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Past Scents

Historical Perspectives on Smell

Jonathan Reinarz

Publication Year: 2014

In this comprehensive and engaging volume, medical historian Jonathan Reinarz offers a historiography of smell from ancient to modern times. Synthesizing existing scholarship in the field, he shows how people have relied on their olfactory sense to understand and engage with both their immediate environments and wider corporal and spiritual worlds.This broad survey demonstrates how each community or commodity possesses, or has been thought to possess, its own peculiar scent. Through the meanings associated with smells, osmologies develop--what cultural anthropologists have termed the systems that utilize smells to classify people and objects in ways that define their relations to each other and their relative values within a particular culture. European Christians, for instance, relied on their noses to differentiate Christians from heathens, whites from people of color, women from men, virgins from harlots, artisans from aristocracy, and pollution from perfume.This reliance on smell was not limited to the global North. Around the world, Reinarz shows, people used scents to signify individual and group identity in a morally constructed universe where the good smelled pleasant and their opposites reeked.With chapters including "Heavenly Scents," "Fragrant Lucre," and "Odorous Others," Reinarz's timely survey is a useful and entertaining look at the history of one of our most important but least-understood senses.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Studies in Sensory History


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Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

Like many other authors who have grappled with the subject of smell previously, I have found my time engaged in the field of sense studies to be among the most collegial of professional experiences. Not only did colleagues regularly offer to read drafts of the chapters presented here, but...

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Introduction: Picking up the Scent

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pp. 1-24

Smell is a cultural phenomenon. Members of past societies relied on smell to understand and engage with both their immediate environment and a wider world of meanings. Thus, “The study of the cultural history of smell” has been described by leading sensory studies scholars Constance Classen...

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1. Heavenly Scents: Religion and Smell

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pp. 25-52

Smells are thought to reveal things about the objects, people, and places from which they emanate. In their sweeping survey of aroma, Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott remind us that smells are drenched with meaning, often viewed as “intrinsic ‘essences’” with the...

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2. Fragrant Lucre: The Perfume Trade

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pp. 53-84

While historical research on the role of scent in religion is relatively limited, the history of perfume is well documented and has been central to histories of aroma since studies on the subject first began to appear. Histories of the senses frequently contain considerable commentary on perfume and...

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3. Odorous Others: Race and Smell

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pp. 85-112

As outlined in chapter 1, throughout human history scents have often functioned to unite people with their deities and other worshipers in religious rituals. Yet smells have also effectively divided populations and were regularly invoked to oppress certain groups. The Roman concern with...

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4. Seduction and Subversion: Gender and Smell

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pp. 113-144

Smell and gender are inextricably connected, as usually becomes apparent early in most histories of perfume. Edwin Morris, to take one example, begins his history of fragrance with the admission that he initially “felt embarrassed” at the outset of his research, as the subject appeared trivial to...

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5. Uncommon Scents: Class and Smell

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pp. 145-176

Besides classifying primarily good and bad smells, most histories of smell describe it as the most elitist of the senses. Initially the preserve of the gods, or aromatic luxuries enjoyed primarily by ancient royalty, given their cost, perfumes and scented items were synonymous with the social success...

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6. Mapping the Smellscape: Smell and the City

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pp. 177-208

Since the publication of Alain Corbin’s and Patrick Süskind’s very different but equally influential and inspiring volumes, the predominant discourse in histories of smell has focused on filthy cities and the coming of modern urban sanitation.1 In fact, Alain Corbin began his own study of past...

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Conclusion: Beyond the Foul and Fragrant

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pp. 209-218

In a foreword to Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant (1996), the historian Roy Porter claimed that “today’s history comes deodorised.”1 This long-acknowledged neglect of smell by academics, as outlined in the introduction to this volume, is credited to a reordering of the senses that occurred some...


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pp. 219-266


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pp. 267-280

About the Author, Series Page, Publisher Notes

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252096020
E-ISBN-10: 0252096029
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034947

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Studies in Sensory History
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OCLC Number: 884725799
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Past Scents

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Odors -- History.
  • Odors -- Social aspects.
  • Smell -- History.
  • Perfume -- History.
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