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Perfumery in Western Europe around the 13th century

Background details

The use of native aromatic herbs and flowers to sweeten the air had been known for a very long time. The Romans had introduced many species of aromatic plants to the fringes of the Empire where they were still cultivated. It was common for people to wear a garland of flowers, to hang fragrant plants indoors and the add aromatic plants to sweet-smelling rushes when they were spread on a floor (this last probably started as a Norman custom).

In the making of perfumed preparations, plants were usually used as dried flowers, dried leaves, dried and crushed roots, or extracts in water (by maceration or digestion), oils or fats (and later alcohol). An association between pleasant smells and good health was very widespread so there was considerable overlap between perfumery and healing.

From the 9th century, there was great trade between Byzantium and Venice bringing perfumes into Europe. There was much trade within Arabia, bringing perfumes from Baghdad to Muslim Spain. Arabian perfume arts were very highly developed; having learnt much from the Persians, they used ingredients from China, India and Africa, producing perfumes on a large scale. They had been using distillation since before the 9th century. Al-Hawi, a book by Rhazes, who lived in the late 9th or early 10th century, contained a chapter on cosmetics. It was translated into Latin in France in the late 12th century.

Musk and floral perfumes were brought to northwest Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries from Arabia, through trade with the Islamic world and with the returning Crusaders. Those who traded for these were most often also involved in trade for spices and dyestuffs. There are records of the Pepperers Guild of London which go back to 1179; their activities include trade in spices, perfume ingredients and dyes. There are records from the reign of Edward I to show that spices and other aromatic exotic materials were traded in England.

Use of alcohol in perfumery was known in northwest Europe in the 12th century but was not widespread until later. A variant of distilled alcohol, rather than alcohol mixed with water, was known in France in the 13th century, prepared by using quicklime in the mix to remove much of the water. Alcohol-based perfume was well known in parts of mainland Europe and came into use in England in the 14th century.

A common technique was to extract essential oil into fat and use it like that or then to remove the esential oil from the fat with alcohol. Another was to heat the plant material in water. Beeswax was used as a base instead of fats and oils sometimes. Pot Pourri was originally made and used wet; it started as the residue of the perfume-making process.

Plants likely to have been available for collection or cultivation

Scented Agrimony perennial herb; dried flowers and leaves
Angelica biennial herb; reputed to be effective against evil spirits and infectious disease; fragrant oil extracted from the seeds and root for use in perfumery; seed and root used dry in pot pourri
Avens dried rhizomes and leaves
Birch essential oil from leaf buds
Blackcurrant essential oil from flower buds
Broom flowers used
Calamint several species used dried or as essential oil
Camomile used as a herbal medicine, for strewing, as dried flowers or oil extracted from flowers
Clover dried flowers used
Cyperus (Sedge roots) rhizomes yield a violet-like fragrance; used dried and powdered
Elder flower used as oil extracted from flowers, or dried flowers
Fennel essential oil from seeds; also has culinary and medical uses; reputed to ward off evil spirits and witches
Fern (Common Male Fern) oil extracted from rhizomes had medical and perfumes uses
Feverfew perennial plant; extract from flowers and leaves used in medicine and, less frequently, in perfume
Hawthorn flowers used
Hyssop extracted oil or dried leaves
Lavender extracts and dried flowers and leaves
Lemon balm oil from leaves and dried leaves
Lily of the Valley flowers
Melilot dried flowers and leaves
Milfoil (Yarrow) dried flowers; diabolical associations
Mint medical, culinary, strewing and perfume use
Oak moss (lichen) powdered, used as a fixative
Orris (Iris rhizome) dried iris rhizomes; fixative with violet fragrance
Rose extracts from petals and fresh or dried petals
Rosemary strewing herb; dried leaves
Rue oil from leaves; medical and perfume use; reputed to guard against witches
Sage dried leaves
Tansy strewing herb; dried leaves
Violet oil from flowers

Ingredients possibly available by trading

Aloewood Introduced into Europe by Arabs in 8th century and spread rapidly. Aromatic heartwood from an evergreen tree obtained by the Arabs from China, Assam, Malaysia which produces a fragrant oil when disea sed.
Important ingredient of pomanders (as oil) and pot pourri (dried)
Alpine rose Oil obtained from the roots
Ambergris Sperm whale excretion ('though this origin was unknown for a very long time) found on the Indian Ocean coast
Used since early Arabian times (6th century)
Ammoniacum Juice from a North African plant. Used as incense.
Anise Cultivated through Europe and in England during Middle Ages; medical and culinary use; dried seeds and oil extracted from them used in perfumery.
Apricot kernels oil extract frequently used in early Arabian perfumes.
Basil culinary and oerume use; essential oil and dried leaves
Ben Oil from seeds of the Moringa tree native to North India frequently used as a base in early Arabian perfumes
Bitter almond essential oil from the fruit used as a base
Camphor crystals formed from oil extracted from wood; very frequently used in early Arabian perfumes
Caraway oil extracted from fruit and leaves; culinary and perfume use
Cassia culinary use of dried buds; oil used in perfume; dried bark used. N.B. there is some confusion in old texts between cassia, cinnamon and other unidentified fragrant barks
Cedar wood dried twigs and roots used in incense; oil extract used in perfume
Cinnamon dried bark used as perfumed beads and in pomanders; oil from leaves used in perfume and unguents. N.B. there is some confusion in old texts between cassia, cinnamon and other unidentified fragrant barks
Civet glandular secretion from civet cat from Africa, used in very small quantities; became popular in Arabia in the 10th century
Clary sage fragrant oil and dried leaves ; also used for eye problems
Cumin oil from dried seeds; also had medical and culinary uses
Dill oil extracted from plant; culinary, medical and perfume use; reputed to be good against witchcraft
Frankincense gum resin extruded from wood of certain trees; often used in incense
Gum arabic gum extruded by Acacia trees; dried and used in incense; used in early Arabian perfumes
Jasmine leaves, flowers and oils; commonly used in early Arabian perfumes
Labdanum resin secreted by Cistus (Rock Rose) species. According to reports, popularly collected by combing it from the beards of goats; used in early Arabian perfumes and in European pomanders
Lovage dried leaves and roots
Marjoram oil from seeds and leaves and dried leaves; medical, culinary and perfumes uses
Mignonette (Reseda) essential oil from flowers
Musk glandular secretion from musk deer; very frequently used in early Arabian perfumes
Myrrh (includes Opoponax) gum resin from trees; used in perfumes and incense
Myrtle oil or dried flowers and leaves; used as berries and fresh leaves in early Arabian perfumes
Rosewater (also Attar of Roses) made by a distillation process from rose petals in water. Attar (essential oil) obtained by redistillation of rosewater. Very popular in Arabia
Saffron dried stigmas of crocus and oil from these; culinary and perfume use; very important in Arabian perfumery
Sandalwood oil from the heartwood of a tree; fragrance and fixative
Savory dried leaves and flowers; culinary and perfume uses
Storax (resin) resin from bark used in incense and pomanders
Sweet orange essential oil from the fruit peel; peel also used dried
Terebinth oil and gum resin; used in pomanders
Thyme oil from leaves; leaves used in incense
Valerian oil, leaves and roots; medical, culinary and perfume use


The Perfume Handbook
Nigel Groom
Chapman & Hall; London SE1 8HN; 1992. ISBN 0 412 46320 2
Includes an A-Z of perfume plus recipes

History of Perfume
Frances Kennett
George G Harrap & Co; London WC1V 7AX; 1975. ISBN 0 245 52135 6

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