Poesie Perfume

Eclectic and charming adventures in fragrance

Guest Blog Post: In Which We Dig Into the Truth About Vikings

Joelle Nealy

As you may have noticed if you're following this blog, a lot of research goes into each Poesie collection. Could we just make some scents, slap theme-related names on them and call it a Norse/Jane Eyre/Twin Peaks inspired collection? Sure, but where's the fun in that? Our fragrances are inspired by delving deep into a new world and taking you with us on the journey. So, when the initial idea of a Viking and Norse mythology themed collection came up, who better to ask about Viking foodways than someone we knew was a fan of historical recipes? As it turns out, it was kismet. Because the answer we got was a thorough list of fruits, herbs, and much more that were based on historical evidence -- from an actual archaeologist with connections to the Vikings! The information she shared was so fascinating, we would have been remiss not to give you a peek into the topic. 

The smart and lovely Karen is a former student of history and anthropology, who became very interested in pigment and cosmetics history after a foray into an archaeological career. She is now the owner of Crow & Pebble and makes stunningly beautiful eyeshadows and more. You'll definitely want to check them out! In the meantime, thanks for nerding out with us!

                                                                                                           -- Joelle

As an archaeologist, the most common question I get has always been, “have you found any treasure?” This is a fantastic question and the answer is absolutely yes!

Of course, when they ask, they tend to mean precious gems and metals, beautiful works of art and jewellery. Sometimes they even mean impressive weaponry like swords and axes. These are incredibly rare, of course - that is why it is “treasure”. I haven’t found anything like this. Most archaeologists have not. Most of our finds are shards of broken pottery and little bits of animal bones.

Yes, National Treasure was actually a documentary. This is totally realistic.

Yes, National Treasure was actually a documentary. This is totally realistic.

So what is the treasure I’m talking about, then? Well - it’s the bits of pottery and animal bone. Oh, and dirt. Lots and lots of dirt. Buckets of it. These are the things we use to build a picture of what a past civilization might have been like.

When Joelle approached me about rebuilding the scents of the Viking Age, my thoughts initially went to recipe manuscripts from the time. Of course, that sort of written information simply doesn’t exist from then. So I started digging through my archaeological archives. The primary source of my research for rebuilding the scentscape of the Vikings was environmental sample studies. In order to get these, we would fill up buckets full of soil from a particular “context” and analyse what we found therein.  A context is a section of the soil that filled up a hole in a certain period of time. By using a geological principle called stratigraphy, we are able to estimate the time period from which the soil contents come.  If you’d like a very detailed explanation of how and why this works, you can read the foremost textbook on the subject here for free. If you’d like a basic overview, here is a good one! Using the data from Viking sites across Northern Europe, from Scandinavian and British sites primarily, I was able to give some suggestions as to what kinds of scents you might find in the Viking era. We use water to make organic materials like charcoal and plant seeds and pollen float to the top and strain these from the muddy water, which is then discarded. These bits of organic material let us know what kinds of foods were eaten and plants grown in a particular time period.

Of course, if you stepped through a time portal into the Dark Ages, the first scents to hit you would probably be somewhat offensive ones. Bathing was not a common practise among the peoples of Northwestern Europe, and the infrastructure for carrying sewage and waste away was not particularly developed, at all.  However, if we take those things out of the equation, the Viking Home would have been wonderfully fragrant.

Environmental analyses show a wealth of fruit and spices at the disposal of the Vikings. Particular favourites were various types of berries, and especially plums. Plum pits have been found on many Viking sites throughout the Danelaw, Ireland and Denmark. In fact, plums were so popular that both domestic and imported varieties are found at the same sites, implying that the local crop did not nearly meet the demand for them. It is likely they were eaten both fresh and dried as prunes.  The berries included cherries, bilberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries and were likely eaten fresh. Pears and apples were also quite popular. Peaches were extremely rare, but prized. A major part of the diet was nuts - particularly hazelnuts, although almonds, walnuts and acorns also occasionally make an appearance.  

Plums feature in Beloved, which smells of sugared plums and delicious cake. 

Plums feature in Beloved, which smells of sugared plums and delicious cake. 

