Pomanders: Of What and How They are Made

This post is supplementary material for my article: Warding Off Plague and Other Miasma with Pomanders published in the East Kingdom Gazette, a blog which provides information for the East Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism. 

Historical Ingredients

In the beginning of their manufacture, musk was the main ingredient used to make pomanders and remained prominent in many period recipes, as did ambergris.  As their use developed, pomanders came to rely heavily on “aromatic resins such as labdanum, benzoin (both of which had a long history as use as incense[1]), and storax and plant material such as cinnamon, cloves, iris root, nard (valerian or spike) and Lignum Aloes.”[2]

                The list of ingredients used in period recipes is long and varied.  After surveying 125 recipes, Smollich identifies 90 different substances used to make them.[3]  The following are some common ingredients:

Agarwood (Lignum Aloes), Ambergris, Benzoin resin (Benjamin), Calamus (Sweet Flag), Camphor, Cinnamon, Civet musk, Cloves, Frankincense (Olibanum), Gum Arabic, Labdanum, Lavender (Nard), Mace, Marjoram, Musk, Myrrh, Nutmeg, Orris root, Rose oil, Rosemary, Sandalwood (Sweet Sanders), Scented water, Spikenard, Styrax (Storax), Tragacanth (Gum Traganth, Gumdragon, usually in Rosewater), Vietnamese Balm[4]

Examples of Period Recipes

The fragrant substance of a pomander was often made by melting and combining the resins, then adding finely ground spices.  Musk was added to this warm mixture, or kneaded in later.  As it cooled, the warm concoction would have been rolled into a ball in one’s hands, and then often rolled in more finely ground resin or spices. 

The following are some examples of period recipes:

The University of Paris house blend for pomanders combines storax, myrrh, aloe wood, ambergris, mace, and sandalwood.[5]

***

“A Prescription Against the Corrupt Air of the Plague, from Jacme d’Agramunt’s: Regiment de preservació de la pestilència, written in Catalan in 1348.

                The regimen to be observed against pestilential air, in seven parts, the first of which concerns the rectification of rotten and corrupt air… Great lords can benefit from a perfume made of the following ingredients: lignon aloes and ambergris (two drams each); the best select myrrh and pure frankincense (1 oz.), camphor, storax (1 oz.), dried rose petals (2 drams), “Makassarene” sandalwood and leaves or myrtle (1 oz.).  Pulverize these more or less together with resin [lapadano in the original, probably a resin derived from Cistus creticus, which grows in Cyprus, Crete, and Turkey; not to be confused with the opiate laudanum] or rosewater of Damascus in which camphor has been dissolved.  These can be made into pills or troches.[6]

***

A recipe attributed to Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566):

Rose tablets were made by soaking a pound of roses without the flower heads in deer musk water overnight. The water was then thoroughly squeezed out and the roses ground with seven ounces of benzoin, a quarter of ambergris and another of civet musk. This mixture was made into tablets, which were each sandwiched between rose petals and dried in a cool, dark area.

To form the final pomander, two ounces of the purest labdanum, an ounce each of styrax calamites and benzoin resin, half an ounce of the rose tablets, one ounce of violet powder, and half a dram each ambergris and musk were ground into a powder and kneaded with the rose-musk water from the production of the rose tablets. This produced “an aromatic ball of the most supreme perfume, and the longest-lasting that can be made anywhere in the world.[7]

***

A description of a pomander used by Cardinal Wosley (1475-1530)

“… holding in his hand a very fair orange, whereof the meat or substance whthin was taken out, and filled up again with the part of a sponge, wherin was vinegar, and other confections against the pestilent airs.”[8]

