Medieval Air Fresheners
Back in the day—WAY back—even high-born European people lived in filth and squalor that would make most modern teenagers look like neatniks. With no understanding of the importance of hygiene, washing of bodies and clothing was rare and perfunctory. When water had to be hauled, often from a distance, even basic washing was difficult (hence the rare part, right?). As winter closes in and house windows stay shut, I notice that our indoor air can also get, if not rank, at least stale. Forced air heating doesn’t really help, as each blast sends dust particles swirling. No wonder our allergies get triggered!
I find the best cure is to air out the house at least once a day, even for a few minutes. With a small house like ours, it’s easy to crack open a window at each end of the single hallway and let the wind sweep away the dust. In our former big house, it took a little longer to let fresh air rush in and out, but big house or small, that act of refreshment brightens our energy and moods while waking up our senses. Even on cold days, at least a few minute’s worth of fresh air can lighten the stuffy feeling.
Natural Air Fresheners
Despite being inured to stinks, those medieval folks found ways to create sweeter smells with spices, herbs and flowers. Medieval town dwellers carried fragrant pomanders and tussie-mussies to hold under their noses when traveling through streets reeking of sewage and rotting food. In winter, pomanders and pot pourri, bowls of apples and quince fruits offered pleasant scents to fill a room. These natural air fresheners countered the nasty smells that haunted even the fanciest of dwellings, including drafty castles and chateaux. Those medieval folks may not have known much about cleanliness but despite living with near constant stenches, they knew well what smelled better and sought out sweeter scents for every season.
Tussie Mussie Traditions
In Middle English, a tussie meant a small bundle of flowers, usually wrapped in damp moss (‘mussie’) to keep them fresh. Eventually, the tussie-mussie tradition became a Victorian affectation, as did the Language Of The Flowers, which ascribed meaning to common blooms so courting lovers could communicate without forbidden letter writing (which would be considered unseemly and ‘fast’ in any but engaged couples). All that made tussie-mussie making far more complicated, but they certainly don’t need to be loaded with hidden meaning to be refreshing. They can also be as simple as you choose; in winter, sprigs of fresh herbs bunched with a few random late blossoms make charming little bouquets for a windowsill or even by the sink (where I seem to spend a LOT of time). They also look lovely decorating a card or package or jar of jam or whatever small gifts you like to share. Sometimes I leave one tucked into the windshield wipers of a friend’s car as a friendly if anonymous greeting.
Pomanders & Pot Pourri
Medieval pomanders were often little perforated boxes, small enough to fit in a pocket or deep sleeve, and filled with hard balls of perfume or spices and herbs. Open bowls of similar substances were placed around the house, to be gently stirred with a fingertip each time one entered a room. Thought to provide protection from infection and disease in public places, pomanders also mitigated unpleasant indoor smells. Sour oranges, limes and lemons were often studded with cloves, dusted in cinnamon and dried for pocket pomanders or to scent clothing. To this day, dried orange pomander balls and pot pourri sachets may be tucked in linen and clothing drawers, where they pleasantly scent sheets and socks.
This year, my grandkids are making oranges and clove pomanders with me, hiding them at my house until gifting time arrives. Making these pomanders is very simple; just poke cloves into a citrus fruit, then dry it. Italians call whole cloves ‘nails of carnations’; the scents are indeed similar and the stems pierce skin easily for adults. To help small hands puncture thicker orange skin, offer sturdy rounded toothpicks to make the hole before sticking in a clove. The oranges shrink as they dry, so don’t crowd the cloves too closely. Modern oranges are juicier and thinner-skinned than their ancestors and they can mold quickly in warm houses. To help pomander oranges dry properly, dust them with a mixture of cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, all of which contain antibiotic agents that help prevent mold. You can also dry pomanders in hanging mesh bags (the kind some fruit comes in), as hanging freely allows air to speed the drying process from every side.
Simple Pot Pourri
My grandkids always enjoy playing with herbs and spices, and we often mix up tea blends and bath salts together. They also love to make pot pourri using dried herbs and flowers that we gathered in summer to brighten the dim winter days. We set out bowls of dried rose petals and lavender, lemon thyme and lemon balm, chamomile and rosemary, spearmint and peppermint, and experiment to find the proportions we find most delicious.
Blended by hand and poured into jars, these mixtures are lovely to look at and reward the lightest touch by releasing a waft of natural perfume. If your home-dried (or store bought!) herbs have lost a little of their potency, you can add just a drop or two of essential oils to give them a boost. Put the boosted blend in a covered jar and shake it gently to distribute the essential oils. Leave the jar closed for at least a day (a week or two is better) before pouring the mixture into an open bowl for room refreshing.
Refreshing Pot Pourri
1 cup rose petals
1 cup chamomile blossoms
1/2 cup lavender
1/2 cup spearmint
2 Tbs rosemary
2 Tbs lemon thyme
Interestingly, this same blend makes a lovely tea, steeped for about 10 minutes and with a little honey stirred in. As always, the exact proportions should be guided by your own taste and nose; don’t like mint? Leave it out. Try adding some pineapple sage, or just a tad of marjoram, or a little parsley for a slightly bitter note that balances the blander herbs. Cardamom pods and cumin seed push the blend in a very different yet lovely direction. Got an idea? Try it! I can almost guarantee that even half an hour of herb play can refresh the room and brighten your day.