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The Collation

The Queen and Pungent Times: Elizabeth I and the politics of smell

I am an historian whose work focuses on Queen Elizabeth I. This project, part of my larger work on senses, is a new direction for me. I wondered what I might discover about early modern English political dynamics through sensory history–in this case, olfaction and the so-called sixth sense. My July work as a recipient of a Folger Virtual Short Research Fellowship provided the opportunity to work on two related projects: revise one chapter on the politics of smell during Elizabeth’s reign and contribute to another on the sixth sense. My short time as a Virtual Folger Fellow gave me time to sort through materials collected from research trips to the Folger Shakespeare, British, and the Newberry Libraries. It was also a terrific chance to gather some new material from the Folger’s rich electronic resources.

A three-quarters length portrait of a woman with dark red hair and pale face and hands. She is wearing an ornate red and gold gown with a high ruff and she is holding a golden sieve in her right hand.
The Plimpton "Sieve" portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Oil on panel, 1579. George Gower. Folger ART 246171 (framed)

Elizabeth I is my point of departure, but the subject for the chapter is how smell functioned. She is a perfect example to look at intersections of smells with larger consequences than personal disgust or pleasure. Why? As monarch her personal tastes could affect the economy and diplomacy. The medical context of miasma, the belief that sickness happened either by foul odors or from porous emissions of infected people, meant that smells could be a matter of national security. It is this political thread of intersection between olfaction and context that I want to tug.

On the one hand, smells could be protective as in the recipe below for A Perfume for the Howse against Plague, from Medical Miscellany in the Folger Manuscript Transcriptions Collection.1

An opening of a book showing two handwritten pages.
Medical miscellany [manuscript], ca. 1634. Folger E.a.5.

Take a quart of Vineger, Seeth therein the Leaues
of Angelica, Bay Leaues, Rue Centory the lesse,
Camomill, the berries of Iuniper, some ryndes
of Oringes, and Lemmons, Some Elycampane
Roote and Rodoana; Putt some of this Liquorice
vpon an hott fire shouell, and take the fume of it
The smoake of a Linke when the Light is
out is very good.

But sometimes they were deadly. Thomas Arundell noted to himself, on a paper found in his chamber in 1597, that he might “Learn of Mr. Platt his way to poison air and so to infect a whole camp.”2 In both cases the air was poisoned, but Arundell’s letter offers an example of weaponizing air, something not usually associated with premodern conflict. In both cases, air was the arena for fighting odor with odor, which is what perfumes and deodorants do, too.

A page of a book with a latin page title and an illustration of a cherub sniffing roses. Short paragraphs of latin text are beneath the illustration.
Jacob Cats, 1577-1660. Proteus ofte Minne-beelden verandert in Sinne-beelden dooran. 1627. Folger STC 4863.5.

The emblem above, from Jacob Cats’ Proteus or Minne statues tuned into sinne, statues, depicts a cherub inhaling the aroma of a rose. Such fragrances, especially of roses, signified goodness, and blessing. It reinforces visually the connections between fragrance, holiness and what Holly Dugan perceptively notes as “seeing smell.”3 As a way of knowing, the senses work as a system rather than individually, or synesthesia.

During the Folger Fellowship, I also worked on a contribution to an essay on premodern beliefs of the “sixth sense.” In current popular culture, we think of this as intuition though neuroscientists generally agree that the sixth sense is proprioception, knowing where our body and its parts are in space.4 Dreams are a common experience of that intuition.

I hoped for dreams in a political context and was not disappointed. To take one example, during his ambassadorship to Paris, Sir Thomas Smith wrote to Sir Thomas Heneage of several dreams he had had in April 1572.

An opening of a book showing two pages covered in handwriting.
Sir Thomas Smith to Mr. Heneage, April 18, 1572. SP 70. Secretaries of State: State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth I, 1558-1577. State Papers Online SP 70/146 f.72.

What struck me about this letter is that Smith tries to work out what his dream might mean. Though he left it to Heneage and his wife to ponder, he expressed suspicion about its significance. He explained that he had no current worries and had not prayed for it. Moreover, he was not confident about it “because I awaked before I perceived that [it] was a dream.”

What emerges is an understanding of a way early modern people understood themselves to be moving through the world. Decades ago, Dame Frances Yates observed that Elizabethans lived in world of fairies, ghosts, and spirits.5 Precognition or apparitions were not regarded as a separate human sense like smell, or touch. Nor were these products of a special sixth sense reserved for mystics and gifted people. This may be an obvious assumption to make. Yet, it shows a way of understanding reality, the world, and one’s place in it. This is true for using each of the senses as an interpretative tool in history.

  1. For an excellent exposition of smells and plague, see Holly Dugan, “Smelling Disease: Rosemary, Pomanders, Shut-in Households,” in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011): 97 – 125.
  2. Thomas Arundell. Vol. 50. Hertfordshire: The Marquess of Salisbury, 1597.
  3. Holly Dugan, “Seeing Smell,” in The senses in early modern England, 1558–1660, ed. by Simon Watts, Jackie Watson And Amy Kenny (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press, 2015), 91 – 123.
  5. Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001).