Robert Herrick’s penchant for (feminine) almonds

By Colleen Kennedy

 THE BRIDE-CAKE.
by Robert Herrick
THIS day, my Julia, thou must make
For Mistress Bride the wedding-cake :
Knead but the dough, and it will be
To paste of almonds turn’d by thee :
Or kiss it thou but once or twice,
And for the bride-cake there’ll be spice.
(from Hesperides, 1648)

In this sweet trifle of a lyric, Robert Herrick does not actually dispense any practical cooking advice, but the poet notes that the flavor of Julia’s hands as she kneads the dough will impart the savor of “paste of Almonds” and that by kissing the dough, her sweet breath will give it the needed “spice.” Herrick, marrying together some of the aesthetic and feminine associations with almonds found in recipe books and medicinal manuals, alongside his larger appreciation of Classical sources, creates a gendered poetics of almond. In Herrick’s poem, as his own sweet mistress bakes almond-flavored bridal-cakes, we can sniff out that the almond was perhaps still thought to be under Venus’ influence in seventeenth-century England, associated with the erotic, the fertile, the beautiful, and the marital.

(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard's "Herball"
(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard’s “Herball” (via www.BioLib.de)

As Laurence Totelin suggests in a recent post on the aromas of garlic, almonds, and ancient fertility testing, “The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies.” Herrick’s corpus The Hesperides refers to an ancient garden of the Classical gods, and in his many poems he emulates the styles, forms, themes, and subjects of his many Greco-Roman poetic ancestors. Herrick’s Julia is a fictionalized and idealized ‘nymph,’ and her role in making bridal-cakes is especially fitting for an acolyte of Venus.

Bitter almonds (and their related products, such as almond milk) are lauded for their obstetric properties in Gerard’s Herball, such as helping alleviate the after pains of birth: “It is good for women newly delivered; for it quickly removeth the throwes which remain after delivery.” John Pechey’s The Compleat Midwife’s Practice (1698) lists the proscriptions and allowances on “How to Govern Women in Child-bed,” and suggests that along with a careful diet (and lots of claret), “She may also take at the discretion of those about her, Almond-milk now and then.”

While Julia must indulge in some domestic labor, Herrick displaces much of the drudgery onto Julia’s sweet essence. A contemporary almond paste recipe in The French Perfumer (1646) demonstrates that this is a multistep process including scalding the almonds, peeling, air-drying, beating, running through a sieve, layering with flowers, mixing frequently, and pressing for the oil. This last step alone is time consuming: “Observe that in the Composition of Essences … the… Paste must be in the Press three hours at least to draw the Oyl.”

Yet, Herrick’s Julia does not need to toil or press or scald because (in his fantasy) her skin exudes essence of almond as she prepares the bridal-cakes. Almond, due to the moisturizing qualities of its natural fats and oils, and also the exfoliating properties of its shell, is a common recipe in soaps.[1] In The Queens closet opened (1659), offers a delectable and highly fragrant soap recipe (“To make an Ipswich Water”) with white Castile (vegetable fats) Soap, rose-water, marjoram, savory, oil of cloves and spike(nard), musk and ambergreece, “work all these together in a fair Mortar, with the powder of an Almond Cake dried, and beaten as small as fine Flower, so roll it round in your hands in Rosewater.”

Hannah Wooley offers an aromatic and flavorsome almond milk recipe in The Queen-Like Closet (1670).

To make good Almond-Milk.

 Take Jordan Almonds blanched and beaten with Rosewater, then strain them often with fair water, wherein hath been boiled Violet Leaves and sliced Dates; when your Almonds are strained, take the Dates and put to it some Mace, Sugar, and a little Salt, warm it a little, and so drink it.[2]

a grove of almond trees in California (March 2009) (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Herrick’s Julia is not his only mistress associated with the aromatic, sensuous and aphrodisiacal almond. In his epigram “Upon Sibilla,” he conflates overtones of the occasional erotics of almonds, domestic labor, the beautiful and fertile housewife, and the recipes that blur lines between edible and topical concoctions. This results in a poem that hyperbolically celebrates Sibilla’s desirability and her homely, domestic attributes:

 With paste of almonds, Syb her hands doth scour;
Then gives it to the children to devour.
In cream she bathes her thighs, more soft than silk;
Then to the poor she freely gives the milk.

In these recipes, but especially Herrick’s poetic appropriations, we learn that almond-products might be gendered feminine, whether through the associations with Aphrodite/Venus, as an obstetric remedy, a beautifying elixir, sweetly scented hand soaps, or even in a perfumed drink. All were appropriate not only for bridal-cakes, but also for Herrick’s idealized mistress.

 [1] See my earlier post on Renaissance scented bath waters and soaps, including another almond recipe: “A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing.”

[2] See my previous posts on early modern violet and civet and rosewater.

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.