The Sweet Smell of Plague Preservatives

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 or learn about why miasma was important to the Black Death. In today’s post, we will be discussing the deliciously smelly ways that people tried to thwart the plague through the use of aromatics.

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Perfumed Plague Preservatives

A popular 20th-century interpretation of the nursery rhyme Ring-Around-The-Rosie is that it is about the Black Death. The provenance of the song only goes back to the 18th century so who can say for sure, but the inclusion of the line, “pocket full of posey” helps support the case, as its the only line that directly references the custom of plague preservatives.

m250.014r (1)
Illustration: Charles VIII with Christ and Mary Magdalen in a walled herbal garden. Book of Hours.
France (c. 1510) Morgan Library
MS M.250 fol. 14r [note the urn of medical herbs Mary is holding. This image is perhaps both bestowing good health upon Charles VIII and inferring that he has been a good caretaker of his realm under the mandate of Christ.]
A plague preservative was a non-medical prophylactic to ward off the plague. Essentially anything one was wearing or doing to avoid catching ill. There were many amulets, magic ribbons, and special prayers that fall into this category but the overwhelming majority of plague preservatives were aromatic due to the prevalence of Miasma Theory.  If malodour could carry pestilence the only solution, particularly for the wealthy, would be to counter them with pleasant smells. As the fear of infection grew people sought to be constantly surrounded by a perfumed force field.

Painting Detail:  The Virgin Mary crowned with Lilies, Roses, and Lilly of the Valley. Jan Van Eyck. The Ghent Altarpiece. (1432)

Below we will be discussing some of the smelly plague blockers that came into vogue over the four centuries of the Second Pandemic. Many of these will be very familiar. If you’ve read the Miasma post you will see a stark difference here between personal plague preservatives and public fumigations. When municipalities deployed aromatics for fumigations of public spaces they were mostly acrid. While some people did choose to go this route, the most popular personal preservatives were pleasant smelling. Life during the plague years was hard enough, one didn’t need to add to the burden by smelling of sulfur.

Posies & Nosegays

The most common plague preservatives were posies and nosegays (aka bouquets and corsages). They consisted of strong smelling flowers and kitchen herbs being carried in a bundle, pinned to one’s garments or stuffed into pockets, hence pocket full of posey. Rosemary, tansy, lavender, carnation, and feverfew was a popular combination.

Painting: Portrait of a woman with a posey. Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (c 1538)

People carried their posey with them to quickly deploy under their nose should they come across a foul smell that might carry the miasma of the plague. Now, of course, the carrying of bouquets for enjoyment pre-dates the plague by thousands of years, but the idea that this was a vital medical tool to avoid sickness really takes off at this time.

Painting: Portrait of a lady, wearing a nosegay while holding a fish. Joseph Badger (c 1703)

The bridal bouquet was not the ultimate symbol of bride-hood during this era. In fact, it was seen as a bit of a country thing to do. If you were wealthy you didn’t need flowers to jazz up your everyday clothes for your wedding. The bridal bouquet became increasingly popular after the outbreak of the Black Death as it took on both a medical and talisman-like quality throughout the plague years.

Particular plants were selected for the bouquet to protect the bride’s health. Roses, violets, primroses, cornflowers, cowslips, honeysuckle, lavender and our good buddy rosemary were all thought to possess aromatic properties that would keep the bride safe. Rosemary, for warding off the plague. Lavender to protect from fevers and scorpion bites. Roses for coughs and problems of the stomach. Cowslip for tremors and convulsions. Bridal bouquets went from being whatever wildflowers were growing on the way to the church to large elaborate collections of flowers serving as a form of sympathetic magic. The groom’s boutonniere also developed a similar role (1).

Plague Bags

Posies kept in one’s pockets were often wrapped in plain cloth for conveyance and were referred to in English by the amazing name of plague bags. The plague bags would be kept in a pocket or worn around the neck on a string to keep miasma away. Sadly this straightforward name was supplanted by sweet bag by the late 1500s and then, sachet de senteurs, in the 17th century.

Eventually, they were also put around the home in closed-up areas where ‘stale air’ may linger. This basically makes the plague bag the precursor to your grandma’s linen sachets. Cedar/Pine sawdust, rosemary and lavender were common ingredients in plague bags. They would be collected fresh and changed often. These ingredients were known to be effective pest deterrents and deodorisers which must have only reinforced their perceived effectiveness against the plague.

