A History of Potpourri [Part 3 of 7]

Potpourri in Ancient Egypt, Middle Ages, and Early Renaissance [Part 3 of 7]

This post is the third in a seven-part series on potpourri throughout history.  In this session, we’ll cover potpourri in Ancient Egypt, as well as during the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance.


Ancient Egypt

Fragrant lavender, thyme and chamomile were all used during the mummification process when preparing bodies for the afterlife, making mummies smell better.  The remains of flowers, bouquets, and garlands strung with flowers and herbs have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. With their comforting powers of beauty and fragrance these botanicals were meant to accompany the dead into the afterlife.  How amazing those tombs must have smelled as the flowers and herbs, airtight and enclosed in pitch darkness, withered and dried and the fragrances changed and faded over the months, years, and eons.

The Middle Ages to Early Renaissance

A Medieval Garden

A Medieval Garden

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cloth bags filled with fragrant dried flowers and herbs were placed in closets and drawers, and with bedding and linens.  These were quite practical in their use for adding good scent and covering up bad scent, especially when laundering clothing was so infrequent. Bathing, too, was not done on a regular basis, and women tucked sachets, and even specially made small wooden vessels filled with sweet-smelling dried herbs, into their underclothes while they were worn.

It was common practice for peasants to hang bunches of wild herbs used for medicinal and other practical purposes to dry around their cottages.  The combination of scents of these herbs added pleasant aroma and brightened their environment.  Many of these dried herbs acted as insect repellents, too.

Getting the Strewing Herbs Ready

Getting the Strewing Herbs Ready

From the Middle Ages through the early Renaissance rushes and straw provided a refreshing, soft, thick cushion to floors, adding insulation and warmth, and absorbing moisture. This flooring was also host to debris from the family and their household pets, spilled beverages, and to a variety of insect pests. This natural flooring was changed twice yearly, and over time, of course, became intensely “pungent.” To remedy unpleasant smells from the flooring, the practice of strewing herbs came about. Fresh herbs were tossed and strewn onto the floor to create a top layer which when walked upon were crushed, releasing the essential oils of the herbs and adding much-needed pleasant aromas to the home. Strewing herbs were chosen for their wonderful fragrance, or for their insect-repelling qualities. Strewing fresh layers of these herbs was a regular chore, since the fragrances faded over time and would need to be renewed with a new batch of botanicals to be added to the flooring.  Roses, lavender, marjoram, tansy, daisies, sage, violets, mints, chamomile, and basil were just some of the materials used for strewing.

Check back next week for post four, “Potpourri in the 17th Century”  in the series, “”A History of Potpourri.”