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Potpourri and Medicine

Shakespeare for Kids

Elizabethans did not understand germs; they thought sickness was spread by bad smells (miasma) or because someone had too much or too little of one of the humors. Doctors thought that there were four humors, or fluids, that had to be kept in balance in order for a person to stay healthy.  


People tried to prevent disease by keeping bad smells away. Women would carry small bouquets of herbs and flowers or use a pomander, a small container of potpourri or perfume, to create a nice smell around them.  When deadly plagues struck England in the seventeenth century, doctors wore masks filled with herbs and chemicals because they believed that the scent could protect them from the plague.


In addition to keeping bad smells away from their bodies, people wanted to keep bad smells out of their homes. Even the royal palaces could become stinky. Floors were covered with reeds or rushes, which would become dirty and attract bugs and other pests. One reason that Queen Elizabeth I moved from palace to palace was to allow time for thorough cleanings.


Not everyone could move whenever their home got too dirty! Mixtures of herbs were used to make potpourri and keep houses smelling sweet.   



Leonhart Fuchs. De historia stirpium. Basel, 1542.

John Heywood. The spider and the flie. London, 1556

Did you know?

A doctor's visit cost about 8 shillings and 8 pence in seventeenth-century England. Considering that many people only earned 1 shilling a day, seeing a doctor was very expensive.

Just for Kids

The Humors

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