Unsavoury conversions

A fifteenth-century spice box

Sir Thomas Browne was an English author and physician, whose interests ranged from the bronze age practice of urn burial to astrology, biblical hermeneutics, and the mystical significance of the quincunx (the arrangement of five units in a pattern like the dots on the five-spot side of a dice). His 1646 Pseudodoxica epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths constituted a vast encyclopedia of misconceptions, false assumptions, and untruths, which he aimed to put to rest once and for all.

Browne’s project, like his earlier — and famous — Religio medici (published in 1643) was, at least in part, prompted by his convinced, though moderate, Anglicanism: he hoped to ‘repaire our primarie ruins’ by restoring some of the universal knowledge of the natural world that Adam lost at the fall, and ‘to enforce the wonder of its Maker’ by describing the miraculous beauties of nature. Attacking ‘misapprehension, fallacy or false deduction, credulity, supinity, adherence unto Antiquity, Tradition and Authority’ in a lively and witty tone, Browne turned his attention to topics as diverse as mermaids, necrophilia, and unbalanced badgers.

Following an account ‘Of the passage of meate and drinke’ [i.e. of digestion], and another of sneezing, Browne follows his nose to a rather unexpected subject: ‘The Iewes’. The leap from sneezing to Judaism appears a little less abrupt when we realise that Browne’s primary concern is to combat the apparently enduring myth ‘THat Jews stinck naturally’. Recognising that animals both have distinctive smells, and can identify people through the sense of smell, Browne also notes that some historical figures were celebrated for their pleasant aroma (especially Alexander the Great), and that diseases and climate can affect bodily odour. Nonetheless, he contests vigorously the concept ‘that an unsavoury odour is gentilitious or national unto the Jews’.

In part, Browne drew upon biblical and natural histories in order to make his case, pointing out that the Jewish people had been forced into exile across the globe, meaning, he claimed, that it was impossible that they should be anything but racially and culturally mixed with ‘nations of all sorts’. He commended Jewish eating and bodily habits, insisting that they were ‘very temperate, seldome offending inebrietie or excesse of drink, nor erring in gulosity or superfluity of meats’.

That Browne felt the need to contest allegations of an unpleasant odour does reveal some of the stereotypes that circulated in early modern England. It also illuminates how little those stereotypes had to do with experience, especially at a period when Jews were still barred from Britain. Browne himself drew on the testimony of travellers, and evidence of the cohabition of Moslems and Jews in the Ottoman Empire to combat his countrymen’s curious tales of nasal offense.

Finally, Browne turns to the evidence of changing faith, pointing out:  ‘And lastly… unto converted Jews who are of the same seed [as those who were not converted], no man imputeth this unsavoury odor; as though Aromatized by their conversion, they admitted their sent with their Religion, and they smelt no longer then they savoured of the Jew’. While, for Browne, this argument is clearly a reductio ad absurdum, it is possible that some of his contemporaries would happily have accepted the idea that a change of faith could effect a bodily transformation (and indeed it might, over time, as dietary restrictions, clothing, and rituals worked upon the convert).

Browne goes on to suggest that the misapprehension that Jews smell arises when Christians take metaphor too literally (‘how dangerous it is in sensible things to use metaphoricall expressions unto the people…’). In conclusion, Browne blamed this apparently popular misconception on ordinary people’s inability to understand a metaphor: when the Biblical Jacob described his own sons as ‘stinking’, Browne noted that some readers took literally a description that was meant to characterise Jacob’s sons as abominable to their father, rather than as smelly.

The scent of Jewish people was, for Browne, an example of the ‘absurd conceits’ uneducated people ‘will swallow in their literals’ and deserved to be dismissed both as a cultural fantasy and because — as he sensibly observed — such generalisations were untenable: it would be ‘a dangerous point to annex a constant property unto any Nation’.

Nonetheless, the myth of a particular smell attached both to race and religion remains revealing, not simply of the fantastic legends attached to the Jewish faith in medieval and early modern England, but of the importance of the senses in religious experience and practice. The image at the top of this post is of a fifteenth-century gilt copper spice box, used in Jewish worship, during the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath. Once the spices have been blessed, the box is passed around for all to smell, marking the start of a new week.

This is only one example of the importance of smell as both a sense and a social practice within a variety of religious traditions. Browne was, undoubtedly, right to castigate those who tried to reinforce religious and racial distinctions by inventing odoriferous markers of difference, yet the idea that religious practice might itself help to create boundaries, and community identity, through the use of particular smells, and the act of smelling, reminds us of the enduring connections between sensation, religion, and identity.

*Thanks to Lizzie Swann for guiding me to Browne’s discussion.

**My colleague — and Thomas Browne expert — Kevin Killeen, suggests I’m being too kind to Browne, who seems a little wistful about the missed economic opportunity in the Jewish people not smelling, ‘could they be smelled out, would much advantage … the coffers of princes’, and who’s not too tolerant to talk of ‘the nastiness of that Nation and sluttish course of life’. Toleration clearly had its limits, then as now!

To learn more about Browne, take a look at Kevin’s book Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge or join us at the forthcoming Thomas Browne seminar. Peter Billar has an article on earlier views of the Jewish people, ‘A “Scientific” View of Jews from Paris around 1300’, in Gli Ebrei e le Scienze – The Jews and Sciences, Micrologus: Natura, scienze e società medievali – Nature, Sciences and Medieval Societies 9 (2002), 137-68. And on protestant sensation, see Matt Milner’s vast compendium The Senses and the English Reformation.

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One thought on “Unsavoury conversions

  1. Quite perceptive piece on Browne. All of his senses seem to have been quite acute, including smell, he often uses olfactory imagery, and though curious about a sperma-ceti whale washed up on the north Norfolk coast comments on it’s bad smell.

    Browne’s interest in Hebraic culture extended as far as reading Hebrew, perhaps from the esoteric belief that angels spoke Hebrew alone. He also had an extensive familiarity with the Kabbalah, as alluded to on several occasions in ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ which also includes a note that the sense of smell is diminished in sleep.

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