This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022: Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Jordan Graham graduated from Cardiff University with a BA in History in the summer of 2022.
Over the last few years it is likely that you or someone you know has had Covid-19. One of the common side of effects has been loss of taste or smell, so much so that often when someone tells you they had Covid it may be one of the questions you ask. Could you smell anything? Could you taste anything? While the thought of not being able to taste your food is dreadful, how often have we really thought about how our sense of smell affects our daily lives? How did smell affect those who lived before us? How did smell help people decide between what was good or bad? The early modern witch offers an unexpected case study.
Throughout history the sense of smell has been viewed as nothing more than average. Even Aristotle put it in the middle of his hierarchy of the senses, behind sight, and hearing, but before taste and touch. When we think of the early modern witch we similarly often privilege how she looked or sounded. But smell mattered too. Early modern medical texts, plays, demonological texts and trial records all show that the witch’s foul-smelling qualities permeated society. This influenced early modern individuals to suspect and accuse others of witchcraft based merely on their personal odour.
The use and understanding of smell in early modern France and England were influenced by the medical understandings of the time and differed vastly from our associations with smell today. Stench during this time was considered to be a disease, with smell acting as a unique ‘fingerprint’ of an individual’s identity. The relationship between smell and disease and marginalised members of society evolved into the association between these individuals and foul smells. The relationship between foul smelling witches and disease from a medical standpoint can be largely associated with plague, which itself was the product of corrupted air – and divine retribution.
Witches were also suspected of assuming the shapes of unhealthy small animals such as toads, salamanders and rats through the use of inspissated air. The smell of witches in association with animals goes back to classical Antiquity. For instance Pliny the Elder described chameleons as smelling like witchcraft and claimed that burning ‘the head and throat of the Chamaeleon in a fire made of oaken wood, will immediately arise tempests of rainy storms and thunder together’. The smell of a witch and the qualities of plague would become synonymous with each other in early modern France and England.
Perpetuated throughout wider early modern culture, these olfactory qualities of a foul-smelling witch were reinforced within the plays and performances of the time. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola says to Olivia who is a wealthy, beautiful, noble lady, ‘accomplish’d Lady, the heauens raine Odours on you’. While this beautiful character is related to the heavenly odours, in Richard III Richard calls Queen Margaret a ‘Foule wrinckled Witch’. This contrast between the ideal, beautiful woman and the ugly, wrinkled witch is reinforced through the language of scent.
The same relationship between positive, pleasant smells and heaven and between foul stenches and hell can also be seen throughout the demonological texts of the time. Many early modern demonologists who wrote vastly on the topic of witchcraft frequently used olfactory descriptors to describe the witch. Jean Bodin claimed that the stench of a witch came from their copulation with demons who possess the bodies of hanged men or those of the dead. François de Rosset related the story of a nobleman seduced by the corpse of a woman, the stench of which ultimately caused the man and his friends to die. This seduction by the devil in both male and female forms was accompanied by a terrible smell. Both Bodin and de Rosset provide reasons for why witches smelled foul. The authors do not debate the fact of the smell but rather explore its causes, implying it was a commonly understood notion.
This understanding of the witch and their foul-smelling qualities is likely because of the accepted understanding that the Devil smelt bad. The witch’s association with the Devil is heightened by shared qualities between the two, with the Devil widely perceived as having a distinguishable smell it is likely that those in association with him would share his odour. Among the most common of the Devil’s early modern representations was that of a stinking goat. With the Devil known for his acts of deception Richard Bovet claimed smell could be used to discern if you were in fact being deceived. While it was understood that the Devil could take the shape of anything – including angels – if a visitor was accompanied by a smell of stinking vapours one could be sure they were demonic imposter. Henry Boguet denied that perfumes could drive away demons from the body. In the margins of his Discours Exécrable des Sorciers, Boguet wrote that ‘perfumes can accomplish nothing directly against the evil spirit.’.
It was not just elite authors who worried about the smells of demons and witches. Robin Briggs’s database of witch trials from the Dutchy of Lorraine contains twenty-one direct references to smell and acts of suspected witchcraft. It is important to note that the trials including the mention of smell could be underrepresented as the database contains abstracts summarised into English, with only selective French quotations rather than the full, original French texts. Nevertheless, themes in these accusations include the smell of disease, the smell of sulphur, and the evil smells emitted through burning suspected witches’ belongings. These smells are mentioned in the trial because they were incriminating evidence, hence the use of olfactory descriptors strengthened the accusations, creating more “believable” statements.
The 1599 witch trial of Isabillion Parmentier includes a witness statement by Didier Languille in which he claimed that after he forbade Parmentier from passing through his garden he found himself paralysed the next day, and for six weeks afterwards, during which time he smelled of sulphur. The sulphuric smell accompanying Languille’s injury is the key link to acts of witchcraft; without the allegation of scent, Languille’s statement that his injury was caused by witchcraft would not have been as convincing. The cases of Fleuratte Valdexey in 1621 and Jennon Hennemant in 1616 also share in this theme of sulphurous odours as identifiers of their acts of witchcraft. The inclusion of sulphuric smells within witchcraft trials appears to be a salient detail which substantiates the accusations as actual witchcraft.
Early modern society widely accepted witches’ supposed proximity to the Devil and therefore, their association with foul, foetid, malodorous scents. As a result, foul smells were used as evidence of acts of witchcraft and substantiated the suspicion that surrounded them. We know now that it is likely no one saw an individual fly through the night sky, but if you suspected your neighbour was a witch, their body odour could be the only evidence you needed to confirm your belief. It is a good thing we have deodorant now.
 Roy Porter, ‘Foreword’ in Alain Corbin (ed.), The Foul and the Fragrant Odor and the French Social Imagination (New York, 1986), p.vi.
 Pliny the Elder, The historie of the vvorld: commonly called, The naturall historie of C. Plinius Secundus trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1634), p.315.
 Henry Boguet, Discours Exécrable des Sorciers (Paris, 1602).
Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, (Maryland, 2011).
Robert Muchembled, Smells A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times, trans. Susan Pickford (Paris, 2020).
Stuart Clarke, Vanities of the Eye (Oxford, 2007).