Most of Europe’s public bathhouses had been closed because of the bubonic plague, which killed more than a third of the population. Without a scientific understanding of germs, people believed that diseases like the plague were contagious through the air.
Thus the stinking smell of sickness was fought with the sweet scent of aromatics. “Specific diseases, like plague, believed to be conveyed by impure or corrupt air, were frequently countered by building bonfires in public spaces, and in private by burning incense or inhaling perfumes such as rose and musk,” says Jonathan Reinarz, a professor of medical history who published a book called Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. Small bouquets of herbs and flowers called posies, nosegays, or tussie-mussies became popular accessories carried to overcome the stench of death.
Meanwhile, the true antidote to major epidemics — better hygiene via bathing and hand washing — was unattainable as long as most Europeans believed that bathing was dangerous to one’s health. In the 15th and 16th centuries, prominent scientists helped spread the false idea that water’s ability to soften skin and open pores actually weakened the flesh. With this in mind, the few who did bathe regularly took special precautions, like anointing the body with oil and wrapping themselves in a scented cloth. Hair could be rubbed with aromatic powders, and bad breath was improved by chewing pungent herbs.