Making Medieval Style Scented Oils & Waters

by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

The history of perfumes, particularly scented oils, probably starts with resins, flowers, and other fragrant substances being used to scent oils-- olive, almond, etc.-- and fats.  Egyptians made complicated resin and oil based perfume mixtures, often shaped into cones which they wore on top of their heads and which perfumed the air as they were melted by body heat. Anointing oils were used by the Hebrew tribes, by the Greeks, and by the Romans: there is a special formula for anointing oil to be used only in the Temple, for instance. Generally these oils were made by 'infusing' the herbs, resins, and flowers in the oil or fat, either by simply letting them sit in a jar of oil or by heating them in the oil, as well as by expression, putting the resins/herbs through a bag press.

Essential Oils can be obtained by distillation, enfluerage (soaking blossoms or herbs in fat), maceration (mashing up the herbs and soaking them in liquid) and other means.  Tusser, in his Hundreth Points for Good Husbandry,  lists 'Herbs to Still in Summer': blessed thistle, betonye [betony], dill, endive, eyebright, fennell, fumetorie [fumitory], hop, mints, plantine [plantain], roses (red and damaske), respies, saxifrage, strawberries, sorrell, suckerie, woodroffe [sweet woodruff] (for sweet waters and cakes)."

The oldest documented 'essential oil' is probably Oil of Roses. Legends say it was first created by the petals being immersed in water, causing the oil to float to the top. Avicenna discovered how to produce it by distillation in the 10th century. The discovery of distillation spread throughout the Arab world and slowly to Europe. Steam distillation of herbs and alcohol together, or sometimes water and herbs together, produced 'sweet waters' or 'water of' the particular herb.  The 'water of' the herb is the hydrosol, a by-product of extracting essential oils; but some types of distillation will produce merely the water without separating out the essential oil.

Several sources from the 1500s and 1600s give detailed recipes for sweet waters and for distilling essential oils, such as Gervase Markham's 1615 English Housewife,  John French's 1653 Art of Distillation, and Hugh Plat's 1594 Delightes for Ladies. Many (modern) sources claim that the oldest alcohol based perfumes were Queen of Hungary Water (a rosemary-based water) and Carmelite water (or King Charles' water), whose ingredients vary-- both allegedly from the late 1300s and originally used as medicinal doses and rubs.

The most popular period way of making sweet waters, however, is illegal in this country today, because it involves distillation of alcohol. So, we must approximate. (Though the period and near period sources mention distilling with water, they consider the resulting product inferior.) Hugh Plat noted that it was quicker and cheaper to make waters of some types by purchasing oils and adding them to the water, so we do have some documentation for making waters by mixing alcohol, water, and essential oil.

Various sources indicate that a number of essential oils were available in period, at least in England:
Oils of: Roses, Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmeg, Lavender (Spike), Lemons, Benzoin, and Thyme are mentioned in recipes. Culpeper mentions that essential oil of mint is too piercing to use straight. Oil of Violets was then available, but it is now not available without great price. To get a comparable effect, you can try synthetic violet scent, or if you can get it, orris root oil or real orris root (I have not had any success with this).

NOTE: If you are making anything you intend to consume internally, use ONLY oils, essential oils, flavorings, and herbs intended for human consumption; ordinary essential oils and fragrances are NOT intended for consumption.
Because of a small number of cases of botulism poisoning, the FDA recommends that infused oils for internal consumption be made at the time of use, and any leftovers stored under refrigeration and used or discarded promptly.

Fragrant Oils

To make sweet oils, we can either infuse substances in oil, or add essential oils.

