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Past Scents

Historical Perspectives on Smell

Elevating the history of an ephemeral and evocative "lower" sense

In this comprehensive and engaging volume, medical historian Jonathan Reinarz offers a historiography of smell from ancient to modern times. Synthesizing existing scholarship in the field, he shows how people have relied on their olfactory sense to understand and engage with both their immediate environments and wider corporal and spiritual worlds.

This broad survey demonstrates how each community or commodity possesses, or has been thought to possess, its own peculiar scent. Through the meanings associated with smells, osmologies develop--what cultural anthropologists have termed the systems that utilize smells to classify people and objects in ways that define their relations to each other and their relative values within a particular culture. European Christians, for instance, relied on their noses to differentiate Christians from heathens, whites from people of color, women from men, virgins from harlots, artisans from aristocracy, and pollution from perfume.

This reliance on smell was not limited to the global North. Around the world, Reinarz shows, people used scents to signify individual and group identity in a morally constructed universe where the good smelled pleasant and their opposites reeked.

With chapters including "Heavenly Scents," "Fragrant Lucre," and "Odorous Others," Reinarz's timely survey is a useful and entertaining look at the history of one of our most important but least-understood senses.

"Past Scents makes a timely and welcome addition to the rapidly evolving scholarship on the history of the senses. Through an engaging tour of the field and a comprehensive survey of prior studies, Jonathan Reinarz awakens the reader's senses to the history and power of smell."--William A. Cohen, author of Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

Jonathan Reinarz is a professor of the history of medicine and Director at the History of Medicine Unit at the School of Medicine, University of Birmingham (U.K.). He is author of A History of the Birmingham Teaching Hospitals, 1779-1939.

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