- The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England by Holly Dugan
Ephemeral entered the English language in the late sixteenth century, a moment central to the historical period Holly Dugan explores in this important study of perfume and olfaction. Initially, the word referred either to daylong fevers or mayflies that had a brief diurnal life cycle; it perfectly captures the evanescence of Dugan’s topic. Her history is founded on a paradox, for she focuses on reconstructing the olfactory culture of English day-to-day life that is at once materially grounded and elusively transient. As she notes, most traditional histories of perfume begin in Egypt, migrate to Rome, and move to eighteenth-century France, ignoring medieval and Renaissance England almost completely. Concentrating on this English early modern lacuna in perfume’s history, she seeks to examine the material practices of substances and phenomena that have all but vanished. This apparently quixotic project would appear to be a nightmare venture for a historical phenomenologist: how does one anatomize such a notoriously elusive topic? Yet the invisible nature of her subject paradoxically provides Dugan with a rich theoretical reflexivity, since it necessarily questions the very enterprise of historical recreation, interrogating the nature of embodiment, epistemology in the archive, and our capacity to understand past culture. While Dugan cannot, of course, offer definitive answers to the crucial questions she poses, her study allows us to confront productively some of the unarticulated motivations that subtend the historicist enterprise. [End Page 229]
Dugan’s study is shaped by historical phenomenology, a twinned concept that suggests that what—and how—we know is enabled both by bodily experience and by our historical moment. This theoretical method, molded by the philosophical legacies of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is particularly attractive to critics who make the body and the senses central to their investigations. Dugan’s study of material practices is intriguingly supplemented by her consideration of human subjects—Mary Magdalen, Lady Eleanor Davies, Queen Elizabeth, among others—who simultaneously exuded odors and who inhaled the scents of their surround. Her examination gestures to interfaces between “scents” and the olfactory “sense,” the boundaries among human subjects, and between these subjects and the ambient world, although she does not always explore this transitional zone as fully as it deserves. She inaugurates a fascinating discussion of somatic experience and discursive description in the introduction, for instance, touching on metaphor as a pivotal feature of the threshold space between a material body and its translation into the provisional language of experience or understanding. Her musing on her own historical method remains confined to the opening and closing of the book, though, and most of the book provides an absorbingly textured cultural history. Dugan’s research, the book’s strongest feature, yields an array of fascinating glimpses into the history of scent making and its uses, from the Englishing of the damask rose, the dangerous, difficult harvesting of sassafras, the placement of pomanders close to a woman’s womb, the role of perfume in England’s developing market of luxuries, and the cultivation of scent as a crucial component in pleasure gardens.
Dugan partitions the book into six main chapters, each of which focuses on a particular scent or material practice: frankincense (ritual censing), rosewater (distillation), sassafras (curing syphilis), rosemary (pomanders), ambergris (perfumed gloves), and jasmine (potpourri vases). The chapters are paired: the first two explore how the practices of censing and casting allow the church and the monarch to constitute their authority, the central chapters engage medical discourse in their examination of preventative measures and cures for plagues (syphilis and bubonic) and other contagions, and chapters 5 and 6 explore the commodification and importation of foreign scents. The six chapters are flanked by an introduction and coda that grapple with questions central to Dugan’s endeavor and to historical phenomenology in general. The book’s organizational subtext is space, an ideal category through which to explore the interface of...