The Aroma of Legitimacy in the Late Middle Ages

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Growing from research undertaken for Rollo-Koster’s latest book, The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417: Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity, this new article project emphasizes the sense of smell as a vehicle to inculcate political authority. Using several case studies delimited by “performances” of papacy, The Great Western Schism, 1378-1417: Performing Legitimacy, Performing Unity emphasizes the frequent recourse to the senses in the education and somewhat acculturation of audiences to political legitimacy and authority. But while seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching are overly emphasized by the historiography, smell (distinct from food and taste) has not been fully considered.

Using the example of the scented Golden Rose, a precious object that the pope offered to the most remarkable Christian of his time, Rollo-Koster discussed how the rose taught its audience (via its aroma) how to recognize legitimate authority, either sacred or profane. Since approximately the middle of the eleventh century the Golden rose was scented (it still is today). The ceremonial usually labeled Ordo Romanus XI (1140/1143) mentions the presence of musk in the rose during its benediction at the Roman Church of Santa Croce in Jerusalem on the last Sunday of Lent (in Laetere). Musk is the rarest and most prestigious of all perfumes. It is pungent and can be diluted hundreds of times without losing its fragrance. Cencius’ ceremonial, the Ordo Romanus XII (1192), adds that the Rose was perfumed with musk and balsam (rosam auream cum muschio et balsamo). Balsam, with incense, belongs to Christian liturgy. For example, both substances became mandatory in funerals’ liturgy. Still, and more importantly, mixed with olive oil balsam transformed into the holy chrism of consecration, and became the symbol of the Holy Ghost’s “presence.”

It can only be emphasized that the Rose and its musk were closely knit with the office of pope. Musk, and balsam helped define the institutional immaterial, office. But eventually the scented rose passed on to someone else, and with this passing the rose emphasized this time the legitimacy not of the donor but of the grantee.