Gervase Markham's English Housewife suggests making oyle of roses or of violets, by placing the flowers in 'sallet oil' (probably olive oil) and placing in a warm place; later straining out the flowers. He also suggests making chamomile or lavender oil in a similar fashion, but straining out the botanicals and replacing them with fresh ones in the oil every three days:
"To make oil of camomile, take a quart of sallat oil and put it into a glass, then take a handful of camomile and bruise it, and put it into the oil, and let them stand in the same twelve days, only you must shift it every three days, that is to straight it from the old camomile and put in as much of the new. . . "
"To make an oil which shall make the skin of the hands very smooth, take almonds and beat them to oil, then take whole cloves and put them both together into a glass, and set it in the sun five or six days; then strain it, and with the same anoint your hands every night when you go to bed, and otherwise as you have convenient leisure."

John French's Art of Distillation (1651) says:


Take of flowers of jasmine as many as you please, and put them into as much sweet mature oil as you please. Put them into a glass close stopped, and set them into the sun to be infused for the space of 20 days. Then take them out and strain the oil from the flowers and, if you would have the oil yet stronger, put in new flowers and do as before. This is a pleasant perfume and being mixed with oils and ointments gives them a grateful smell. It is also used in the perfuming of leather. After this manner may be made oil of any flowers. "

The Charitable Physitian, by Philibert Guibert, of 1639 contains this recipe, reprinted in Rohde's The Scented Garden.

"To make Oyle of Roses three wayes:
The first way is, take a pound of red Rose buds, beat them in a marble morter with a woodden pestle, then put them into an earthen pot, and poure upon them foure pound of oyle of Olives, letting them infuse the space of moneth in the Sunne, or the chimney corner stirring them sometimes, then heate it, and presse it, and straine it, and put it inot the same pot or other vessell to keepe.
The second is take halfe a pound of red Roses, and halfe a pound of Damaske, beate them together in a marble morter, and put them into a pot, and poure upon them foure pound of oyle, and let them infuse the space of twelve houres, then pour them all into a pan and boyle them two or three boylings, and straine them and presse them in a strong towel in the presse, and in the meane time put in the pot as many more Roses and poure the oyle upon them and so beate them and presse them and put Roses to the oyle three times, and then boyle it until all the humidity bee consumed. The third is to take all Damask Roses and make three infusions as before."
This method works well with flowers and herbs. I have made oil of lavender that way, placing the container on a radiator.

Resins and roots do better with a more direct technique, placing them in the oil and then heating it to a slow simmer. One way to do this is to put the oil and herb in a glass bowl, float it in water in your crockpot, and turn the crockpot on low for 3-5 hours. Or you can use a double boiler. For best results-- and safety-- avoid putting your oil in a pan directly on the heat source.

The Spanish Manual de Mujeres (as translated by Dana Huffman) gives a recipe for orange blossom oil:

Recipe for making oil of citrus blossoms
     For each pound of citrus blossoms an ounce of oil.  Knead? pound? the citrus blossoms with the oil and after [it is] kneaded/pounded, put it in a glass in the sun and shake it every so often; and if the sun is very strong, do not leave it more than a day.  And afterwards strain/filter it, and gather/pick up that oil with a feather.  And if it doesn't have a good scent, put in another, similar [quantity] of blossoms and do the same.

This is oil extraction by water extraction, where you wait for the essential oil to come to the top of the mixture and skim it off. I've never had success with this technique, but it is often used commercially.

Another technique for making scented oil at home is scenting it with a few drops of essential oils. Though the medieval European books don't speak of oils including multiple components, at least one Arab recipe (cited in a post to Stefan's Florilegium) involves steeping other substances in oil of jasmine which would produce a mixed scent.

Period oils would have been olive,  'sweet' almond, and perhaps others, such as sesame (referred to as oil of benne), hempseed and poppyseed oils.  Oil of ben (from the pods of the 'horseradish tree') was much in demand because it had no scent of its own. (Soy oil and others can be purchased commercially as 'unscented massage oils' and will produce good results if they are used before they grow rancid.)  Other fats/oils/greases that were used in period and are mentioned by Culpeper, mostly in medicinal context, included hen's grease, duck's grease, hog's grease, sheep's suet, heifer's suet and Oil of Roses.

