Civet and Rose: (Early) Modern Perfume Ingredients Fit for a King

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.

Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book "The history of four-footed beasts and serpents..." by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book “The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…” by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

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).

Rose Poivrée (The Different Company)

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.


Works Cited

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.

Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes

By Amanda E. Herbert

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not in early modern England.

We know that early modern women were charged with the feeding and care of their family and friends and that lower-status women were often employed in the domestic labor of cooking, brewing, dairying, baking, and gardening. More surprising is that women were expected to collaborate in the kitchen, undertaking these traditional tasks in groups.  The expectation was that in any well-run household, domestic laborers (usually, but not always, women) would share their knowledge, time, labor, and kitchen-space – without grumbling, fighting, or competing!

Such guidelines for behaviour can be found alongside cooking in prescriptive recipe books. If you spend time with early modern prescriptive literature and printed recipe books, you quickly learn to flip to the front first: elaborate frontispieces often decorate the inside covers of these works. Although recipe books were supposedly intended for elite readers, authors and publishers marketed their products in sophisticated ways. Prescriptive literature conveyed information through images as well as writing. The mix of text and print was supposed to appeal to many different kinds of consumers. Literate people could read the text, while partially-literate people could “read” the images in order to learn about the mechanics of domestic labor in elite homes.

William Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor; Or, The Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of my favorite frontispieces can be found in William Henderson’s Housekeeper’s Instructor; or, the Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). The image shows a busy kitchen, with many workers cooking, carving, stirring, and slicing in order to prepare a meal. Most fascinatingly, the frontispiece shows itself–several people in the image are using recipe books. In the middleground of the picture, an elite woman (marked by her powdered wig) offers a book to a female servant (marked by the knife held in her right hand). At the bottom of the frontispiece, an “Explanation” of the image confirms that the picture shows “a Lady presenting her Servant with The Universal Family Cook who diffident of her own knowledge has recourse to that Work for Information.”

Men are also shown using recipe books. In the foreground of the frontispiece, two male kitchen workers carve a roasted fowl. The figure on the left points with one hand to an illustrated diagram in a book, which indicates how the meat is supposed to be cut, and with the other hand gestures toward the roast. The male figure on the right, who wields the knife, looks toward both the book and his companion for guidance. These men are not reading the text of the guidebook, but are instead examining its pictures in order to learn how to carve correctly.

The kitchen in Universal Family Cook is an ideal cooking space, being calm, pleasant, and productive. It shows both high and low status people cooperating with one another in a friendly manner as they work towards a common goal. Friendliness, cheerfulness, and passivity were also qualities that were idealized in early modern women. A good woman, this image tells us, is like her kitchen: productive and cooperative, efficient and pleasant.

But did “actual” early modern women live up to these expectations?  Did they cooperate and collaborate in their kitchens?  Find out in my next post…

Editors’ note: This blog post is based on chapter 3 of Amanda’s forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). The chapter looks at “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”

Verse and Transmutation

Anke Timmermann’s monograph on alchemical poetry has just been published by Brill.

Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry identifies and investigates a corpus of anonymous recipes for the philosophers’ stone dating from the fifteenth century, some of which may be familiar to readers of this blog from their appearance in Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. The critical editions and complex histories of these alchemica, in plain and illuminated manuscripts, as anonyma and in attribution to famous authors, and in historical book collections provide new perspectives on the role of recipes in English culture.

Apart from acquiring a copy through well-known virtual and actual outlets, you may also soon consult the book via Open Access in the Knowledge Unlatched Pilot. Check out the Knowledge Unlatched, the Pilot programme (library subscriptions still available!) and interviews with authors (including Anke Timmermann) for this week’s Open Access week here: http://www.knowledgeunlatched.org/.

What is a recipe?

