The Meaning Of The Word
The English word "pomander" comes from the French word "pomme d'ambre", which means "amber apple" or "amber ball". In the old days, it could be used and worn everywhere in different ways, but the most common were two:
1. The blend of aromatic substances was placed in a perforated pouch or box used for flavoring clothes or linen. The perfume mixture could also be used as a protection against various infections. Often, the perfume was simply an orange or an apple in which cloves were spiked.
2. Pomander could have been the box itself or, in the form of a hollow-shaped ball, for storing fragrances. Usually it was a perforated metal ball filled with flower petals, greens and spices.
3. In ancient times pomander was also made as an aromatic resin ball inside which wax, musk, rose petals, herbs and spices were mixed in various proportions.
The Role of Pomander in Ancient Times
From the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 18th century, people used pomanders to carry around with them everywhere ... Small resin balls even stuck in the nose, hid in socks, worn as a modern accessory at the belt, or placed in the premises with the aim of suppressing bad smells, refresh clothes and simply create around themselves a pleasant scent. It was believed that sweet, fragrant balls filled with aromatic herbs and spices could protect their carriers from infectious diseases or even cure chronic ailments.
Since ancient times the word "pomander" also refers to decorative fragrance blend container, which is usually perforated and richly adorned (pomanders usually made of silver and gold. ). Courtiers usually carried them at their belts to supplement the costume and to decorate it. Therefore, this relatively small item was compared to jewelry piece. Actually, pomanders were just like jewelry.
During the Tudor and Elizabethan times in England pomanders were especially popular fashion accessories. The sources mention that Queen Elizabeth was fond of the pomander scent composition made from Damascus roses, Benzoine and Ambergris. Some pomanders were usually included in the New Year's gift list for the Queen. [2.]
Pomander in the collection of Victoria & Albert Museum
The shell of this pomander is richly adorned with engraved floral pattern, which may have been done with the aim to highlight the scent of its content.
The luxurious item was made in England in the 16th century. Locally obtained silver highlights pomander's functional and decorative aspects. At that time tableware - dishes, wine cups, knives, forks and spoons were made of silver. Many of these items were unusually sophisticated and adorned according with the latest fashion trends.
However, it should be noted that pomanders made of silver were not intended for the richest courtiers, but for the middle class people.
The images below, however, show all of its peculiar features: it has a base that allows it to be placed on the table, as well as at the top of the eyelet, which allows it to be attached to the belt chain and wear it with clothing. In an open way, this pomander is showing the structure of segments (just like orange cloves), where different perfumes, flower petals, or some aromatic powder could be stored... Each segment of this pomander could be opened with a special tap on which is usually engraved a message/word with a reference to its content. [3.]
Pomanders of Nostradamus
The Portrait of Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus), a French Renaissance Medicine & Astrologer, painted by his son César de Nostredame (1553-1630?), circa 1614. Reference: Jean Boyer, “Deux peintres oubliés du XVIe siècle: Etienne Martellange et César de Nostredame”, Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’art français, Année 1971 (1972), pp.13-20. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
During the dark Middle Ages, when in Europe, from time to time was raging a plague (including the Bubonic plague called "black death"), people were afraid of the end of the world, but the prophets and priests talked about apocalyptic fever, causing massive panic, there was also a small a luxurious item that seemed like a protector of all the misfortunes. Many did not know anything about it, but there were also those who tried to protect themselves from it wearing necklace of garlic clove beads or apples in which the cloves were spiked in. However, it was an expensive pleasure.
Often people were fleeing from larger settlements, fleeing from the plague, but it reached them everywhere. Doctors at that time did not know anything about plague-causing bacteria and the types of spread of diseases. Their only methods of treatment were the lowering of blood, as well as the mixture of herbal medicines and treatments given to patients.
Without any doubt, Nostradamus was a member of the medical elite of his time. He used quite unusual methods of treatment, that were well ahead of the era in which he lived. He acted as an educator of the townspeople, striving to provide them with clean water and fresh air, and insisted that the dead should be burned out of the infections. Nostradamus's deep and thorough knowledge of medicinal herbs allowed him to make effective treatments, which ones he mixed with vitamin C-rich syrups. All his actions prevented the spread of the plague, as these preventive measures strengthened the immunity of the people.
Nowadays, the name of Nostradamus is more related to his prophecies and his ability to foretell the future, but he was a famous astrologer, dentist and pharmacist. He was also a real aromatherapy specialist who produced sweet, fragrant pomanders and those were used by his clients and patients. One of the most famous Nostradamus scented ball was called "rose tablet", which is thought to have medicinal properties.
Nostradamus Recipe for Aromatic Rose Balls:
“The very first step was to make ‘rose tablets’ by gathering a pound of roses without the flower heads, and seven ounces of ground benzoin. The roses must soak in deer musk and water for a night.
Remove the roses the next day, squeeze out the water and grind them with the benzoin. While grinding, add a quarter of ambergris and another of civet musk. Once all the ingredients are grounded, divide the mixture into tablets and put each one between two rose petals. Let the tablets dry away from the sun.
The next step is to take:
-two ounces of the purest labdanum,
-an ounce each of Styrax calamites and benzoin,
-half an ounce of the previously made “rose tablets”,
-one ounce of violet powder,
-and half a dram each ambergris and musk.
Grind all the ingredients into powder. Then knead it together with the rose-mixture mentioned above for an hour and you will have an aromatic ball of the most supreme perfume, and the longest-lasting that can be made anywhere in the world.” [1.]
It tells Nostradamus ... If there is a desire, time, opportunities and patience ... then this can happen in the 21st century.
In 1552, Nostradamus published instructions on how to get to the pomander's spots or aromatic balls. Below is a list of the components he mentioned:
- labdanum derived from goat's beard and sheep's belly tissue in the lucky Arab lands
- Storax resins
- Benzoic acid or benzoine
- "Rose Tablets"
- Powder of purple roots (i.e., iris root (rhizoma iridis))
- gray amber (ambergris)
- rose petals.
As you can see, Nostradamus acquired this recipe in the Middle East, and therefore the ingredients were mostly of oriental origin.
In The Far and Middle East perfumes and aromatic substances have been used for a long time ... in the Western lands they began to get to know them during the 14th century. At that time, with the stories told by traders and their imported goods, it was possible to try pomanders and use them to protect people against the spread of infections. As usual, the first pomanders became widespread among the nobles and kings.
In the fashion context, the use of pomanders dates back to the second half of the 16th century when they were hung on belts or worn around the neck. The pomander's cladding or opening segments are usually covered with a slider plate on which the name of the substance deposited inside the engraving segment is covered.
In the first half of the 16th century, representatives of the upper classes, the aristocracy and the kings and queens were carrying pomanders everywhere. The pomanders were used for protection, as aromatic objects and to fight bad smells.
They were also used as personal status symbols - as fashion accessories for the era. In the chronicles of 1530, it was announced that King Henry VIII of England had owned at least 16 pomanders - all very expensive, engraved and made by prominent artisans or jewelers. Henry VIII and Anna Boleyn's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I of England, was often portrayed with a pomander that she wore with a luxurious and extravagant costume, just as the many nobles of the 16th century. [1.]
Judging by the popularity of the pomanders during the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the prevalence of such items of luxury had reached its peak. It seemed that no one else could do without the fragrances that they carried with them, medicines put up in jewelry balls or even potions that were hidden in such pomanders...Just like in the 21st century, it's hard to do without a cell phone in a purse or pocket... Times are changing, technology is evolving, but people's habits have similarities.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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