Pomander and Balsambüchse: Agents in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century German Medicine in the European Context
Inspired by an article by Evelyn Welch on smell in Renaissance Italy, I decided to pursue a study of a ‘smelly object’: the pomander. This object is made up of aromatic herbs and spices, as well as the animal secretions musk and ambergris. The latter – from which the object takes its name – is a secretion of the male sperm whale, produced by its inability to digest the beaks of cuttlefish. These pleasantly smelling spheres, which are often encased in precious metals, are portrayed as the plague preservative of the Renaissance. It was believed that bad smells were an indicator of the proximity of disease, which was believed to be contracted through inhalation. The battle against pestilential air was fought with the help of pleasant aromatics.
I soon discovered that ‘pomander’ functions as an umbrella term for multiple different objects. Therefore, one focus of my dissertation was to separate the Balsambüchse (ointment box) from the pomander, and examine the forgotten object in its own right. After defining each of the objects, an examination of their aromatic ingredients revealed that the pieces were not exclusively used as plague preservatives, but in a wider context of health preservation. This became especially apparent when I looked at how the objects were gendered through the way they were worn – women wore them on long chains close to the womb. Hence, I propose in my dissertation that the objects are linked not only to a general culture of health preservation, but also to health preservation of the womb and female fertility.
School of Humanities
MA History of Design, 2014
- BA History of Art & German Literature, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2012
- Co-editor, Object of the Week, Unmaking Things, 2013–2014; Intern, Marketing and Public Relations, Altonaer Museum, Hamburg, 2012; Intern, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945–2014, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013–2014
- 'Do I smell? The pomander and its materiality', Unmaking Things | column: Material and Materiality, 2013; Contributing author, Object of the Week, Unmaking Things, 2013–2014