By Sally Osborn

Among the recipes for cakes and fritters, wines and pies, Lady Frances Hotham’s recipe book contains an entry that begins:

For little children’s lambswool shoes – Cast 17 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at both ends every other row, till you have 23 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at the end only, every other row till you have 28 stitches.1

Or consider this, from a book of ‘Medical receits for the human and animal species’, probably belonging to a Thomas Chambre:

Paper lamp – Cut a piece of paper into a circular form about the size of a crown piece; twist a wick in the center, & plate it in the manner of a smoak jack. Put this to float in a saucer of oil & water in a large bason, & it will burn all night.2

Can those be described as recipes? Certainly examples such as this are a world away from Jerry Stannard’s model of a recipe as a formula with four essential parts: purpose, ingredients, procedure/equipment, and application/administration.3 Or compare Anne Stobart’s recent suggestion that private and emotional frustration in medical matters can be revealed by the ‘not-recipes’ in recipe books.

While Stannard’s model does not fit the knitting pattern and lamp-making instructions, Stobart’s ‘not-recipes’ do not explain the wide array of non-medical instructional information either. Recipes, as it turns out, are difficult to define. Take, for example, these two from Cornwall, which could loosely be described as veterinary and household respectively:

To prevent lambs from being killed by foxes &c – Take of brimstone gun powder and train oil make an ointment rub behind the ears and tail.4

Fulminating powder – Niter 3 parts salt of tartar 2 parts and sulphur one part mix them togeather by powdring them one dram of this powder will make a report like a musquet.5

Compilers of other collections record information on topics as diverse as ‘How to make a pond by puddling’ and ’To know if a woman be with child’, as well as beauty preparations and gardening tips.6

The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some entries in recipe collections are rather more like aides-mémoire, such as ‘Balsam of Chilie to be had in Black Fryers near the Kings Printing house. Dr Salmons Prescriptions over the Door’ or a ‘shorter receipt for the tooth ach’ – ‘If it be decayed, draw it out’.7 Then there is the fascinating (and sometimes self-evident) list of ‘Things bad for the sight’:

To study after meat, and wines, onions, leeks, lettice going after meat, winds, hot air, and cold air, drunkeness, and gluttony, much milk or cheese, looking on red or white things if bright, mustard, much sleep after meat, too much walking after meat, too much letting of blood, collworts, fire dust, much weeping, and over much watching.8

Part of 'A receipt for a person to make her husband love her'. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
Part of ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

As well as the word ‘recipe/receipt’ being extended in application to a variety of topics, it was played with as a form, as discussed in this post by Anke Timmermann. Poetic recipes can be found in England too, such as the eighteen rhyming lines of ‘A poetical receipt to make a sack posset’.9

Recipes were also employed as metaphors, as in ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’, part of which is reproduced here and which is considerably less sardonic than this ‘never failing receit to cure love’:

Take two ounces of the spirits of reason; three ounces of the powder of experience; five drams of juice of discretion; three ounces of the powder of good advice, and two spoonfulls of the cooling water of consideration; make it into pills and drink a little content after them: one dose cures the head of maggots and whimsies; then take another dose, and drink a little content and you will be restored to your right senses.10

We can compare this to the modern usage of phrases like ‘recipe for success’ or ‘recipe for disaster’.

By closely examining the contents of early modern recipe books, it becomes clear that it is not so straightforward after all to determine just what a recipe is. Recipes as a genre are malleable and adaptable–and these collections were working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.


1. U/DDHO/19/3, Hull History Centre, 1816.
2. MS 7492, Wellcome Collection, late 18th century.
3. Jerry Stannard, “Rezeptliteratur as Fachliteratur”, in W. Eamon, Studies on Medieval ‘Fachliteratur’ (Brussels: OMIREL, 1982).
4. CA/B50/3, Cornwall Record Office, 1777.
5. Pocket book of John Belling, clockmaker of Bodmin, X949/1, Cornwall Record Office, 1737-51.
6. Commonplace book of John Sargent, Wilberforce 291, West Sussex Record Office, 1775; DD\X\FW, Somerset Archive, c.1751.
7. MS 1322, Wellcome Collection, 1660-1750; MS 1795, Wellcome Collection, 17-18th centuries.
8. Medical recipe book, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, D5336/2/26/9, Derbyshire Record Office, 18th century.
9. ’A collection of the best receits’, Katharine Palmer, MS 7976, Wellcome Collection, 1700–39.
10. MS 5509, Royal College of Physicians, 18th century.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine