Pomander

by Lady Alianore de Essewell

Or if some ones mouth smells bad, because the teeth are bad, or if some ones has a foul-smelling sore on the body or something else unpleasant, which causes him to shun the proximity of people, he will have such pleasant aroma about him that no one will know the cause of it.”

Nostradamus c1560, describing the use of a scented pomander.

The Medieval pomander was used to scent the wearers’ immediate area, in order to modify bad smells. The word pomander comes from the French, pomme d’ambre (apple of amber) and referred to both the ball of scent as well as its fancy container. The amber in this case probably referred to Ambergris.

Besides disguising unpleasant odors, pomanders were used to carry good smells to ward off illness and disease, such as the plague. Many people believed that sickness was caused by bad smells and therefore carried good smells to prevent getting sick.

The pomanders of scent were made of sweet smelling herbs, spices, oils and perfumes and took on several forms. Scented beads were favored by many and used in rosaries, decorated cases and bags, they were made by using different aromatics in powdered form and adding resin, gum or beeswax to form a paste, which would then be shaped and hardened, i.e.: shaped into round balls or beads.

The following is a pomander recipe taken from The English housewife by Gervase Markham.

“To make pomanders, take two penny-worth of labdanum, two penny-worth of storax liquid one penny-worth of calamnus aromaticus, as much balm, half a quarter of a pound of fine wax, of cloves and mace two penny-worth and of musk four grains: beat all these exceedingly together, till they come to a perfect substance, then mould it in any fashion you please and dry it.”

Titian’s Venetian portrait of Clarissa Strozzi c1545 shows a clear depiction of a pomander. This painting is housed at the Museum of Berlin in Germany.

 

The balls of scent would then be used in different mediums, such as being placed into a hanky and then warmed by the hands to release the scent. They were also placed into the pomanders (decorated containers) and used as in the above painting. Pomanders could also contain other mediums such as a wad of cotton or cloth and then scented with a favorite perfume or oil, which could be continually refreshed as the scent faded or be replaced with a different one. These pomander cases would then be hung around the neck on long chains or be worn from girdles by both men and women, to be used as needed.

Pomanders were used throughout England and Europe and the following show some examples, found both in art of the time and as extant items in museums.

Examples of Pomanders

This drawing by Etienne Delaune (1518-1583) is a design for a pendant jewel, a spherical pomander. It is draw on vellum in black ink with blue, white, and green colours and two tones of gold paint.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
These examples are gilded silver pomanders from the 16th century, the one on the left resembling a modern tea ball. (The Folger Shakespeare Library Collection of pomanders)

Most pomanders contained perforations, which allowed the scent inside to be freely released. Some contained only a single compartment to hold one scent while others were segmented into several compartments and held a different scent in each. These pomanders are reminiscent of the original cloven fruit where an orange or lemon would be decorated with cloves and then dried.

Portrait of Jan Gerritz van Egmond van de Dijenborgh, elected Burgomaster of Alkmaar. c1518 holding what is clearly a pomander.
This pomander, on display in Henry VIII’s Manor House in Dartford also appears to be a small hand held fan. Ladies Venetian trio, Flag Fan, Gloves and Pomander.
Munich
Detail from a painting of an unknown lady holding a pomander on a chain.
Pieter Janz. Pourbus
www.marie-stuart.co.uk/
images/Pomander.jpg
 

 

The pomander cases themselves varied, simpler ones like this one recovered from the Tudor ship the Mary Rose were made out of carved wood, hollowed out to contain perfume or scented oil.

During times of Plague, pomanders depicted by skulls heads were popular. They were filled with herbal remedies in hopes of avoiding the disease.

Pomanders were also highly decorated and were made of gold or silver and could be encrusted with gems and pearls and decorated with enamel like this 16th century enamel and pearl pomander.
Ref: Victoria & Albert Museum

A physician holding a pomander under his nose while examining a suspected plague victim, c.1495.
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/
…/pomanders.aspx

 

Pomanders were used as early as the 14th century with references made in several inventories to gold or sliver pomanders encrusted with pearls or precious stones.

“Margaret and Eleanor, daughters of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, had each among their goods in 1322 highly prized objects of this sort. Margaret had a pomander pomme de aumbre – probably of ambergris – set in three clasps of silver, and Eleanor had what was either a nutmeg or musk ball (a hollow ball to hold the perfume) to perform a similar function, set in silver with small stones and pearls.” (The Senses in Late Medieval England)

“About the bordyre of the seid couche were xij appuls callid pomendambres, wrought withouten curiously of gold, garnysht of mugles and alle othir precious sauours of muskis recensitiues and restoratiues.”
(Cleveland, John G. White Collection)

“by the Lady Heniaige, a pomander gar’ with golde and 12 sparks of rubies and perles pendant, per oz”
(From the list of New Years Gifts to Queen Elizabeth, 1578-1579)

“By the Lady Margaret Strainge, a little round mounte of golde to conteyne a pomaunder in it.”
(From the New Year’s Gifts to Queen Elizabeth, 1561-62)

References

On the left is a detail from an oak carved statue of Mary Magdalene (1530)
on display at the Archbishops Museum in Utrecht and shows a pomander’s use on a rosary.

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