The Rise of Miasma

This post is part of the Scented History of the Plague series. If you are not familiar with the history of the plague in Europe, you may want to pop over to our primer first. In this post, we’re discussing the rise of Miasma Theory during the Second Pandemic and how it impacted European olfactive culture.

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Bad Air

Miasma as a concept existed since at least Ancient Greece, but it took on new dimensions with the Black Death. Miasma Theory holds that particles of rotting matter (miasmata) are released into the air, especially at night, by refuse and decomposing bodies. A small number of miasmata are present in even the freshest of airs. However, should one breath in too much of this supposed putrified vapour, one’s body would be infested with decomposition and become ill.

Bogs, swamps, and the cramped accommodations of the urban poor were long thought to have a deleterious effect on one’s health. This isn’t altogether wrong. Things like smoke, dander, open sewers and swamp gas would injure one’s health. Many early ‘miasma’ sufferers were probably asthmatic or suffering from dysentery. So while Miasma Theory got one over on Humourism by supposing that there was something in the environment affecting the victims’ health, it still never established a causal relationship. Corruption could kill you, corrupted matter smelt bad therefore things that smelt bad could kill you.

Engraving: The plague in London, artist unknown (c. 1665)

The connection between miasma and malodours is paramount. In fact, odour was the only way miasma was thought to be detected. Indeed the odour of corruption was seen as indistinct from corruption itself. It wasn’t a bacteria in the stink that could hurt you, Miasma Theory believed the smell along could hurt you.

Indeed plague victims emanated a foul odour. Burst lymph nodes, gangrene and necrotic flesh mixed with the regular unpleasant smells of the sickbed to create a vile accord representing the worst of both a rotting corpse and a living man. It certainly looked like those closely connected to malodours, like the poor, were finding themselves literally rotting away.

However, the significant difference between early Miasma Theory and the Miasma Theory of the Black Death was that in pre-Black Death miasma one would only become poisoned by the miasmatic, or night air as it was called if one spent a great deal of time in polluted areas. Regular trips to the country to ‘take the airs’ was thought to cure all adverse effects. If what we are calling miasma is actually asthma, then trips to the country probably did help.

Fresco: Danse Macabre. L’église Notre-Dame de Kernascléden, Kernascléden, France (c. 15th century) Getty Images

The concept of miasma post-Black Death was that once poisoned with the smallest amount of putrified material, one would inevitably get sick and die. Even the most common of unpleasant odours might hold the seeds of your death. A great paranoia around the act of breathing developed as one has little control over what one smells. Any inspiration could have night air, any breath could be your last. The only way to ward oneself against the bad air was through preservation.

Those preservations were both physical and spiritual. One aspect of preservation took the form of symbolic aromatics that were thought to both physically remove the effluvia and also served as a form of spiritual intercession. This was reinforced not only in Christian thought but in ancient myth. Miasma in Greek mythology is a sentient cloud of vapour that brought pestilence to a city until an unrepentant wrongdoer was sacrificed. No amount of cleaning would remove it without this cosmic retribution. This lineage affected the physiological response to the plague.

Olfactive Hairshirts

I will be writing a separate piece on the history of aromatic plague preservatives, but I want to focus here on how post-Black Death miasma impacted Western olfactive culture. Civic responses in both the early and late period of the Second Pandemic concentrate on three main areas: quarantine, public cleaning, and olfactive prevention.

When diarists during the plague years talk of fumigation, they are not speaking of it in the modern sense. There was no sense that they were killing bacteria or pests. Fumigation was a form of olfactive prevention thought to move the miasmata out of the air by replacing it with other odours.

For the wealthy, the burning of incense in large braisers was a luxurious form of fumigation. Fumigating one’s garments with incense, not only as a perfume but as a form of plague prevention became common among the elite. However, bonfires, sulfur/saltpetre burning, and even spraying deadly mercury compounds were used in public fumigations.

Illustration: Procession of men performing self-flagellation, in the Tractatus quartus by Gilles li Muisis. Pierart dou Tielt (c. 1353)

These acrid odours, in particular, took the form of spiritual punishment as a sort of olfactive hairshirt to purify the city’s souls as well as its streets. You weren’t supposed to enjoy these smells. This was especially true in Protestant communities in the latter half of the Pandemic. The ethereal quality of scent played into this because it was viewed both as something within the physical world, yet as invisible as the soul. The line between the physical and metaphysical is much more ambiguous here then what our modern sensibilities are perhaps comfortable with. Even though the Second Pandemic crossed the Late Medieval into the Renaissance and the early Enlightenment, the focus was still on spiritual cleanliness with physical hygiene.