Illustration Detail: Illustration of a sachet cushion with embroidery and tassels. (c.16th century) Folger

For the wealthy, they filled their plague bags with something closer to the precursor of potpourri. Dried flower petals, expensive spices like mace and coriander and even small bits of resins like frankincense and storax were used. By the Renaissance, the move to the more opulent sweet bag meant dressing up the little packet for display.  In Spain, Portugal, and southern France cushion sachets covered in fine white linen, embroidered with blackwork, and tied with red ribbons became popular towards the end of the Second Pandemic. While in England and the Netherlands the sweet bag developed a pocket and served as a duel purse and plague preservative. A special enclosed pocket inside held the pleasant smelling mixture.

An embroidered Sweet Bag, late sixteenth-century
Bag: Silk Sweet Bag with sequence, tassels, and embroidery. (c.1560-1600) Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust

Rotting Pots

Potpourri wasn’t introduced until the late 16th century and wasn’t exactly what we think of today. The name literally means rotten pot. Aromatics were collected fresh in the spring then layered between sheets of salt to ferment in perforated ceramic containers for several years. This is what modern potpourri-makers call the Moist Method and it tends to mould. Moulding wasn’t seen as a problem at the time though, provided it was sweet-smelling mould. Fresh citrus slices were intentionally used to get that sickly sweet mouldy smell.

Porcelain Set: Potpourri vase and urn set (c. 1761) Sèvres with scenes painted by Jean-Louis Morin. Waddesdon Manor. England [The ship and urn designs were the most popular. The sailing ship reminded the viewer of all the exotic ingredients used in the potpourri while the urn was styled after an apothecary urn giving the impression of health.]
Potpourri was created more to ward off moths then for the plague but it was employed as one during the reemergence of the illness with the Great Plagues, particularly in France. Miasma Theory was still going strong then and these were the pungent aromatics at hand.

Pot Converted into a potpourri vase. Kangxi pot (c 1662) with Ormolu-mount (c 18th century). Kilvert Collection. [Here is an example of a Chinese pot imported to France and receiving an Ormolu base and lid mount to convert it into a potpourri vase.  The incorporation of an expensive import object adds to the prestige of the piece.]
Just about every smelly thing that has grown in Europe has ended up in a potpourri at one time or another but what sets potpourri apart from earlier plague preservatives is the luxury. These were opulent items, kept in beautiful ceramics in the home, and often included exotic ingredients like orris root, cinnamon, saffron, and clove. These prestige items were often both laborious to produce and imported from afar. Your average granny would not have a dish of potpourri casually sitting on a side table at this time.

Frankincense Gum

In the Mediterranean, the chewing of aromatic resins like frankincense and mastic became a popular plague preservative and a precursor to modern chewing gum. Resin chewing, like the bouquets, pre-dated the plague but the act took on new significance. It was thought to sweeten the breath and keep one’s mouth and nose occupied with a pleasant aroma, not giving the night air a chance to invade.

Photo: Frankincense and Myrrh being sold at the Akko market.

I myself am a frankincense chewer. My grandmother would give me a little nugget of resin every time I was sick (2). She believed it had endless health benefits. I can attest from first-hand experience that your head will be swamped in a woodsy spicy haze for hours after you’ve stopped chewing so I understand why it became a preservative.

Smoking Tobacco

Frankincense chewing didn’t leave the Mediterranean region but by the Great Plagues, tobacco smoking and snuff were widely available throughout Europe. Smoking, snuff, or just burning tobacco in the home was hoped to be an effective way to ward off the plague. The sacred nature of tobacco for First Nation peoples may have a part in its appeal as a prophylactic.

Painting: Smokers in an inn. Mattheus van Hellemont (c 1650)

While we would find the smell of cigarette smoke unpleasant, the acridness wasn’t seen as a problem. If anything its harsh but non-biological odour appealed to some who insisted that burning tar or saltpetre was the most effective way to avoid the plague. Tobacco was a particularly popular preservative in the Great Plague of London after rumours spread that no Tobacconist had died of the plague. While I have no evidence to prove said rumour was started by the tobacconists, they weren’t rushing to disprove it either (3).

