When I think of hygiene in the past, my brain is instantly flooded with the stench of historical B.O. It is a well-known fact that sanitation standards (both public and personal) were less than ideal. Luckily, we’ve come around to socially-obligatory bathing and grooming, but this was only achieved after centuries of scientific progress. This long, smelly history is often associated with lower-class social groups such as the medieval peasantry. However, as evidence shows, the act of being stinky goes beyond the bottom of the social ladder. This made me question: did monarchs smell? Obviously, this question can’t be limited to one culture or even one particular year, so I decided to narrow my inquiry to one of the most famous monarchs in history: Queen Marie Antoinette.
For a long time in France, bathing was not in style. Some people believed that bathing in water was risky because water spread disease. In fact, King Louis XIV is said to have only bathed two or three times in his life! Accounts from palaces recall the human fecal matter that could be smelled from anywhere on the grounds. On top of this, dental hygiene was practically nonexistent, and body odor was inevitable. How could a noble cope? The answer is perfume, and lots of it. With the right combination of herbal oils, spices and flowers, one could have a chance of blocking some of the awful smells around the palace and its guests.
Fortunately, Marie Antoinette was not one for sticking to the status quo. Her mother, Empress Maria Therese of Austria, believed in the hygienic benefits of bathing. This habit continued when Marie came to France, as she would use herbal mixtures and perfumed sachets in her bath. When her popularity waned, this practice came under fire, as did virtually every other aspect of the queen’s life. Like many nobles, she too had a fondness for perfume, specifically floral scents. In my research, I found multiple recreations of her signature perfume based on her rose garden at Le Petit Trianon, but one caught my eye. This one was called Black Jade by Lubin. As the story goes, Marie gave a duchess her last vial of perfume before her departure to the Conciergerie Prison. A formula for this perfume (called the Bouquet de la Reine) was discovered, modernized and recreated. Of course, that’s only the summary of the story, and there’s a rather high chance it’s been embellished over time. Out of curiosity, I decided to order a small vial of Black Jade to test it out for myself.
If Black Jade is anywhere close to Marie Antoinette’s real perfume, then I can safely say she had a skilled nose. That vial contained one of the loveliest scents I’ve ever smelled. It was sweet. It was floral. It was like sticking your nose into a bouquet of roses. I think the thing that surprised me the most was how fresh it smelled. Floral perfumes often run the risk of smelling musty and great-grandmother-like, but Black Jade was crisp and youthful. Ironically, Marie was executed less than a month before her 38th birthday, meaning she might have been past the average life expectancy in France!
Did Marie Antoinette smell good? The answer is likely an anticlimactic “meh.” Sure, she exercised decent grooming habits, but a lot was missing from her routine. A queen is hardly ever alone, even when bathing. It’s been speculated that Marie wore a linen gown in the bath to preserve her modesty among her ladies-in-waiting. Still, Marie’s preferences in scent have influenced generations of perfume makers, and have given scholars a deeper look into the history of hygiene and beauty standards. As for me, I’ll be fighting off the urge to purchase a full bottle of Black Jade!