Engraving: Solomon Eagle preaching repentance during the plague 1665,  in The London Plague. Engraver unknown. art based on a P.F. Poole painting  (c. 19th century) [note the coal braiser on his head which he believed kept the plague at bay and was a form of penitence.]
I see a linkage between the acrid plague preservatives and the prevalence of people that enjoy the smell of harsh cleaning products today. Chlorine bleach doesn’t smell pleasant, but it is a smell that denotes sterility, and that is enjoyable because it speaks to a kind of spiritual purity; a sort of domestic perfection not an actual sensual satisfaction.

The Symbolic Smell of Clean

Even the pleasant plague aromatics have a connection to both physical and metaphorical cleanliness that lingers today. Lavender, rosemary and pine were the go-to pleasant aromatics to thwart miasma. These were worn, eaten, and hidden about the home to keep night air at bay. Rosemary was later supplanted by lemon when cultivars of the citrus became readily available throughout most of Europe. Lemonaid became a major plague preservative in the Great Plagues, particularly in France. Beyond their enjoyability on a hot summer day, these ingredients were deeply symbolic.

Lavender’s name stems from the Latin, lavare (to wash). To the medieval mind, it had an association with purification as well as soldiers and sex workers (1). Particularly the reformed soldier or sex worker, lavender had a sort of bath and baptism power. Rosemary had long been associated with the Virgin Mary. This is in part because of some odd name translations (2). Due to this association, the herb seemed capable of miraculous healings of both the body and spirit.

Lemon was seen as a near-mythical panacea often associated with the Hesperides, and the evergreen pine tree was a symbol of immortality. The use of these herbs served as a form of sympathetic magic while also being a physical hygiene product. They were invocations of purity, redemption, health, and life.

Illustration. Depiction of rosemary with a listing of its medical qualities in Latin in the De herbarum virtutibus attributed to Pseudo Apuleio. Artist unknown (c. 15th century) Laurenzian Plut manuscript. Laurentian Library, Florence.

I doubt that the symbolism is still conscious; however, I see the ubiquity of these scents in modern Western cleaning products as a vestige of this practice of warding one’s self against physical and spiritual decay. These scents seem so apparent to the Western mind as the smells of clean that the only people I’ve ever know to question them are fellow migrants. It was quite a shock moving between the West and the Middle East to have the ‘clean smells’ go from rose, musk, and oud to lemon, pine, lavender and ambiguous white dryer sheets. The idea that musk is associated in the Western world with ‘dirty’ because it is a human and carnal smell tells me a lot about how Western society feels about the body and sexuality. It may be considered rude to discuss sexuality candidly in the Middle East, but we sure don’t smell sexually repressed.

A Scentless City

The other response was urban purifications. While bells were being rung and bonfires burned to chase out the miasma, cities were also being cleaned. This actually worked in slowing the spread of infection but by complete accident. The point of the urban cleaning was to remove the source of the miasma, to remove the bad smells. Trash was carted away and burned. Sewers were improved, open cesspits were outlawed, and folks got on their hands and knees and literally scrubbed the cobblestones. This inadvertently improved urban living immensely. It reduced the risk of other infectious diseases and slowed the plague mostly by cutting off the source of food for the rodents that were spreading the contagion.

Fresco:  Effects of Good Government in the City. Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-1340) Palazzo Pubblico,Siena.

This fundamentally changed the olfactive urban landscape in Europe. Living together with people required some concessions. Garbage and human waste was a part of life. Cities had always smelt bad. Bodies were buried all over churches, in the walls, floor, even in rafters and lofts. The idea that one might smell a dead body at church was normal. Indeed it became a feature in some churches with Putridarium (3) existing specifically so the devout could meditate in the presence of decomposing bodies.

Putridarium at Cimitero delle Clarisse, Castello Aragonese. Wikimedia Commons

As public health protocols developed European cities became less stinky, and the expectation grew that a city should have low or no foul odours. Malodour became an insult on the senses instead of a part of life. Odour for the first time entered into the world of regulation. One could be fined or even jailed for omitting a foul odour within a city. This was why leather processing facilities slowly began migrating outside city limits during this time. Not only are rotting skins gross but large vats of stale urine were employed in the softening and dying of leather.  There was no way to make this process less smelly and owners faced increasing hostile regulation within urban areas. This legacy of miasma still lingers in public health and urban planning today. As the Victorian sanitary reformer, Edwin Chadwick, put it “all smell is disease”.