***

From 1573:
Take Benjamin one ounce, of storar calamite half an ounce, of laudanum the eigth[h] part of an ounce. Beat them to powder and then put them into a brazen [brass] ladle with a little damask [water] or rose water. Set them over the fire of coals till they be dissolved and be soft like wax. Then take them out and chafe them between your hands as ye do wax. Then have these powders ready finely searched [sifted]: of cinnamon, of cloves, of sweet sanders [sandalwood], gray or white, of each of these three powders half a quarter of an ounce. Mix these powders with the other and chafe them well together. If they be too dry, moisten them with some of the rose water left in the ladle, or other. If they wax cold, warm them upon a knife’s point over a chafing dish of coals. Then take of ambergris, of musk, and civet, of each three grains. Dissolve the ambergris in a silver spoon over hot coals. When it is cold make it small, put to it your musk and civet. Then take your pome that you have chased and gathered together, and by little and little (with some sweet water if need be) gather up the amber, musk, and civet, and mix them up with your ball, till the be perfectly incorporated. Then make one ball or two of the lump, as ye think good, for the weight of the whole is about two ounces. Make a hole in your ball and so hang it by a lace.
[9]

***

From the “Treasury of Commodious Conceits” published in 1584 by Henry Car:

The ingredients were, first Benjamin (benzoin), storax, calamite, and labdanum, finely levigated, and dissolved in a little rose-water over the fire.  The composition was then taken out, and powder of cinnamon, sweet sanders, and cloves added to it, all of which were well mixed and rubbed together.  After this ambergris, musk, and civet, of each three grains, were prepared, the first being dissolved and mingled with two.  The author then directs you “to take your Pome,” and by degrees to gather up the three last ingredients, kneading and mixing them well with the ball, till they become perfectly incorporated with it.[10] 

***

From 1609:

“A sweet and delicate Pomander.
Take two ounces of Labdanum, of Benjamin and Storax one ounce, muske sixe graines, civet sixe graines, Amber greece sixe graines, of Calamus Aromaticus and Lignum Aloes, of each the waight of a groat, beat all these in a hote mortar, and with an hote pestell till they come to paste, then wet your hand with rose water, and roll up the paste sodainly.” [11]

A Modern Atempt

In my studio and classes I have used a similar set of steps to make fragrant pomanders, while omitting scarce and protected animal and plant material.  Since musk was a primary ingredient, this makes modern pomanders significantly different from the originals, probably much sweeter smelling.  With that said, making these is a still a feast for the senses, and the process of working with these precious and mysterious spices and resins still feels alchemical and very old.  

To make pomanders I select a variety of resins, dried herbs and spices from the list of potential ingredients listed above.  My favorite combination includes labdanum, frankincense, benzoin gum, cinnamon bark, nutmeg, mace, lavender flower, spikenard root, orris root, musk seeds, rosemary leaf, rose petals, and clove.  When possible, I prefer to use the plant material itself, but essential oils can be substituted if need be.  Placing the dry plant material in a mortar, I grind them as finely as possible with a pestle.  There are often some fibrous bits that refuse to break up, especially spikenard, and this is quite all right.   

Next, I start melting beeswax in a thick, glass pan dedicated to this task (a double boiler would be even better) over low heat.  Great care must be taken with the wax, as it can easily start to burn.  Once the wax is melted I remove the pan from the heat and add the ground plant material, along with any essential oils.  There is a lot of latitude with how much wax, how much of the spices, and which spices to include, and I recommend experimenting with small batches to see what you prefer.  Once combined the herbs quickly settle to the bottom of the pan of melted beeswax, so I stir and scoop large spoonfuls of wax and spices onto a parchment paper lined pan.  I wait until the wax is cool enough to touch, then peel the pomander material from the parchment paper and squeeze and roll it in my hands until it is ball shaped.  I save aside some ground plant material or powdered resin to roll the warm wax ball in after it is formed.  If I need a hole in the pomander so it can be strung onto a cord, I will pierce the ball with a toothpick or skewer while the wax is still warm.  The pomanders harden quickly after being shaped, and can be used as you like.  