I have found that the amount of oil that will fit in the size of small glass bottle that can be found at craft and dollar stores  (and the small perfume bottles from Pier 1) will take about 7-12 drops of essential oil before being overpowering. Consult a reference source on safety of essential oils and on mixing perfumes before beginning.

  1. Pick out oils that you like, and think smell well together. (You can test this by holding the open bottles together and smelling.)
  2. Fill the container to about 1" of the top.
  3. Add the essential oils, a few drops at a time. When you start  combining oils, you may want to close and shake the bottle before smelling the results and adding more.
  4. Once you are satisfied with the combination, you may want to add a little vitamin E oil, glycerin or tincture of benzoin to preserve it. (Note that the first two are not period ingredients!)
  5. Close the container, shake thoroughly and keep in a dry dark place at least overnight. Maximum blend maturing will take up to a week to occur.
  6. Always shake the bottle before applying.

Note: adding tincture of benzoin will often help retain the scent, because it is a fixative, though benzoin has its own scent. Also, a chemist on one of the lists I frequent recommends adding 1-1.5% by weight of vitamin E oil to the mix to prevent rancidity.

Scented Waters

Since we can't distill with alcohol, we can either make a tincture by soaking our herbs in alcohol, straining them, and then adding distilled water, or we can make an alcohol/water mixture and add essential oils. Booth, in Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes, p. 74-75, gives basic proportions and directions for alcohol and oil based perfumes. (Note: some people in the SCA have done water-based distilling, which is not against US federal law, but we won't discuss that in this class.)

I generally use vodka, as a substitute for repeatedly-distilled aqua vitae-- you can use brandy or whiskey, but vodka is cheap and better. [Note: triple and quadruple distillation of fermented-grain products is mentioned in period, to get a vodka-like distillate.]  'Everclear' so-called 'pure grain alcohol' is no longer available in PA without a permit, but it will work for perfumes/waters also. However, the probability that anyone in period had the time and energy to produce something as highly distilled as 'grain'  is pretty small.  Vodka should be between 1/4 and 1/8 of the vodka/water mixture. For the 3-4 oz size of bottle found at craft stores, only about 7-15 drops of oil should be added; more is overpowering.

  1. Pick out oils that you like, and think smell well together. (You can test this by holding the open bottles together and smelling.)
  2. Fill the container about 1/4 full of alcohol (less for a less drying splash)
  3. Add the essential oils, a few drops at a time. When you start  combining oils, you may want to close and shake the bottle before smelling the results and adding more.
  4. Once you are satisfied with the combination, add distilled water to within 1/2" of the top-- or less, to minimize splashing. 
  5. Close the container, shake thoroughly and keep in a dry dark place at least overnight. Maximum blend maturing will take up to a week to occur.
  6. Always shake the bottle before applying.

(For those under 21 and/or who want to avoid drinkable alcohol, herb shops sell something called 'perfume base' which has wood alcohol along with glycerin, preservative and some water. Perfume base should be used as-is, without dilution. Isopropyl alcohol sold off-the-shelf at drugstores is unsuitable, as it has been doctored with a distinctive scent which will overpower any oils put into it.)

Hugh Plat Delightes for Ladies on the subject of making scented waters with essential (extracted) oils:

"Diverse sorts of sweet handwaters made suddenly or extempore with extracted oyles of spices.

First you shall understand, that whensoever you shall draw any of the Oyles of Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs or such like, that you shall have also a pottle or a gallon more or lesse, according to the quantity which you draw at once, of excellent sweet washing water for your table; yea some doe keepe the same for their broths, wherein otherwise they should use some of the same kinds of spice.
But if you take three or foure drops only of the oyle of Cloves, Mace, or Nutmegs (for Cinamon oyle is too costly to spend this way) and mingle the same with a pinte of faire water, making agitation of them a pretty while togther in a glasse having a narrow mouth, till they have in some measure incorporated themselves together, you shall find a very pleasing and delightful water to wash with and so you may alwaies furnish yourself of sweet water of severall kinds, before such time as your guests shall be ready to sit downe. I speake not of the oyle of Spike (which will extend very far this way) both because every Gentlewoman doth not like so strong a scent and for that the same is elsewhere already commended by another Author. Yet I must needs acknowledge it to be the cheaper way, for that I assure myself there may be five or six gallons of sweet water made with one ounce of the oyle, which you may buy ordinarily for a groat at the most."