Vikings also grew large flower and herb gardens which would have included poppies, primrose, dandelion, coriander, dill, mustard, hops, sage and fennel. By looking at the travels of the Vikings, and knowing that they even managed to make their way down to Constantinople, in what is modern day Istanbul (we find viking rune graffiti in the Hagia Sofia), they would have access to  variety of Eastern spices like black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, mace, ginger, anise, caraway and cumin.

Mead of Poets contains real hops, as well as a blend of other herbs and spices based on historical recipes.

Mead of Poets contains real hops, as well as a blend of other herbs and spices based on historical recipes.

The final few bits we normally find are the vegetables and grains, which included barley, rye and oats, and carrots, cabbage, radish, peas, string beans, cress and celery. So we know from our environmental analyses that the Vikings likely had very fragrant pantries!

So already we’re building a picture of the scent of Viking life, but what about the other parts of Viking life? Well, we know that they set up life in Northern Britain, and travelled as far as the Eastern coasts of North America and as far south as Turkey and perhaps into the Mediterranean.  This we have gleaned from the Viking sagas and from finding viking artefacts within Native American and Mediterranean contexts. Their oceanic travels and sagas can also inspire the impression of scents, from the salt of the sea and the ambergris of whales, to the skin (or birch bark) canoes and birch tar associated with First Nations, to the pine forests and summer fruits of North America and the holy resins and incenses of the Middle East.

Viking helmet photo courtesy of NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

Viking helmet photo courtesy of NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

Though the Viking era seems to be all salt air, steel and blood on first glance, Archaeology tells us differently!


Further reading:

Pernille Rohde Sloth, Ulla Lund Hansen & Sabine Karg (2012) Viking Age
garden plants from southern Scandinavia – diversity, taphonomy and cultural aspects, Danish
Journal of Archaeology, 1:1, 27-38, DOI: 10.1080/21662282.2012.750445 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21662282.2012.750445

Carolyn Priest-Dorman (1999) Archaeological Finds of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Viking Foodstuffs https://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/vikfood.html

Viking Graffiti, National Museum of Denmark. http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/expeditions-and-raids/viking-graffiti/

L’Anse Aux Meadows, Viking Settlement in Newfoundland, Canada. UNESCO World Heritage Site http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/4

Gill Campbell, Lisa Moffett, and Vanessa Straker (2011) A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Methods, from Sampling and Recovery to Post-excavation (second edition) https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/environmental-archaeology-2nd/


4 Don't Miss Things for Every Brontë Fan

Joelle Nealy
Blog Post 4 Don't Miss Things for Brontë Lovers.png

A lot of research goes into each Poesie collection, and the Thornfield collection was no exception. Immersing myself in the story I'm trying to capture inspires new scents and creates the overall feel of things. Although I did revisit the book, having read Jane Eyre countless times, I wanted to delve deeper and find outside sources to complete the picture of Charlotte Brontë and the environs in which the lives of her characters played out. I know I'm not alone in finding the elusive author to be a source of endless fascination, so whether the subject has recently captured your imagination or you have also found Jane Eyre to be a faithful companion through the years, enjoy a few of the best things I discovered in my exploration. 

Set of the Brontë sisters' works from Juniper Books

Set of the Brontë sisters' works from Juniper Books

I watch a lot of documentaries on YouTube, and when this one popped up in my feed, of course I was in. Although I had (and really, still have) no idea who Sheila Hancock is -- Wikipedia lists her as an actress and author -- her love for the Brontës makes her a compelling narrator, and she treats the subject as a very personal matter. There will not be a lot of surprises for those who are already Brontë obsessed, but the scholarship is solid and it’s a more modern take on the three women, painting them not as stunted children or sheltered virgins whose writings were strange anomalies, but as intelligent, passionate women whose works belie their narrow world experience.

A Fiery Heart Charlotte Bronte bio.png

I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography before picking this one up. The Gaskell version was the first Charlotte Brontë biography, written during the lifetime of her husband and father by the author who was a personal friend. Although I love Gaskell’s fiction and found the excerpts of Charlotte’s letters to be very moving, overall that book was a disappointment. A Fiery Heart is the biography I was hoping to read, one which conveys the passionate woman who brought us Jane Eyre. Charlotte and the Brontë household come to life vividly through Harman’s prose, and I found myself both laughing and crying. Mostly crying, though. The Brontë’s lives were sad AF.

