New Research Takes 'Odious' View of History

The Odeuropa project gives European history a good whiff
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 18, 2020 6:25 PM CST
New Research Takes 'Odious' View of History
"Bring Out Your Dead": A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners.   (Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images)

Ever said, "Oh, that smells nasty?" Then you were part of history. Case in point: A team of scientists and historians is embarking on a plan to catalogue the smells of Europe over time and see what they say about society, the New York Times reports. The new $3.3 million "Odeuropa" project will use artificial intelligence to scan thousands of texts in seven languages from the 16th to the 20th centuries, including magazines, novels, and medical textbooks. "Once you start looking at printed texts published in Europe since 1500 you will find loads of references to smell, from religious scents—like the smell of incense—through to things like tobacco," William Tullett, an Odeuropa team member and author of Smell in Eighteenth Century-England, tells the Guardian.

Among other important scents are rosemary and hot tar, which people burned during the Great Plague of the 17th century—when they falsely believed the illness spread via foul odors (while the real culprits were droplets and flea bites). Backed by the European Union, the 3-year project will also offer museums guidance on how to incorporate smells in exhibits. Odeuropa reports that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has already done this, allowing, for example, visitors to smell myrrh at a painting of the Magi visiting baby Jesus. Part of the goal is to enhance such exhibits for blind and near-sighted people. The culled data will also appear in an online Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage that follows "the storylines of key scents, fragrant places, and olfactory practices," Odeuropa reports. (More smell stories.)

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