Smells of the ancient world

Feb 2019
839
Pennsylvania, US
Usually miasmas were associated with rotting organic matter - it seems like swamps or polluted rivers were sources for 'bad air'... There was a seasonal quality attributed to miasmas as well, as people thought the heat of the summer caused decomposition and bad smells to fill the air causing illness - but the patterns they observed had more to do with mosquito population booms (i.e. malaria) and rapid reproduction rates of germs (i.e. cholera) in humid, warm weather.

Vitruvius Pollio wrote a book on architecture (now called "Ten Books on Architecture", written sometime between 15-30 BC) and dedicated a chapter of it to choosing the building site of a city, advising "When the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy." Vitruvius supposedly pooled much of the information in his book from earlier Greek and Roman writers... his book was later "rediscovered" and republished in the 1400's... and is thought to have had a massive influence on architects of the Renaissance.

It's just interesting how miasma theory stuck around for so long - it was only the 1880's when the concept of germ theory was recognized as true. The effect that germ theory had on fashion was pretty interesting (if you like fashion history)... as people began to associate the long, sweeping skirts of the Victorian era with the spread of germs... it kicked off a trend in hiking hemlines up...
 
Mar 2018
787
UK
I don't think it's all that surprising Miasma theory stuck around for so long. No matter how wrong it is, it does broadly speaking, predict correct things.
 
Feb 2019
839
Pennsylvania, US
I don't think it's all that surprising Miasma theory stuck around for so long. No matter how wrong it is, it does broadly speaking, predict correct things.
I guess the main problem with miasma theory is that many sources of contagion / pathogen carriers don't smell unpleasant. It only worked if something stank... and often the safeguard against illness was perfume or strong smelling herbs/flowers.
 
Mar 2018
787
UK
I guess the main problem with miasma theory is that many sources of contagion / pathogen carriers don't smell unpleasant. It only worked if something stank... and often the safeguard against illness was perfume or strong smelling herbs/flowers.
That's definitely true. But also, plenty of things that do smell truly terrible are highly likely to make you sick. Perfume won't help you stay healthy, but simply avoiding bad smells (like avoiding drinking water that smells of poop) will definitely help a lot.

What I mean generally is that, compared to an awful lot of ancient "science" this one gets rather a lot of stuff right.
 
Oct 2018
1,509
Sydney
I guess the main problem with miasma theory is that many sources of contagion / pathogen carriers don't smell unpleasant. It only worked if something stank... and often the safeguard against illness was perfume or strong smelling herbs/flowers.
Smell also played a role in the wandering womb theory. Beginning with Greek medical writers, it was believed that the womb wandered around the body and needed to be brought back into place using pleasant smells. The Graeco-Roman doctor Galen dismissed this theory, but still thought that pleasant smells would assist in curing ailments of women.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Niobe
Feb 2019
839
Pennsylvania, US
That's definitely true. But also, plenty of things that do smell truly terrible are highly likely to make you sick. Perfume won't help you stay healthy, but simply avoiding bad smells (like avoiding drinking water that smells of poop) will definitely help a lot.

What I mean generally is that, compared to an awful lot of ancient "science" this one gets rather a lot of stuff right.
The problem is that you don't have to drink foul smelling water to get something like cholera. You can get it by eating fresh fish or shellfish, by rinsing your utensils in what appears to be clear water, from flies quickly landing on fresh food... usually a person will retch if they are trying to consume something with obvious fecal matter in it... unless they have pica or something. Gag!
 
Feb 2019
839
Pennsylvania, US
Smell also played a role in the wandering womb theory. Beginning with Greek medical writers, it was believed that the womb wandered around the body and needed to be brought back into place using pleasant smells. The Graeco-Roman doctor Galen dismissed this theory, but still thought that pleasant smells would assist in curing ailments of women.
Wombs : a pain in the uterus since history began. :lol:

I mean, it is interesting as people now use lavender scent for sleep and anti-anxiety... there was a study that showed it had an "anti-conflict" effect on lab mice... and caused more rapid sleep onset and longer duration. They hyped mice up (using caffeine) and found that they would mellow out quickly when exposed to lavender scent. That's a pretty incredible effect for simply inhaling scent!
 
Oct 2018
1,509
Sydney
Wombs : a pain in the uterus since history began. :lol:

I mean, it is interesting as people now use lavender scent for sleep and anti-anxiety... there was a study that showed it had an "anti-conflict" effect on lab mice... and caused more rapid sleep onset and longer duration. They hyped mice up (using caffeine) and found that they would mellow out quickly when exposed to lavender scent. That's a pretty incredible effect for simply inhaling scent!
Huh! Fascinating
 
Feb 2019
839
Pennsylvania, US
I have heard that Napoleon's cavalry could be tracked by it's terrible smell (festering saddle sores, thrushy hooves, etc)... but I'm not certain if that is true. It may just be a slur against the French being bad horsemen.