Thursday, September 7, 2017

The history of Perfume: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages An "industry" as old as mankind

If the word perfume comes from Latin per fumum, it is because, before modern fragrance techniques, the first fragrances are obtained by burning wood, resin or a more complex mixture. Man is always exposed to odors and even etymology is not a proof of his own, one can assume that his first discovery of his ability to produce new ones was made around the fire by throwing grass, leaves, branches of certain plant species. . The use of perfumes was made by the creation of the first cities and essentially religious, to communicate with the gods or let the dead join the outside world, especially among the Egyptians.

 1. Egypt: the ancient center of perfume

 Of all the great civilizations of antiquity, Egypt is the one that most marks the history of perfume. Even when its political and economic influence became minimal towards the end of the Roman Empire, Alexandria still played a decisive role in the perfume industry with its guilds of perfumers and renowned alchemists. Perhaps it would be peremptory to affirm that the importance of perfumes in religious and funerary rites is the only reason for the attraction of Egyptian society to perfumed products, but it is certain that this "mystical" use constitutes a point essential. The funeral rite of embalming requires large quantities of myrrh, various ointments and perfumed oils. This post mortem practice, like the offerings and breaths of perfumes, illustrates the will of these men to come closer to the universe of the gods by escaping the fatal decay of their carnal envelope. Some of these ointments are also applied by the priests on the statues of the deities. Most of these perfumes and incense are then produced from flowers (especially blue lotus, marjoram or iris) or resins such as pistachio (turpentine), balsam (myrrh), aliboufier (benzoin ) or cistus (ladanum). However, the Egyptians never limit the use of perfume for exclusively religious purposes. While some perfumes are actually reserved for sacred rites, others are used as part of everyday life to heal, to seduce, but also to improve the domestic living environment by living like gods in a fragrant environment. Essential to religious rites and appreciated for their medical virtues, perfumes are also abundantly used by the Egyptians as a tool of seduction both masculine and feminine.

 2. Greece: the beginnings of hygiene and the cult of the body 

As in many other fields, Egypt and the East transmit the science of perfumes to the Greeks, the Cretans and the Phoenicians as intermediaries thanks to the importance of their maritime relations. Then the Greeks import from the East and Africa the necessary raw materials thanks to their counters spread all over the Mediterranean periphery, to finally become experts in the development of perfumed products. The sacred character of the perfume remains and the literature of ancient Greece even offers a mythology of perfume explaining the birth of such or such a fragrance on the occasion of struggles between gods. However, the Greeks' interest in perfume is also oriented towards the use of its virtues for other purposes: medicine and personal hygiene. This phenomenon is evidently related to the cult of the body, both masculine and feminine, which develops in the classical age.

 3. The Middle Ages and Barbaric Influences Romanity against barbarians: the shock of odors

The adoption of Christianity as the official religion pushed back the flavor of profane use in the Roman Empire and when the Empire collapsed under the blow of the barbarian invasions, perfume orgies are already a memory. For a time, the influence of barbaric customs led to a decline in the use of perfumed products. It is then limited to the use of aromatic plants grown in gardens closed on the model of those set up by Charlemagne in his palaces and abbeys. But, contrary to a widespread idea, hygiene remains an important concern of the time. Appear then pomanders, balls filled with perfumed products whose exhalations escape through the perforations formed on the surface. However, many fragrances are forgotten in the fall time on self and are rediscovered that on the occasion of the reopening of the Roman trade routes to the Crusades or access to new civilizations at the great voyages of Marco Polo or the Republic of Venice. Venice becomes for a time the heart of the trade of perfume.