Odor of Sanctity
Perfume said to be exhaled by Christian saints, even after
death. The idea that sin has a disagreeable odor and holiness
a sweet perfume occurs in Romance literature and reflects folk
beliefs of medieval times. Over the centuries, the idea of the
sweet smell has been tied to that of the incorruption of the body
of some saints.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (translated as History
of Prince Arthur), the death of the wicked Sir Corsabrin is described
as follows ‘‘Then they smote off the head of sir Corsabrin,
and therewithal came a stench out of the body, when the
soul departed.’’ And in contrast, the death of the noble Sir
Launcelot is described ‘‘When sir Bors and his fellows came to
sir Launcelot’s bed, they found him stark dead, and the sweetest
savour about him that ever they did smell.’’
St. Benedicta (ca. 1643) claimed that angels had perfumes
as various as those of flowers; Benedicta herself was supposed
to exhale the sweet perfume of the love of God. The body of
St. Clare (660 C.E.), abbot of Ferriol, exhaled a sweet odor after
death, which pervaded St. Blandina’s church. When St. Hubert
of Britanny (714 C.E.) died, the whole province was said to be
filled with sweet perfume. St. Casimir, Patron of Poland, died
in 1483, and when his body was exhumed one hundred and
twenty years later, it exhaled a sweet smell.