Plants & Pomanders - Fragrance in the European Middle Ages

Plants & Pomanders - Fragrance in the European Middle Ages

After the dark ages, perfume and fragrance in Europe took a turn towards the use of herbs and sweet smelling plants to counter the mustiness of many castles and manor houses.  While in the ancient world, it had been common to burn oils or incense, in medieval Europe, the practice of strewing herbs and other plants on the floors of wealthy homes became one of the most common ways to improve the atmosphere of ones' environment.  

Likely informed by the traditional herbal knowledge and plant lore of the northern parts of Europe, fragrance in middle ages Christendom was intimately linked with the idea of the medicinal value of plants and their vapors.  Popular fragrant plants for the home such as Lavender and thyme; meadowsweet and marjoram; germander and hyssop all had healing qualities associated with them.

One of the few examples of fragrances that carried over from the ancient world was the use of rosewater, which was popularized by crusaders returning from the levant.  Rosewater became highly fashionable among the nobility and bowls of rosewater were stood on every dining table for guests to wash and scent their hands after finishing meals.  
The use of plants for fragrance carried over to personal fragrance at the time, as the Catholic clergy discouraged their parisioners from using perfumes or scented oils on themselves.  It's not without some irony as medieval masses were multisensory experiences that included incense and the very same plants that the wealthy used to scent their own homes.  

Despite their opposition to personal perfumes, the censers that were used to distribute the smell of incense during mass were the forebears of the pomanders that were used by many members of middle ages nobility to overcome the natural aromas of the urban areas of the time.  The pomander - from the French pomme d'ambre - was the term for both the "ball" of perfumed material or the small metal case that contained it.  

The material itself was a composite of resins such as benzoin, calamite, labdanum and storax balsam.  They were ground and cooked together, with the resulting mixture often shaped into an apple.  These "apples" were then frequently coated with sweeter spices such as cinnamon, clove and sweet sanders.  Pomanders were then given a finishing coat of ambergris dissolved in deer or civet musk.

Floral based scents were also made, with one particularly popular recipe being "rose tablets", which were created by none other than the seer Nostradamus.  The recipe was similar to the one listed above, but substituted rose and violets for the spice notes of most blends.  

Pomander cases originally resembled the censers that they were related to - a small metal openwork container that was designed to maximize airflow and distribute the fragrance of their contents.  Over time, as these objects became status symbols, it became the fasion to have a highly personalized custom made pomander for one's use.  Pomanders were made in shapes as diverse as skulls, hearts, ships and books.  Smaller versions of pomanders were frequently attached to a ring chain and carried in the hand or served as cape buttons.  There are even examples of them having been incorporated into rosaries.

Pomanders were frequently integrated into Rosaries
An Example Of A Handheld Ring Pomander

The censers that inspired the development of pomanders were themselves an important link between the perfume traditions and lore of the ancient world and more modern times.  While the lay population may have moved away from distilled or extracted fragrances, Christianity, particularly the Eastern Orthodox Church kept many of these traditions alive through their use of resin burning during services.  The use of large censers is believed to have originated in larger churches in response to large numbers of "travel weary" pilgrims - the smoke of the incense was believed to ward off disease and plague.

A Censer As Used In Religious Services
The coming of the Renaissance saw fragrance trends in Europe move back towards the historical norms liquid and oil fragrances for applying to ones' person, with the rise of "pouncet boxes" and blended distillations of botanicals as signature fragrances for the aristocracy.


  • anno

    LOVELOVELOVE these educational perfumery posts you’ve been sharing with all of us lately! Thank you <3

  • Cecile Randall

    The pomander/perfume of ancient times article was fascinating! Thanks for sharing! Be well .

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