i Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the
French Social Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Press, 1986), v.
ii Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination,
iii Ibid., 13-15.
iv Ibid., 5.
v Ibid., 6.
vi Ibid., 20.
vii Ibid., 108, 58.
viii Ibid., 56.
ix Ibid., 213.
x Ibid., 101.
xi Ibid., 206.
xii Ibid., 183.
xiii Ibid., 19.
xiv Ibid., vi.
xv Ibid., 133.
xvi Ibid., 17.
xvii Ibid., 174.
xviii Ibid., vi.
xix Ibid., 229.
xx Ibid., 105.
answering the questions, I find that the forces of smell uncover the control
applied to regulate the lives of the French people and freshen up public areas.
From his study, Corbin was able to conclude that the “heavy animal scents and
fleeting perfumes spoke of repulsion and disgust, sympathy and seduction” that
influenced cultural and social history.xix The
accounts of the inability to tolerate stench, the issue of decay, and the
division of classes, all contributed to the social conflicts and altered the
social awareness of France. While the previous attention was on the impurity of
social space, the disgust for odors had turned to the focal point of individuals
like the smell of a hard working man’s sweat or the odor of a poor person.xx
How did the mid-nineteenth century
health crusaders address industrial pollution and its assorted stenches? The
people of France believed that the air was polluted with toxic odor. Stench was
seen as disease, while industrial pollution substituted feces in society on the
level of disgust. Specialists also tried to find the cause of stench, hygienic
reforms and social causes advocated to clean up the stench of society in every
way. They pushed to clean up dumps, lakes, and even roads to try eliminate odor
problems and its risk of disease.xvii
Corbin states that “public health, therefore, needs to be seen as more than a
milestone in progress and instead for its wider politics as a Foucauldian
discipline of social control” in France.xviii
He also expresses that the cleanliness of sterilization would prevail over the hazard
of pollution. Toxic smells in various areas of the French society motivated the
elites to focus on improving health and safety of the people, in reality supporting
the increase of population in the middle-class sector. In the end, the French
society turned to encourage the significance of cleanliness and less deodorizing
due to the advancement of public health and hygiene.
What was the relationship between odor
and health according to the hygienists (Pre-Pasteurian)? Body odor was a
way of hygienists to tell the health of an individual, which led to the reality
of social inequality. There was also a clear shift of particular scents for the
poor and wealthier class when perceptions changed. Still, many were encouraged
to use light or flowery fragrances, instead of harsh animal smells, that would
represent a natural smell that was not overpowering and reflect a personal
This would usually be related to women and therefore reflect a form of elegance
and role of the women like their domesticity or determination to be modern
women. While the natural smell of cleanliness was adored, society was still
being cautioned about the risk of diseases due to over-cleanliness. It seemed
like a fight between scientists and the public’s sense of thought; cultural
resources, as well as medical and scientific, proved that the medical
profession’s definition of danger was determined with their sense of smell.xiii
Some of the public space odors however, like of the industrialized urban areas was
thought of as a huge health hazard. Pre-Pasteurian beliefs involved that
sickness came from the cause of miasmas given off by the humid environment and
by their foul populations.xiv Odors
and decaying smells represented the pre-Pasteurian era of medicine and science.
Corbin describes that the smell of feces and other types of waste were seen as unbearable
and disgusting. The issue of Tuberculosis and the need to advance public health
also brought a rise in the bourgeoisie disgust for the poor.xv Though,
Corbin argues that “fetidity and humidity revealed and defined corruption” for
The reasoning behind one’s opposition to
ventilation (fresh air) depended upon the social status of the individual.
According to Corbin, how did the rationale of the bourgeoisie differ from the
poor? As people of the upper and middle class urban sector who believed in enlightenment
ideas, the bourgeoisie were sociologically referred to as members of society with
a particular cultural and financial capital. During the middle eighteenth and
late nineteenth centuries, Corbin saw the success of the bourgeoisie ideology
of being clean involved the intolerance of odors that reflected the poverty
The desire to advance public health was due to the circumstances of the poor,
which increase the disgust of the bourgeoisie towards them. Political representatives,
as well as other elites, desired to cleanse up public space while not hurting
the economy. Corbin discusses the upper class’ need to start “the privatization
of human waste” by focusing on areas like the restroom at home and the waste
system, as well as prisons and hospitals, in the public arena.x Cleanliness
reflected prosperity and involved wealth to have it; the odor of poverty simply
represented the social hardship and humiliation. The bourgeoisie improvements were
also individually, as perfume was recognized particularly in the bourgeois
class and in the female sector as it claimed to calm their sensuality.xi Corbin
implies that “the bourgeois emphasis on the stench of the poor and the
bourgeois desire for deodorization were therefore inseparable” and the
bourgeoisie would therefore prevail.
What does Corbin mean by “olfactory
reminiscence”? What is its historical significance? Olfaction was established
during a time of innovative scientific ideas that affected public ideas on
smell. Though it is seen as a lack of social knowledge, it is also seen as “a
sense of lust, desire, and impulsiveness that is associated with sensuality”
while smelling is related to animalistic behavior.v The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the
French Social Imagination explain that, on the other hand, progression of the
sense of smell is alternatively related to the advancement of knowledge. Corbin
inspected the cognitive connected body odors and its interpretation of power, defense,
and sensuality, as well as an impression of individuality. Olfaction also
seemed to have been related to politics and the medical profession, and was
referred to as “olfactory vigilance” and seen as awareness.vi Particularly
regarding animals and hospitals, odors like the smell of corpses and feces or
even chemicals was carefully studied due to the fear that it spread diseases
–which the issue of corpses led to some protests.vii
With the elite’s definitions of disease, the control of stench would likely
lead to curing the diseases. Corbin argues that “we operate with a history of
science that favors the discovery of scientific truth and neglects the history
of scientific error” which lead to science having a great impact on people’s
Though, in the end it made a positive economic and social impact.
According to Corbin, why does the
history of smell matter; specifically, why does it matter in the history of the
nineteenth century? During the 1700s and 1800s, cleanliness was particularly
believed to be unsafe and diseases were spread through miasma.iii Odors
represented the uncleanliness, poverty, and viruses and infections of social
issues as well as political that needed cleaning up. Perfume was thought of as a
way of masking bad odors as well as a way to removing dishonesty. In his book, Corbin
discusses the historical significance of smells as it exposes the political,
social and cultural history of France, particularly where the science of
medicine as well as legislation are involved in regulating diseases. He
suggests that hatred of smells creates a way for social control that leads to
social conflict due to the different definitions by various classes.iv Smell
into a method of distinguishing sex, sensuality, and particularly class. Also became
a form of protection against harm and was important to the ideology of life,
the natural elements, science, and diseases. Though smell was powerful, foul
odors seemed to cause a risk of social disorder, while the achievement of perfume
and hygiene seemed to support social solidity. In the end, perfume stopped
being a method of masking odors and turned into a way to expose individuality. Corbin’s
study shows us the importance of the perception of smell in life’s modern world
as well as the awareness of social structure.
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, France faced various social changes. In
The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the
French Social Imagination, Alain Corbin reveals “the histories of science
and of medicine, urban studies, public health, psychohistory, and literary
criticism” through the idea of odors.i The
French historian found that, through the senses of smell, these various odors affected
the social classes and represented a historical importance in France. The
definitions and different forms of odor, as well as the ability to mask them,
represented individual identity and type of class. Corbin argues that the power
of smells uncovers the authority applied to control the lives of people, as
well as their deaths.ii
The Impact of Smells in the History of France