Books of Secrets

By Mandy Aftel

From Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

Alession Piemontese Frontispiece

In the early sixteenth century, a new kind of book appeared in Europe: Books of Secrets were popular compendiums that professed to divulge to the reader the secrets of nature, culled from ancient sources of knowledge and wisdom. The most famous was The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont, the pseudonym of an Italian physician and alchemist. More than seventy editions were published in at least seven languages, including my personal copy of the 1595 English edition. A third of the book was taken up with formulas that were not culinary but medicinal, remedies for common ailments. There was a chapter of recipes for perfumes and other scented ingredients—lotions, soaps, and body powders. And it wasn’t only the culinary and perfume recipes that called for spices and natural essences. There was a mouthwash of benzoin, cinnamon, rosemary, and myrrh, for example.[i]

These books’ closest descendant in the modern world is the cookbook. But the very idea of a cookbook is a recent one. To the pre-modern mind, there was no clear distinction between food and medicine and craft, the domestic and healing and creative arts. Substances derived from plants and animals and minerals were “simples”—building blocks that could be combined to form different compounds. “Pharmacists had to know how to grind up mixtures of simples according to medical instructions or their own ingenuity,” writes Paul Freedman in Out of the East. “Pounding and grinding together these aromatic products was a tedious task and became a symbol of the art and labor of the medical or culinary expert in spices, the cook and the pharmacist.”

When I discovered the Books of Secrets, I was smitten not only by their wealth of useful knowledge but by their charm. Their primordial scrambling of appetites and arts mirrored the synesthetic nature of the senses. Here home remedies mingled with folk wisdom, traditional knowledge with family lore. They combined the seemingly contradictory strands of the practical and the mystical in a way that reminded me of perfume, which—for all the formulas generated in all the labs in all the fragrance houses—can never be reduced to a science. Indeed, herbs, flowers, and spices played a great role in the arts they covered, and so the books focused on the same ingredients that are used to create natural perfumes.

I’d reveled in the same promiscuous muddling of material in my library of antique perfume books, in which fragrance recipes rubbed shoulders with alchemy, folk remedies, and precursor versions of aromatherapy. But when I tried to use the recipes in a straightforward way—as if from a cookbook, I discovered something interesting.

I’d always thought, in the back of my mind, that if I ran out of ideas for new perfumes, I could use the recipes in these books to replicate the perfumes that used to be made—though I had not quite figured out how I would find, or afford, the copious amounts of musk and ambergris so many of the recipes called for. One day I decided to put that idea to the test and start making the perfumes in some of my old recipe books.

Handwritten Formula Book from 1838

Many of the formulas were for what were known as soliflors, the attempt to replicate the aroma of a delicate flower that couldn’t be scent-harvested, like lily of the valley or violet; they seemed to rely heavily on bitter almond, which smells like cherries, to convey the nuance of flowers. When I made a couple of the perfumes, however, they struck me as decidedly “old lady” and uninteresting. Moreover, as I combed through the books, giving the recipes a closer look, I realized that the recipes had frequently been copied from one book to another. Over time, presumably by being carelessly recopied by scribes who didn’t understand the processes behind the words they were transcribing, many of the recipes had become garbled in places, or completely unintelligible. None of this stopped me from regarding these antique books as important links to a remote and rich past, initiating me into the mysteries of antiquity. In fact, I realized that their true genius lay not in their formulas but in the world they conveyed, a lost world of eccentric personalities consumed with the passion for travel to uncharted places, in search of undiscovered treasures and exotic substances. And the most important “secret” they contained was an alternate way of looking at the world—an aura of romance, sensuality, adventure and creativity.

Perfumers Notebook 1876

As for the recipes, they taught me something too—not how to replicate the perfumes of the past, but how to regard the process of making things and passing on knowledge about that process. The recipes in these books had the patina of having been forged in a crucible of trial and error by real-life practitioners who were passing on their hard-won knowledge to like-minded artisans. But recipes, even faithfully copied, cannot convey the deeply personal, idiosyncratic processes out of which they were distilled. “Recipes collapse lived experience into a series of mechanical acts that, once parsed, anyone can follow,” Eamon observes. “While a ‘secret’ is someone’s private property or the property of a group, a recipe doesn’t belong to anyone. Once it is published, someone else appropriates it, uses it, varies it, and then passes it on. At each stop it gains something or loses something, is improved upon or degraded, and is changed to fit new needs and circumstances. Recipes are built upon the belief that somewhere at the beginning of the chain there is someone who does not use them.”[ii]

Inherent in the Books of Secrets were attitudes and beliefs that grew out of the medieval imagination and resonated deeply with my work as an artisan perfumer. They reflected a belief in “Maker’s knowledge” (verum factum), which means that to know something means knowing how to make it. Such expertise cannot be acquired from someone else’s experience, but must be accrued by handling, experimenting with, and learning from the materials themselves. The search for how to do something was an essential part of the process, and it even had a name: venatio, “the hunt,” which referred to the hunt after the secrets of nature. Venatio was exactly what I experienced when I was searching for the lost knowledge of natural perfumery.


Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.


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