The Middle Ages: The Rise of Personal Perfumes and Scented Oils

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

During the Middle Ages, the use and significance of perfume shifted, becoming a key aspect of personal hygiene and grooming. This period witnessed advancements in perfume-making techniques, mainly driven by the Arab world, which was prolific in its contributions to chemistry. They were among the first to introduce the process of distillation, a technique that allowed for the extraction of fragrance from a wide range of substances, including flowers, herbs, and spices. Through distillation, they produced perfumed oils blended with distilled alcohol, significantly enhancing the longevity of the perfume and the intensity of its fragrance (Roudnitska, 1991; Dauguet, 2010).

Furthermore, the invention of the 'still room,' a designated space where flowers and herbs were distilled into oils, brought about a marked increase in the production of scented oils. This evolution led to the creation of a wider variety of perfumes, which were used to scent the body, hair, clothes, and homes (Soden, 2019).

During this time, the expanding trade routes facilitated the exchange of aromatic substances between the East and the West. This cross-cultural trade broadened the variety of available fragrances, with aromatic spices, resins, and rare botanicals from the East, such as frankincense and myrrh, becoming widely available in Europe. Perfumery flourished in places along these trade routes, most famously in cities like Venice and Grasse in France, which are still renowned for their perfume industries today (Classen, Howes, & Synnott, 1994).

In medieval Europe, wearing perfume became a symbol of wealth and social status, especially among the nobility. Distinctive and exotic fragrances were sought after, and personal perfumes were often custom-made to reflect the wearer's taste and personality. Many European courts employed 'perfumers,' professionals responsible for creating personal scents for the royal family and members of the court. (Ashenburg, 2007).



Roudnitska, E. (1991). The Art of Perfumery. Nez - la revue olfactive (Le grand livre).

Dauguet, B. (2010). Les routes de l'encens. Geographica.

Soden, G. (2019). The Manual of Plant Grafting: The Practical Techniques for Ornamentals, Vegetables, and Fruit. Timber Press.

Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge.

Ashenburg, K. (2007). Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing. Profile Books.

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