By Colleen Kennedy
Civet was one of the most exotic luxury ingredients in early modern perfumes. This odoriferous secretion comes from the perineal glands of the civet cat of Asia and Africa to mark its territory. What did civet smell like to the early modern nose? Associated with royalty in its earliest introduction to England; even now it retains an affect of and association with royalty.
Modern perfume blogs and reviews of contemporary civet-based perfumes, when read alongside early modern recipe books, allow us to sniff out the aroma of civet, which evoked the grandeur and luxury of royalty–then and now .
For a modern example, we can consider the perfume Rose Poivrée (2000), which has a compound similar to some of the most highly regarded Renaissance perfumes. Tove Salander suggests that it makes sense to consult perfume blogs while trying to understand the affective properties of perfumes: “The online perfume community provides one of the few arenas in which odor perception is trained and verbalized beyond simple statements of like or dislike. As such it may serve as a model for the academic analysis of smells” (305).
The ingredient list for Rose Poivrée is relatively simple: Damascus rose, rose bay, pepper, coriander, vetiver, and civet. The first ingredient, which is also the middle note (Damascus rose) and the final ingredient, the base note (civet) are two of the most common sixteenth-century perfume ingredients and are often blended together.
Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent reviews several civet-based perfumes, including Rose Poivrée (2000):
One of the more astonishing civet scents on the market today is Rose Poivrée, from the French niche house the Different Company. This is a rose absolute — rose absolute, F.Y.I., doesn’t smell like “rose”; it’s dark and musty. Its perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, resisted prettifying the rose and instead doused it with an animalic breath. Pungent with decay, Rose Poivrée is unsettling and gorgeous, the perfume that Satan’s wife would wear to an opening at MoMA.
Even for modern professionals, the metaphors become mixed and confusing. The imagery is strong and evocative, but oscillates between the concrete and the abstract in perplexing ways. So, we can only imagine the difficulty of early modern writers to express how civet smelled or how they were affected by the smell of civet.
Kevin Curran and James Kearney, in their “Introduction” to the “Shakespeare and Phenomenology” issue of Criticism (Summer 2012), remind us that “feeling and senses have a history. The way we feel sad is different from the way Shakespeare felt sad; the way we smell perfume is different from the way Queen Elizabeth smelled perfume” (354). Yet, in Rose Poivrée, the two ingredients that resonate most strongly are civet and rose absolute, both essential scents in sixteenth century perfumery. But what if the way we smell rose and civet (linking it to royal excesses) is also the way Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII, also smelled civet?
According to the OED, “civet” entered the English language when the animal first entered Henry VIII’s royal court. Like the civet, damask roses were also introduced into England during Henry’s reign, gifted from the king’s royal physician Dr. Thomas Linacre (Dugan 58).
In a popular Renaissance perfume recipe from the oft reprinted A closet for ladies and gentlevvomen (1608) civet and rose are combined:
Take sixe spoonfulls of compound water, as much of rose water, a quarter of an ounce, of fine sugar, two graines of muske, two graines of amber-greece, two of Ciuet, boyle it softly together, all the house will smell of Cloues.
This perfume is called “King Henry the eight his perfume” and we can find variations of the name (such as a “court perfume” or “royall perfume”) and ingredients throughout the Renaissance, but the combination of civet and rose remains consistent.
In these versions of a pre-modern celebrity fragrance, we find Henry’s name attached as the perfume preferred by the King. The very title of this perfume hints at a royal connection and, specifically relating to Henry VIII, a sense of virility. These are aspects that Chandler Burr and The Different Company both imply in their own descriptions of Rose Poivrée. The Different Company describes Rose Poivrée as “a royal scent from exotic lands, this decadent essence mixes pure rose with a devilish pepper and spice, a combination fit for kings [and] queens…” While wary of stating that these different perfumes—especially with differences in ingredients, proportion, and maybe most importantly, noses smelling these odorants—there is still a lingering affect that transcends time, space, and culture that makes the smeller link civet and rose (when combined) with royal potency.
Kevin Curran and James Kearney, “Introduction to Shakespeare and Phenomenology,” Criticism 54, 3 (2012): 353-364.
Tove Solander, “Signature Scents: Perfume and Characterization in the Contemporary Novel,” Senses and Society 5, 3 (2010): 301-321.