What's That Smell

Medieval depiction of Christ before Pilate, with Pilate washing his hands.

Original Manuscript held by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

Were medieval people clean?

Medieval people didn’t understand that sicknesses are spread by germs. However, it would be wrong to say that medieval people were not concerned with being ‘clean’. The Medieval idea of being ‘clean’ was a little different to our modern idea of bathing, washing, and sanitising; but they nonetheless wanted to be seen as ‘clean’. They believed that if you were clean on the outside, you were clean on the inside: meaning you had a clean soul and were a good Christian, and unlikely to get sick. In this way, their cleanliness was protecting them, but not quite as we do today.

Today we understand that washing our hands gets rid of the germs that we pick up by touching objects, animals or people and it’s the germs that make us sick. Medieval people didn’t bathe very often, but it was considered very important to appear clean, so they often washed the visible parts of their body. It was common to wash your hands and face often, usually in a bowl of water, and to wear clean clothes. Believe it or not, they did have soap in the medieval period! It could be purchased in towns, although it was costly, but a simple soap could be made at home by mixing animal fat with ash.

As well as appearing dirty, medieval people believed that bad smells, or clouds of ‘miasma’, were responsible for the spread of sickness and disease. It was therefore important not to breathe in these bad smells. One way in which some wealthy medieval people combated these bad smells was to carry an item with them that smelled good.


These items were known as a ‘pomander’ which translates from French into ‘apple of amber’: apple for their rounded shape and amber for the base ingredient called ‘ambergris’. Ambergris is a waxy substance that can be formed into a ball, it has a sweet smell, and can be mixed with other fragrant ingredients to create different scents. These balls were then cased in a hollowed out spherical object which had holes in it to let the scent through. They were often on chains so people could wear them, and have their pomander close to hold in front of their nose in case they should come across any foul smells. Some elaborate medieval pomanders had several segments inside and opened up a bit like an orange, so you could put different scents in each segment. The Victoria and Albert Museum hold one such pomander which you can see by clicking the link HERE.

Pomanders originated during the medieval period, but continued to be grow in popularity in the centuries afterward. A portrait painted of Queen Elizabeth I shows her holding an ornate metal pomander. Although pomanders are no longer made with ambergris (it is a very expensive ingredient), simple forms of the same idea do still survive today; such as a breathable fabric bag filled with things like lavender and cinnamon. A common form of pomander was popular from the 18th century onward and we still make them today. These are oranges studded with cloves, below is an activity on how to make them.

Activity - Make a pomander

Below are step by step instructions on how to make a pomander with an orange and cloves. There are downloadable instructions on the Downloads and Further Resources page.

Resources required: an orange, cloves, a skewer or toothpick and a 75cm length of ribbon.

Find the middle of the ribbon by folding the ribbon in half.

Align the middle of the ribbon with the navel of the orange.

Wrap the ribbon around to the opposite side.

Cross the ribbon over to make a cross—so the ribbon is heading off at right angles now.

Wrap the ribbon around until you get back to the starting point.

Tie a secure knot in the ribbon.

Thread the ends under the ribbon under the knot and tie another knot. This will stop the ribbon from slipping off!

Tie a knot at the end of the remaining ribbon to make a loop.

Now use the toothpick or skewer to poke a hole in the skin of the orange

Then insert the long pointy end of a clove into the hole.

Now repeat with lots more cloves!

The cloves can be used to make a pattern.

Or to put initials on it.

Hang the pomander somewhere the smell can be appreciated.