To Walk Invisible .png

I subscribed to PBS just to watch this, and maybe my expectations were a bit too high. It covers a fairly narrow scope of the Brontë’s lives, focusing on Charlotte, Emily, and Anne at the time they were writing and publishing their best known works, while simultaneously dealing with the decline and eventual death of their brother, Branwell. It was not quite the expansive biographical work I had hoped to watch. To Brontë aficionados, however, seeing the household brought to life, glimpsing the landscapes that pervade their writing, and getting a more substantial understanding of the distinct personalities will be irresistible. The script, heavily based  on Charlotte’s letters, is at times bleak, heartwrenching, and triumphant. Don’t watch it if you’re looking for a feel-good period drama, but if you can’t get enough of the Brontës, it will be worth your time.

As many times as I have read Jane Eyre, I didn’t expect the audiobook to live up to the well established narrative voice in my head, but I was happy to be so wrong! Thandie Newton’s performance is absolutely captivating. The words come to life, feeling conversational in a way that most narrators could not manage with a midcentury Victorian novel. She creates such believable voices for all of the characters that when she channels Rochester, you forget that you’re actually hearing a woman speak. This version would make a great introduction for readers intimidated by reading the novel in print, and anyone who has loved and re-read Jane Eyre multiple times should give it a chance to let them experience the story in a new way.

7 Things We Should Be Smelling Instead of Pumpkin Spice. (Let's Give It a Rest Already!)

Joelle Nealy
7 Things We Should Be Smelling Instead of Pumpkin Spice

We don’t have anything against pumpkins, and we definitely don’t have anything against spice. We just think there are other scents that deserve the spotlight this season. So, in no particular order, our nominees for the next big fall thing.

Wood Fire Smoke Fall Smells

Who doesn’t love the smoky wood-fire smell that lingers on your clothes after a fall bonfire? Even people who don’t actually want to go outdoors love that smell! Smoke offers a darker take on fall, and pairs well with almost everything. Whether you like a spoopy, witchy take on it or you like it paired with marshmallows and candied apples, smoke is a fall must-have.

Wood Fall Smells

Woody notes don’t really have a season - they’re great year-round, but especially perfect for fall when air takes on that delicious chill. Encompassing everything from sweet, creamy oak to dry, clean cedar to warm, exotic sandalwood, there’s  a woody note that’s perfect for you whether your take on fall is a long forest hike or a cozy session on the couch with a good book.

By Pink Sherbet Photography from USA - Free dirty distressed scratched leather texture for layers creative commons, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37312329

Hey, we’re against animal-cruelty, too! We love nothing better than our fuzzy friends (and all those other friends who are also animals but not fuzzy, obvs). Of course, when we say “leather” we mean “vegan leather notes in perfume.” And now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s just admit that there’s something about that animalic warmth that makes you want to roll around in it.

Oh, is that just me?? Okay...moving on.

Toasted Marshmallow Fall Scent

You didn’t think we were going to leave you gourmand lovers out in the cold, did you? Marshmallow may not be the most revolutionary fall note, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect. Fluffy, toasted, pink, whipped into buttercream, we’ll take marshmallow any way we can get it. It reminds us of campfires and Halloween treats, two of our favorite things about fall!

Dried Leaves Fall Scent

Much harder to find than the ubiquitous marshmallow, dried leaves are simultaneously sweet and earthy. Slightly caramellic but also reminiscent of hay, and the most quintessentially autumn smell there is. Even if you don’t get a true fall -- you know who you are -- you can have it in perfume form and dream of kicking a big pile of crisp, dry leaves and feeling like a kid again.

Rain Fall Scent

The smell of a rainstorm - petrichor, ozone, wet foliage - taps into one of the most primal sensory moments of the human experience. Autumn is the perfect time to enjoy the storm from the cozy confines of your home; snuggle up, listen to the sound of the rain -- and smell it, too. It’s the perfect excuse to stay in.


Black Tea Fall Scent

This may be a controversial choice in a world that runs on joe, but we stand by it. Or sit by it, really. Preferably in a comfy chair. Other people can run around all jolted up on caffeine, we love the soothing ritual of brewing a cuppa. With a splash of cream or not, sweetened or not, dressed up with bergamot or not, we love tea and all its potential as a fragrance note. It can bring floralcy, smokiness, a hint of spice...so how do you take yours?