Plain waters:

Plain handwashing waters were used at the medieval table, being water with rose or violet petals in it, or an infusion of herbs.
Le Menagier de Paris (translated by Tania Bayard and published as A medieval Home companion), says:
To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.
Also, you might want to make the following 'Sweet Water for Perfuming Clothes' which Jeanne Rose quotes and says is a sixteenth-century recipe:
"To 1 qt. rose water, add the following: 1/2 oz. lavender, 2 oz. orris, 1/2 oz. jasmine flowers, 1 t. musk, a pinch of ambergris and civet, 5 drops of clove oil. Put it all into a glass jar, fasten down the lid, and place it in a sunny window for 10 days. Then strain and set aside the liquid for use."

From Bulleins Bulwarke, 1562:  [Sixteenth-Century Sweet Water for Linens, quoted in Rohde, The Scented Garden]

Three pounds of Rose water, cloves, cinnamon, Sauders [sandalwood], 2 handful of the flowers of Lavender, lette it stand a moneth to still in the  sonne, well closed in a glasse; Then destill it in Balneo Marial. It is marvellous pleasant in savour, a water of wondrous swetenes, for the bedde, whereby the whole place, shall have a most pleasaunt scent.
However, note that alcohol-less versions such as these, and the one of Plat's above, will not keep long without refrigeration; adding the alcohol is the part that makes it keep.


(items marked with a ** are highly recommended.)
Art of Distillation, John French. 1651. Text version online as part of an alchemy project:
Note: A period source. A sort of handbook for the home alchemist, French's work covers the basics of alchemy, including some of the more frightening and dangerous recipes (such as oil of mercury).
**Delightes for Ladies, Hugh Plat. 1594.
Note: There have been several versions of this. However, here are a selection of rosewater recipes from it.
** The English Housewife: containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman..., Gervase Markham. Chapter III: "Of distillations and their virtues, and of perfuming." first printed 1615. Published 1986 by McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal; edited by Michael R. Best. ISBN: 0-7735-0582-2.
Note: the chapter includes a number of recipes, not all of them safe for modern use. Other mentions of waters are scattered throughout the text. The easiest to get near-period resource on sweet waters.
His Good Points of Husbandry, Thomas Tusser, "Of Herbs and Flowers." 1557. Published 1931 by Country Life Limited, London; edited by Dorothy Hartley.
Note: Primarily an agricultural text; cited here for list of 'herbs to still.'
The Elixirs of Nostradamus: Nostradamus' original recipes for elixirs, scented water, beauty potions and sweetmeats. Nostradamus. edited by Knut Boeser. (Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1996) ISBN: 1-55921-155-5
Note: Again, be aware that some  of these ingredients are poisonous and may be deadly.
A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the fourteenth century. (from  Le menagier de Paris) Trans. & edited by Tania Bayard. (NY: HarperCollins, 1991)
Note: only a few recipes for scents: cited here  for the washwater recipe.
Nicholas Culpeper, The English Physitian, 1653. online through Yale Medical Library:
Note: though Culpeper's attitude toward astrology was extreme, it wasn't unorthodox. He also had access to the recipes of the Royal College of Physicians, so his recipes (included in this online version but omitted from most editions of Culpeper's Herbal), probably reflect practice in the first half of the 17th century.