Amber Apples

Today you may know a pomander to be this:

Photo: Pomanders of oranges studded with clove buds

but the pomander started out as the Pomme d’Ambre (Amber Apple) and was kept in something that looked like this:

Painting: Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with an ornate pomander (c 17th century)

The pomander first appeared in the mid-13th century and started as a small ball of ambergris (Grey Amber). The ambergris was compounded with expensive musks, exotic balsams, and aromatics. Their creation began as a powerful aromatic prophylactic against the plague but the cost of creating them was so exorbitant only royalty could afford them. In fact, we have an account of a pomanders preparation from the privy accounts of England’s Queen Mary before her ascent to the throne (4):

Benzoin resin, calamite, labdanum, and storax balsam were ground into a powder, dissolved in rose water and put into a pan over a fire to cook together. The cooked mixture was then removed from the fire, rolled into an apple shape and coated with a powdered mixture of cinnamon, sweet sanders [powedered sandalwood], and cloves.

After this, a concoction was made from three grains each of ambergris, deer musk, and civet musk. The ambergris was dissolved first and the deer and civet musk mixed in later. The “apple” ball was rolled through the musk concoction to blend in these ingredients and then kneaded to combine and molded back into the shape of an apple.

I sampled these ingredients to get a scent profile. I have some antique beach-cast ambergris but only synthetic replacers for deer or civet musk so it wasn’t a perfect swatch. Still, the concoction was powerful, earthy, warm, and surprisingly sweet, with a touch of a rose quality, mostly from the labdanum. I was surprised by how close to a modern amber Mary’s pomander was compared with other scent profiles from this series. The pomanders were an aid against the plague but they also had to be beautiful and of the highest quality for their royal clients.

Pomander: Closed Segmented silver pomander with gold gilding. (c 15th century) Germany. Mount Holyoak College Art Museum

To add to the luxury this sticky ball of fancy goo would be placed inside a perforated spherical case, also called a pomander. These pomander cases would be ornately decorated and most often worn from a belt or girdle so the orb would move with one’s garments as they walked.

Painting: Portrait of A Lady Wearing A Skull Pomander. Cornelis de Vos (1622)

As trade routes developed over the Second Pandemic segmented pomanders became popular. Segmented like an orange, each compartment could contain an exotic spice or powerful compound within each slice. Thereby multiplying their show of wealth. However, don’t think folks were having too much fun with their pretty plague balls.

Pomander: Open segmented silver pomander with gold gilding. (c 15th century) Germany. Mount Holyoak College Art Museum [Segmented pomanders held multiple aromatics instead on one large amber ball]
 Come the Great Plagues period the pomander is so associated with the plague it is treated as a wearable momento mori. Early 17th-century pomanders are still opulent and luxurious but by the mid-17th-century ornate skulls and coffin-shaped pomanders became all the rage. As did scentless pomanders that opened to reveal a biblical scene instead of a cavity for aromatics.

Pomander: Silver double pomander. (1628) Believed to be have been made for King James II of England. Christies. [The outer case depicting Eve’s bitten apple with the inscription A.D 1628 From man came woman from woman came sin from sin came death. The apple opens to reveal a silver skull pomander which opens to the aromatic cavity. The skull lid contains a miniature depicting Christ leading the souls out of Limbo with the inscription Post mortem, vita Ooeternitas (after death, life eternal)]
Pomander: Photo of the above pomander closed

But wait, what does gothy royal ambergris jewellery have to do with clove-studded oranges? Well, only aristocrats could afford the amber apples but the growing middle class of the 17th-century wanted to get in on the actions with a slightly more affordable dupe. They wanted a sphere they could wear on their belts that was both an aromatic plague repellent but also a status symbol.

Hanneman, Adriaen, c.1601-1671; John Evelyn (1620-1706)
Painting: Portrait of diarist John Evelyn. Painted by a follower of Adriaen Hanneman (1650) [Note that Evelyn is holding an orange and clove pomander]
We take for granted our access to non-native fruits and veg, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Citrus was just getting established outside of Mediterranean Europe in the 17th-century and required special growing circumstances that limited it to the wealthy. Cloves, which are native to Indonesia, were a costly import. Thick-skinned citrus, like oranges, can also dry cure whole in the right preparation. So middle-class folks shelled out small fortunes to dry cure a few oranges and stud them with cloves. This not only smelled wonderful but was a major status symbol.

