Sunday, August 1, 2010

Scents of the Mediterranean the World Over

I’m trying something a little different for the Scents of the Mediterranean Blogfest—in honor of Ines, who, I know, loves fiction, I have written a little story about the perfume trade in the Mediterranean in the 13th century… Let me know what you think. Thanks to Ines of “All I am-a Redhead” and Elena of “Perfume Shrine” for organizing this fun party!

phoenixThe sun—God’s candle, some call it—shines on a busy scene in the 13th century northern Mediterranean port city. Ships pull close to shore, and a multiethnic population of sailors, merchants, and dogsbodies energetically heave large chests out of the wooden ships’ great bellies. You can almost imagine the laden ships breathing a sigh of relief as their month-long indigestion is suddenly, finally cured. “Finally, that sharp point in my belly on the left side has eased off” your imaginary sentient ship declares to the larger more gruff neighbor to the west in the bay. You laugh indulgently at your private flight of fancy, a moment of respite from the anxiety that has gripped you for a week now. Back to business…

You, a nervous English merchant, wait expectantly, eager eyes scanning the aquamarine line of the sea for that one ship you know carries your entire fortune. Should it be lost to the hungry ocean, sink down to the hellish depths where the sea monsters every sailor has seen with his own eyes wait hungrily, your livelihood, and your children’s, will be destroyed, and Lord knows what will happen then—your brood of nine begging for alms in the street, probably. You have been waiting for a week now, sometimes in one of the lively taverns that stand by the great bay, engaging desultorily in conversation with sailors, merchants, and prostitutes, but most of the time, you and your sons stand on the side of the road, anxiously scanning the horizon.

02-23-10-Pryor.jpgToday, Lady Fortune smiles upon you, for there it is, that exotic barque from Byzantium, so different from the more stolid English boats in which you have so often sailed to reach these Mediterranean ports. You and your sons yell and embrace in delight—saved! The cheerful-looking boat seems to take forever to reach the shore—you wait through the tolling of several bells, Terce, Sect and None, to be exact-- until the portside is clear enough for this amber-colored merchant ship to pull nearer.

The unloading begins, and you stand on the shore, guarding the sturdy chests as they come off the boat. Well, guarding may not be the right word—you explore their scented and precious cargo, one by one. Although you have brought three ships laden with similar contents to the shores of your own country, you never cease to be amazed at the sheer beauty of the things you will be bringing back to sensation-obsessed England—the brocaded silks, so smooth, shiny, and soft, all imbued with an incredible, thick incense smell. The oranges and lemons—little bright treasures from this more southern clime—which you were able to pick up for a song in the bright outdoor markets in this southern city, but which will fetch small fortunes in that citrus-obsessed northern land. Lords and ladies will eatFruit design by William Morris, 1862. Museum no. E.299-2009 every bit of those fruits, even the peels, pith and seeds, although you know the Italian-speaking folk at this port eat only the juicy sections inside, discarding the rest—although they do save the peels for scenting their houses. The exotic materials—horn, ivory, onyx, various precious stones that the captain handed to you directly, looking you straight in the eye as if to say: “I guarded these from my sailors, holding them against my body for weeks….” You get the hint, and, after counting and examining the stones, you return to his nubbly hand one small amethyst—a very generous tip, and one you really can’t afford right now, but such honesty should go rewarded, and besides, you’d like to have this nut-brown, wind-hardened man captain another of your treasure ships some other time. It’s not an easy task, navigating a boat positively bulging with luxury items from Africa, the Middle East, and even India through a Mediterranean positively crawling with pirates.

But even these precious stones cannot delight you more than your very favorite thing to check over, not that it needs to be checked, but because it is such a delight to experience—inside of each chest, wrapped in the very silk brocades and samites that will fetch enormous fees per yard over in London, lies a parcel which smells just as the Garden of Eden must have to the first man and woman. Unable to resist, you tear one open, ignoring the fact that you have just destroyed some very fine muslin indeed, and out sprawl the precious contents: an abundance of little brown cloves, large strips of cinnamon bark, the resinous chunks of frankincense and myrrh—the gifts of the Magi to Our Lord, you remind yourself in wonder—and a pot of intense-smelling stuff—musk, it must be.