The Smell of The Other

There was also an olfactive inference to quarantine. The first plague quarantine was in 1377 in Dubrovnik. Though the quarantine protocols of Venice and Genoa are perhaps more famous, they came about almost 50 years later. Quarantine could be in the form of boarding up infected houses, closing down public meeting places, sending the infected to lazaretto (plague hospitals), expelling people from the city, or even murdering those that refuse to leave. A large part of the quarantine protocol was about keeping ‘The Other’ out. ‘The Other’ could be Jews, Romani, the sick, the poor, or just refugees from infected cities. The contagion was always seen as coming in from the outside, so the outsider was the danger. The plague was perpetually seen as foreign even after it had been reinfecting cities in Europe for hundreds of years.

illustration: Residence of a town burning Jews in retaliation for the plague, in the Tractatus quartus by Gilles li Muisis (Pierart dou Tielt, c. 1353)

The connection between smell and the Blood Libal goes back to this antisemitic canard’s origins in Norwich, England, in 1141. After a boy named William was murdered, the community blamed the Jews. However, the authorities would not make any arrests as there was no evidence that any Jewish person took part in the murder. This was not sufficient to quell the mob, and a vigilante group slaughtered the entire Jewish population of Norwich. William was made a saint and a cult developed around him. The story of a young man found dead in the woods transformed into a harrowing tale of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism. With it, William’s avengers would go on to say they knew the whole Jewish population was guilty because they could smell William’s blood on their hands.

Painting: Christ amongst the doctors. Albrecht Dürer (1506)

Part of the way that the xenophobia of the Black Death manifested in this new miasmic world was olfactive. The teaching of clerics like Caesarius of Heisterbach and Berthold of Regensburg (4) were cited as evidence in multiple cases of Jews either being expelled or murdered in association with the plague. The Jewish community of Venice was centuries old come the Black Death, but they were still seen as the ‘foreign element’ bringing disease to the city. Caesarius and Berthold taught that all Jews had the ‘evil odour’, which is essentially an eternal miasma around them that smelt of either faeces or brimstone. In a later twist on the older Blood Libel smell, by the 14th century if you found a Jew that didn’t have the ‘evil odour’ it was because they washed in the blood of a Christian child to remove the smell.

This really shows the progression of hostility against Jews. There was no such thing as a good Jew during the Black Death. You were either marked as the spawn of the devil, or you were hiding it through child murder. The Jews ‘spiritual wickedness’ in this miasmatic world manifested itself into a physical and particularly an odoriferous wickedness. To be evil, they had to smell evil. Just as saints were given the ‘odour of sanctity‘ where even their rotting corpses eliminated, not miasmic decay, but the scents of roses.

Newspaper: Vagabonds: New Ways of Combating the Gypsy Plague. Nazi propaganda. Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

The Romani and other migratory people’s in Europe faired no better. Those referred to as gipsies were barely seen as being human. They were unwashed, hairy, hypersexual, and the mere fact that they travelled so frequently implied the transmission of contagion. In fact, the common Antiziganic slogans about ‘halting the gipsy plague’ has its roots in the Black Death because of the settled population travelling people were the plague incarnate.

Newspaper: The Roma are coming: rampaging through Switzerland. Schweizer Weltwoche in 2012

Xenophobia and anti-Semitism existed before the Second Pandemic, and the aversion to the scents of outsiders is a whole other ball of wax for another post. Still, this period set a style of attack. Nazi propagandist cribbed directly from Black Death xenophobia with their stinkender Jude and zigeunerplage. Even today Jewish politicians get asked why they smell so bad at Q&A at Harvard Law school. Traveller kids in the UK are told they are unwanted because they stink. These are not questions of actual smells but the cloud of miasma still lingering.

The Scented History of the Plague Series:


(1) an early English slang for a prostitute was washerwoman or lavadere.

(2) Rosemary’s Latin name is Ros Marinus meaning sea dew. Eusebius translated the name Maryam as drops of the sea. This translation relies on the Judea-Aramaic pronunciation of the name Miryam to have the longer vowel sound of Maryam. Then Eusebius insisted that the archaic Biblical Hebrew word mar (droplet) be applied instead of the common Biblical Hebrew word mir (bitterness). The standard translation of the name Miryam is sea of bitterness a poetic way to say defiant or stedfast. Fun fact Eusebius Latinized sea drops as stilla maris but due to a scribal error, it got turned into stella maris star of the sea in the 3rd century. Star of the Sea or Guiding Star sounded cool, alluded to the nativity and allowed the adoption of some of Aphrodite’s symbolism so that’s the one that stuck. Aphrodite as stella maris was also associated with rosemary.

(3) A Putridarium was a special chamber primarily found in Italian monastic churches. Members of a monastic order would be placed there after they died. Their bodies would be put in drained niches or on carved thrones with a hole in the seat and a bucket beneath to catch the decaying remains. Once the body was defleshed, their bones would be moved to an ossuary. Almost all Putridarium have altars as prayers for the dead, mass, and meditations on mortality were expected to be performed thereby living members of the order.

(4) Caesarius of Heisterbach and Berthold of Regensburg were both deceased by the time of the Black Death. Still, they were heavily cited in plague writings, especially in what is today German-speaking Switzerland as evidence that Jews should not be allowed to remain within urban areas. This was probably because they both alluded to Jews being a contamination of Christendom both physically and spiritually.