wit, that no man distempered through Venery, Gluttony, watching, fasting, or through violent exercise, presume to enter into them.” (70-71)[5]

Yet, another later manual explains that cold baths are only good for those with naturally hot humors: “a Bath, viz. the washing of the whole body for the most part for hot and dry distempers of the whole body, seldom for cold ones, for which purpose the Stove is most convenient.”[6] The individual bather’s humoral make-up, gender, age, and current ailments could alter how often and what types of baths to use.[7]

When considering early modern attitudes toward bathing, what was prescribed or proscribed by physicians and what was actually practiced seem to vary greatly. Another Jezebel reader questioned: “But why?? Why didn’t the wealthy at least give themselves a daily sponge bath? How could they not want to feel clean and stop smelling so badly?”  But, as we have seen, there were a variety of bathing options. The Jezebel article and the readers’ comments just perpetuate modern Western attitudes toward deodorization and bathing that often create a simplistic metanarrative of stench, when the bouquets of the past are far more complex and heady than we can ever truly recover.

A forthcoming post will consider luxurious baths and sweats preferred by Renaissance ladies.


[1] See Emily Cockayne’s delightfully disgusting and well-documented Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England 1600-1770 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), especially pages 59-72 for a survey of bathing customs, teeth cleaning, wig wearing, hair washing, linen cleaning, or lack thereof for all of the above. Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (New York: North Point Press, 2007) offers a similar, albeit less scholarly, narrative of bodily stench and lack of bathing as the norm (see pages 77-123 for her chapter on “A Passion for Clean Linen 1550-1750”).  Both of these works begin with a pre-conceived narrative: to focus on the filth, the malodorous, and the unsanitary.

[2] Morel, Pierre. The expert doctors dispensatory. The whole art of physick restored to practice. London : Printed for N. Brook, 1657.  The online “A Short History of Bathing before  1601: Washing, Baths, and Hygiene in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, with sidelights on other customs” offers a nice brief history as well as many citations from primary sources. Also see the first chapter of Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009) for a concise and fascinating study on the shift away from ablutions and toward the use of clean linens.

[3] Hart, James. Klinike, or The diet of the diseased· Divided into three bookes.:London : Printed by Iohn Beale, for Robert Allot, and are to be sold at his shop at the signe of the blacke Beare in Pauls Church-yard, 1633.

[4] Morel on fomentations (pp. 191-194) and stoves (200-201).

[5] Vaughan, William. Approved directions for health, both naturall and artificiall deriued from the best physitians as well moderne as auncient. London : Printed by T. S[nodham] for Roger Iackson, and are to be solde at his shop neere the Conduit in Fleetestreete, 1612. STC (2nd ed.) / 24615

[6] Morel, Pierre. The expert doctors dispensatory. The whole art of physick restored to practice. London : Printed for N. Brook, 1657.

[7] See for example, Zirka Z. Filipczak’s Hot Dry Men/ Cold Wet Women: The Theory of Humors in Western Europe Art 1575-1700. American Federation of the Arts, 1997, for a wonderful study of the gendered representations of men and women. I am not covering purely medicinal or therapeutic baths, such as those at Bath, but rather bathing for frequent hygienic purposes. For more on the medical spas at Bath see Amanda Herbert’s “Drinking Stinking Spa Waters in Early Modern Britain.”