You tear open another package, unable to stop smelling—this one contains little vials of oil more precious than your life,File:Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 035.jpg padded with those precious spices—cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg (everyone’s favorite when it comes time to sell, because the little nutmegs are portable, and can be kept along with the decorative grater in a little pouch so the rich gentlefolk never have to live in a world devoid of spice and aroma) that will provoke squeals of delight over in England. The vials, when uncapped, smell like a thousand flowers, overwhelmingly strong. You know one is jasmine—its buttery heady smell almost makes you feel faint. Another must be sandalwood, for it smells woody, and also sweet. Also, a chunk you know must be Ambergris—you do not press your nose up to this one, knowing that, like the musk, it will smell overwhelmingly strong in such concentration. Let the perfumers deal with that one, you tell yourself. I am a File:Jean Droyn - Nef des folles.pngsimple man—I will just save the smallest amount of this jasmine oil in a little box and present it to Margery, my wife, when I return home, as a sort of apology for half of our family’s long absence.

The tolling of yet another church bell shakes you out of your fragrant reverie. The shadows lengthen across the cobbled streets. Time to load this up and bring it home…..

To be continued…….


Bonkers about Perfume
I Smell Therefore I am
Notes from the Ledge

All I Am - A Redhead
Perfume Journal
The Non Blonde
Waft by Carol
Hortus Conclusus
A Rose Beyond the Thames
Smelly Blog
Katie Puckrik Smells
Perfume in Progress
Roxana Illuminated Perfume
Scent Hive
Perfume Shrine
Under the Cupola


image of the phoenix and the sun from the Aberdeen bestiary

Jonas eaten by sea monster, found on

boat ms image from:

Fruit design by William Morris, 1862. Museum no. E.299-2009 (click image for larger version)

betrothal image from Les tres riches heures de Duc de Berry, by the  Limbourg brothers

Lucas Cranach’s Garden of Eden, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ship of Fools who carry pomanders and care only about scent from


  1. Mine thoughts lie in the direction of ... brava!

    ...with a side dressing of a name for one perfume inspired by your story: "Oranges and Lemons Toll the Nones of Spiced Brethren." {hee}

    Lovely, and I am so happy to see you take this tack. What fun that was...a treasure that I didn't have to tear a single thread of fine fabric to get to.

    You'll have me thinking of a combination of boats and citrus and spice and things medieval all day.

  2. Hilarious perfume name!

    Thanks for your encouraging words, and I hope thinking about boats and spices and medievalia doesn't make you seasick, on your little ship of a state in the middle of your own enclosed sea of Great Lakes

    Yours, LBV

  3. Your sumptuous tale is a feast for the senses, also because of the exquisitely detailed illustrations. The whole post would give the other exhibits a run for their money in the Musee de Cluny.

    : - )

  4. Incredible!
    I enjoyed your story immensely (and have goose bumps to vouch for that). :) What an ingenious way to go with the idea for the blogfest.
    Thank you for participating!

  5. LBV,

    Your story is a wonderful reminder of what it is so easy to forget these days (especially as collecting perfumes is now as easy as surrendering our credit card to the click of a mouse): that perfumes really were precious, in every sense of the word. And worth the steep price they exacted!

    Will look forward to your next installment!

  6. Of course your story would come to life before my eyes.

    Of course it would carry me far away from my home and to a place of new sights and smells.

    Of course. ;)

    Beautiful work.


  7. Great story! Unwrapping a package of scented treasures is always a joy! :)

  8. Flittersniffer,
    Merci beaucoup, ma cherie! Quelles compliments!

    Ines, I am glad you are pleased--I wrote it for you. Thanks again for organizing this! SO much fun!

    you are exactly right; I wanted to convey how precious they were. It's so easy to forget nowadays.

  9. Tamara,
    Thanks, m'dear!

    I think the unwrapping might be the best part.

  10. Delightful, what a great sensorium, thank you for taking us on such a fine journey.

  11. Thanks Roxana! And thanks for stopping by ;-)

  12. Perfumes are so precious aren't they? Especially when they evoke such sumptuous stories! Thanks :-)

  13. Thanks for the assisted time travel to ye olden days. What's next for part 2 -- pirates paid by a 13th century Donnatella Versace to bring her the finest perfume ingredients in the world?

  14. Scent Hive, Thanks for popping by!

    Katie, Thanks for the idea! I'll try to fit that in! (LOL)

  15. What an original and incredibly wonderful way of recounting perfume stories! Thank you for thinking all that and for the effort of actually writing it down. It was indeed precious commodity and we tend to forget that nowadays.


what thinkest thou?


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