That opening title is definitely incorrect. By all accounts, the Middle Ages were anything but sweet smelling. Put aside your romantic notions of conquering knights and their fair ladies exchanging loving glances in the halls of royal palaces.
They were most likely quite stinky. Both of them.
Romans were quite fond of bathing and frequented bath houses. Granted, not just bathing went on in these public and private bath houses, but the point is that they made the effort to wash off that thick layer of filth that seemed to permeate every piece of fabric and pottery of ancient Europe.
With the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity, the church knew what went on in these bath houses and proclaimed public bathing as an entry to immorality, promiscuous sex, and disease. They were actually right in that the culture of the Roman bath house not only encouraged it, but promoted it.
Unfortunately, the church took their disdain for bathing and incidental bathing happenings a step further. They saw something quite unnatural in one’s inclination to bathe frequently. While some people –rich and poor– actually bathed because they just stunk, society turned to the church for guidance and rarely bathed.
Not everyone in Europe went the route of filth. In fact:
“As one Russian ambassador to France noted ‘His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.’ Russians were not so finicky about bathing and tended to bathe fairly regularly, relatively speaking, generally at least once a month. Because of this, they were considered perverts by many Europeans.”
Aside from the lingering stench of unbathed people, especially unbathed people congregating for social functions and worship, the unwashed masses, nobility and royals had to find a way to set themselves apart from just everyday funk.
Aristocrats and royals alike wore heavy perfume and men wore small bags filled with fragrant herbs, while women wore powders.
Another fanciful pastime was the practice of “strewing herbs.” While people think that throwing rose petals was a way to show adoration for their royalty, it was most likely based in trying to masking that pungent trail they left.
Strewing herbs was a common amongst all English subjects and involved layering the floors with reeds, rushes, straw, herbs and flowers. When people would enter, they would “muddle” the herbs with their shoes releasing pleasant odors.
There was actually a post created just for this duty within the royal palace, namely the Royal Herb Strewer. The last official Royal Herb Strewer was served by Miss Anne Fellowes during the coronation of King George IV.
Given the over abundance of chemically-laced perfumes, soaps and room deodorizers, I would love to see a less dramatic return of “herb strewing,” namely, strategically placed fresh herbs in little pots or vases.
SOME COMMON HERBS FOR STREWING INCLUDED:
- Lady’s Bedstraw – Kills fleas. Also used to stuff mattresses.
- Sweet flag – Sweet smell. Rush-like leaves.
- Pennyroyal – Kills fleas (also known as fleabane) and repels ticks.
- Lavender – Insect repellent (e.g. moths). Also used in mattresses and pillows.
- Hyssop – Fragrant. Also has biblical reference to cleanliness 
- Mint – Various species
- Meadowsweet – Sweet smell.
- Chamomile – Insect repellent.
- Southernwood – Also known as lad’s love, this was thought to be an aphrodisiac. Often used in bedrooms.
- Sweet woodruff – Insect repellent.
- Thyme – Various species. Insect repellent.
- Rosemary – Often strewn in churches. Kills and repels insects.
- Rose – Petals only.
- Camphor laurel – Also known as Mawdelin (from the New Testament episode of the anointing of the feet of Jesus Christ by Mary Magdalen)
- Cotton lavender
- Sage -Insect repellent.
- Tansy -Insect repellent.
- Daisies (all kinds of)
- Sweet Fennel
- Sweet Maudelin
- Winter savory