Making orange pomanders around autumn or Christmas time became a tradition for a few reasons. It was a sign of wealth and that you had a good year in business. They were bright and colourful and added some festiveness to the drab winter months. Also, they were thought to fumigate a house’s air of miasma as the family would be spending lots of time indoors in the winter.

Rosewater Toner

The last preservative I want to discuss is also the most trendy. Rosewater has had a major comeback in the last five years. It is in everything from ice cream to CBD drops, but skincare is where it reigns supreme. Rosewater’s popularity has oscillated in the West over time but it was hugely popular prior to the Black Death, mostly as a flavouring and a hand wash at elegant parties. During the Medieval period, it had to be imported from the Middle East. Though we are in the middle of the Crusades with all of its carnage the appeal of Levantine goods in Europe was very high at this time. However, by the Late Medieval, distillation technology improved in Europe which made hydrosols like rosewater more readily available.

Photo: Rose petals being loaded into an alembic still, Bulgaria (2017)

When the plague reached Florance in 1348 half of the city’s population died within a year. The friars working at the apothecary within Santa Maria Novella noted that their cultivar of roses were rather resistant to pests and the rosewater they had just begun producing was very aromatic. With the hope of the desperate, they began prescribing rosewater and vinegar baths both to treat plague victims and to protect from infection.

They hoped this would work as a disinfectant but they wouldn’t have understood it in that language. The monks kept meticulous notes so we know by their own hand that they suggested all the classics of Miasma Theory; go to fresh air, carry aromatics with you, burn fires, scent the home, and bath with aromatic waters. They also mixed a pre-scientific curiosity with an alchemical wonderment in distillation and religious symbolism. Rosewater would work because the rose was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and distillation was able to concentrate that sacrifice into greater potency.

Photo: Apothocary vessels and a pharmacopoeia on display. The book is open to the “Segreti Contro la Peste” (Secrets Against the Plague) section. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella Museum (2016)

It didn’t work but became a very popular plague preservative for the duration of the Second Pandemic throughout Europe. Other aromatic waters like lavender, melissa, neroli, and rosemary were also employed for this purpose. Mixtures of essential oils and hydrosols were sold by opportunistic merchants as plague cures. Most with the full knowledge that they would do nothing but smell pretty. Both Thieves’ oil and Queen of Hungary Water has its origins in this desire to blend an aromatic cure but we will discuss those in more depth in later posts.

Photo: Contemporary bottle of S.M Novella’s Rosewater Tonice

Santa Maria Novella is still in business and is a beloved perfume house. You can still buy their rosewater tonic, however, now it is marketed as a toner and not a plague preservative. There is actually a long list of S.M Novella products that have their roots in plague cures and other patent medicines. Which, I guess is to be expected in a 600+-year-old pharmacy turned cosmetics company. Their potpourri and sachets are pretty common. However, they also sell aperitifs that began as a treatment for malaria and a mixer that was once an anti-hysterics medicine. As well as some straight-up patent cures with their lavender fainting salts and aromatic vinegar (which is essentially fancy Thieves’ oil).

While many of these ‘cures’ were made during the pandemic with a sincere desire to heal there were plenty who profited off of the despair of the dying with hokum. Perhaps no one more than the famous, or perhaps more accurately infamous, Plague Doctor that we will discuss in the next post.

Read the next article in The Scented History of the Plague Series:


  1. It should be noted that the reason wedding flowers still exist has a lot to do with Queen Victoria, her wedding and the weddings of her children. Victoria loved flowers and flower symbology, making it popular in the English-speaking world. She incorporated many elements of traditional folk belief into both royal flower practices and the ceremonial use of flowers. It’s unclear how much Victoria or indeed the Victorians knew about the role the fear of diseases played in their beloved tussie-mussies, but they kept many traditional floral combinations meant to symbolise health and wellness.
  2. I love introducing frankincense chewing and teas to the Western audience. Really give it a try, but make sure you are using tears specifically labelled for ingestion. There can be coatings or inclusions that are not safe to eat on non-food grade tears.
  3. I totally think the tobacconists started that rumour.
  4. Privy purse expenses of the Princess Mary, daughter of King Henry the Eighth, afterwards Queen Mary. Frederic Madden. 1831. London. P. 257