I find that they retain their scent for a long time, and become more fragrant when warmed with one’s hands.  I love making pomanders, but it is good to be aware that this is a messy process, involving flammable materials that can burn the skin, so exercise caution and care if you decide to make these yourself.

Interesting Links 

I have sourced many ingredients at: https://mountainroseherbs.com/ and found more obscure ones, like labdanum, at: https://scents-of-earth.com/

An extensive collection of links to images of cases and paintings: http://larsdatter.com/pomanders.htm

Images of cases:

1350 Italian: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13437/pomander-unknown/

1500 German or Swiss: https://books.google.com/books?id=6T-38fUjKLIC&pg=PA36&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false 

16th Century German: http://www.wartski.com/collection/a-silver-gilt-pomander/ 

16th Century (and one 17th Century) http://www.gdfalksen.com/post/40180356217 

Images in paintings:

Jacob Cornelisz Oostsanen, 1518 (Portrait of Jan Gerritz van Egmond van de Dijenborgh, detail) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/Pomander_1518.jpg  

Barthel Bruyn the Elder, 1528 (Diptych with portraits of Gerhard and Anna Pilgrum)

https://www.wallraf.museum/en/collections/middle-ages/masterpieces/barthel-bruyn-portrait-diptych-of-gerhard-and-anna-pilgrum/the-hightlight/

Detail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomander#/media/File:Rosary_with_pomander.jpg 

Barthel Bruyn the Elder, 1549 (Diptych with portraits of the Salsburg couple)

To explore trade routes in Medieval times, I highly recommend the incredible map by Martin Månsson:

https://easyzoom.com/imageaccess/ec482e04c2b240d4969c14156bb6836f

and 

http://chssp.ucdavis.edu/programs/historyblueprint/maps/medieval-map#persiangulfcircuit

Also, a modern pewter version of a pomander case is available from Billy and Charlie: https://www.facebook.com/pg/BillyAndCharlie/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10153201429749735

Bibliography

Boeser, Knut, The elixirs of Nostradamus: Nostradamus’ original recipes for elixirs, scented water, beauty potions, and sweetmeats, Moyer Bell, 1996 (retrieved from Wikipedia entry on Pomanders, June 23, 2018, need to verify source)

Cavendish, George, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, First Published 1641, page 25, Retrieved June 22, 2018 from https://archive.org/details/TheLifeAndDeathOfCardinalWosley 

Freedman, Paul, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2008.

Launert, Edmund. Perfume and Pomanders: Scent and Scent Bottles through the Ages. Potterton Books Ltd., 1987.

Nunn-Weinberg, Danielle, “The Painted Face: Cosmetics during the SCA Period,” retrieved June 23, 2018, http://www.elizabethancostume.net/paintedface/

Smollich, R. Der Bisamapfel in Kunst and Wissenchaft. Stuttgard, 1983.

Soden-Smith, R.H., “Notes on Pomanders,” The Archaeological Journal; Published Under the Direction of the Central Committee of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland for the Encouragement and Prosecution of Research Into the Arts and Monuments of the Early and Middle Ages, Volume 31, London, 1874, pages 339, retrieved June 21, 2018 from: https://archive.org/details/archaeologicaljo31brit

Zajaczkowa, Jadwiga. “Scents of the Middle Ages: Uses of the Aromas of Herbs, Spices and Resins.” http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/scents.html. Accessed 19 June 2018.

End Notes

[1] Launert, Edmund, page 11.

[2] Ibid, page 17.

[3] Smollich, R., page 23.

[4] Zajaczkowa, Jadwiga

[5] Freedman, page 64.

[6] Ibid, page 65.

[7] Boeser, Knut

[8] Cavendish, George, page 25.

[9] Nunn-Weinberg, Danielle

[10] Soden-Smith, R.H., page 339.

[11] Nunn-Weinberg, Danielle

Author: thornandthread

This blog represents a body of work that I have produced while playing with the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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