Contemplating Odors in Russian History

Back when I was an undergrad, my advisor said something that has remained with me since: if you want to know what’s current in Russian historiography, just look at what the rest of the field was working on twenty years ago.  I think it was a comment about how work on Russia’s women’s history had just begun, having followed the birth of the field in the seventies by at least a decade. 

I don’t mention this to expose my advisor’s criticism of the field – or to deflect the fact that mostly I agree with it.  When Tricia Starks and I started work on what became our tobacco book, commodities history seemed to be more or less terra incognito in the field, even though it had been a couple decades since Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power 1 and just as long since Hopkins and Wallerstein 2 published a famous essay on commodity chains.

I mention this because Trish and I have once again decided to jump start a discussion in the field about the history of the senses.  It was 1986 when Alain Corbin published The Foul and Fragrant, and not long after he followed with Village Bells, which was a critical look at sound in the nineteenth century.3  The field has long since branched out from nineteenth century France.  I’ve enjoyed reading my colleague Rich Rath’s book, How Early America Sounded,4 and he’s currently finishing a college text for a course on sound that should be arriving any day now.

I was struck last weekend at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies annual meeting that some work on the senses needs to be completed to unpack our understanding of Russian culture.  Erika Monahan pointed out that in the eighteenth century a Siberian priest was reprimanded for storing “malodorous moose hides” in the Church, where the smell corrupted the sanctity of the services.  It reminded me of an example I turned up in the seventeenth century, where a Dutch merchant in Kholmogory face a joint complaint from the townspeople that he corrupted their church services with a “great stench” of “tobacco and meat” that pervaded the Church during fast days.  I started to wonder, in what ways can we identify smells in the premodern era, and in what contexts will it appear?  Alexander Martin published a great article on the smell of imperial Moscow,5 and we know that Russia was home to the world’s largest perfume factory, but it seems odor has not yet had its day in the sun.  I’m a bit perplexed, incidentally, why musk oil hasn’t received more attention, as it was perhaps the most valuable part of the fur trade. Clearly, there is some important work to be done.

If you have some ideas about what might be done, I’d be happy to hear them.  And if you just have a passing interest, perhaps you might keep your eye out for a set of panels on taste, smell, and hearing next year in Boston.

  1. Sidney W. Mintz, Sweeness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986).
  2. Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Commodity Chains in the World-Economy Prior to 1800,” Review, 10:1 (1986): 157-170
  3. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988); and Village Bells: The Culture of the Senses in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, (New York: Columbia UP, 1998).
  4. Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005).
  5. Alexander M. Martin, “Sewage and the City: Filth, Smell, and Representations of Urban Life in Moscow, 1770-1880,” The Russian Review, 67 (2008): 243-74.
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