Secondary sources

Perfume through the Ages, Roy Genders (New York, Putnam, 1972).
Note: Out of print, but often available in public libraries, this source has an overview of perfumes throughout the centuries. Use with caution: his recipes for medieval subtstances are usually the modern equivalent, and some of his interpretations are wrong.
**Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, The Scented Garden. (London: The Medici Society, 1931) ISBN: 0-85503-099-2
Note: not only includes an overview of a wide variety of scented garden flowers, but 1/3 of the book is a selection of recipes from various sources, many of the period or near period.
Stefan's Florilegium files on Perfumes:  has some information on a few Arabic perfumes.
Rosetta Clarkson. Green Enchantment: the Golden Age of Herbs and Herbalists. (New York, Macmillan, 1940). ISBN: 0-02-009 461-2.
Notes: Has information on some period perfumes and medicinal uses of flowers in period.
**Rosetta Clarkson. The Magic of Herbs: A Chronicle of Herbs and Savory Seeds, Chapters XIV - XVI. (New York: Macmillan, 1939). ISBN: 0-02-030976-7.
Note: has two chapters on scented products, though primarily bags, powders and pomanders. Good for finding out what kind of scents people liked.
**R.J. Forbes. Studies in ancient technology, Vol. 3, section on "Perfumes". 2nd edition. (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1964-).
Information about Egyptian, Greek and Roman use of perfumes and oils; note that if a particular text from antiquity was available in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it probably influenced if not dictated what Medieval and Renaissance readers did.Excellent charts of what scents were used in different places, as well as good descriptions of scent extraction techniques used by the ancients.
Margaret B. Freeman, Herbs for the medieval household for cooking, healing, and divers uses. (NY:
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943). ISBN: 0-87099-776-9
Note: includes some period recipes, and information on period herbs.
Jacqueline Heriteau, Potpourris and Other Fragrant Delights. (NY: Penguin, 1973). ISBN: 0-14-046320-8
Note: has only limited period applicability but does include some period recipes.
Jeanne Rose, Herbs & Things: Jeanne Rose's Herbal, Chapters VIII, XVII, XIX. (Ne w York: Putnam, 1972) ISBN: 0-399-50944-5.
Note: though still in print and including a number of period recipes, this is sadly outdated and should be kept away from children (and impressionable adults!) due to some of the 70's-ish content and rather nasty illustrations.

Method Sources

Aromaweb. "Aromatic Blending."
** Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes, Nancy M. Booth. (Pownal, VT: Storey Publishing, 1997) ISBN: 0-88266-985-0
Note: this is the book to get on making scents. Great directions for making your own, recipes (unfortunately postperiod) for familar scents, wonderful reference on fragrances in general, good instruction and theory on blending scents.
** The complete book of Herbs and Spices, Sarah Garland,  "History and Traditions," "Household herbs and spices," "Distillation techniques and herb scents." (New York: Reader's Digest, 1993). ISBN: 0-89577-499-2.
Note: discusses techniques and their history  well and has information on a variety of herbs/spices.
Witch's Brew : Secrets of Scents, Morwyn. (Schiffer Publishing, 1997). ISBN: 0924608196
Note: I'm including this book, despite its pagan/'magickal' purpose, for its good alternative explanation of how to blend scents in perfumes (she uses a different system than the usual top/middle/bottom note one). Her information on perfume history is mostly wrong, though.

Safety information

** The illustrated encyclopedia of essential oils: the complete guide to the use of oils in aromatherapy and herbalism, Julia Lawless. (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995) ISBN: 1-56619-990-5
Note: THE Safety book I recommend on essential oils. Also gives background on, uses of, and types of extraction for each oil covered. Check oils here before using.
 The Complete Medicinal Herbal, Penelope Ody. (NY: Dorling Kindersley, 1993)
Note: this the the major safety book I use when dealing with whole herbs. Very easy to use, and also gives directions for making various preparations.
The Essential Oils Book: Creating Personal Blends for Mind & Body, Colleen K. Dodt. (Pownal, VT: Storey, 1996) ISBN 0-88266-913-3.
Note: a good book to use if you are interested in aromatherapy applications.

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