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What did Europe smell like centuries ago? Historians set out to recreate the lost odors

LONDON – For hundreds of years, plague and other pandemics have led people to believe that the disease is not spread by droplets or flea bites, but by inhaling odors. To purify the air around them, they would burn rosemary and hot tar.

These scents, spreading through the winding streets of London, were so common during the Great Plague in the 17th century that they became synonymous with the plague itself, historians say.

Now that the world is facing another widespread epidemic, a team of historians and scientists from six European countries is trying to identify and categorize the most common scents of everyday life in Europe from the 1

6th century to the early 20th century and to explore what changes in flavors over time reveal to society.

The $ 3.3 million Odeuropa project, announced this week, will use artificial intelligence to screen more than 250,000 images and thousands of texts, including medical textbooks, novels and magazines in seven languages. Researchers will use machine learning and computer-based artificial intelligence to analyze textual references to odors such as incense and tobacco.

Once cataloged, researchers working with chemists and perfumers will recreate about 120 fragrances in the hope that museum curators will incorporate some of the scents into exhibits to make visits more captivating or memorable for museum visitors.

The three-year project, funded by the European Union, will also include a guide on how museums can use scents in exhibits. The use of odors in exhibits can also make museums more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired, historians say.

“Often museums aren’t sure how to use scents in their spaces,” said Dr. William Tulett, an assistant professor of early modern European history at Ruskin University in England, Cambridge, England.

Plans for the project, which began in January, began before the pandemic, but researchers say the coronavirus, which has changed the smells of cities and could cause odor loss for some people infected with it, illustrates how odors and societies are affected.

In past pandemics, the miasma theory that bad fumes are markers of disease transmission is central to the way people view the spread of infection.

Now, once again, people are particularly attuned to the odors around them and sometimes worry that if they sense someone standing nearby, then that person is in their aerosol environment and therefore too close, said Dr. Inger Leimans, a professor of cultural history at Vrije University in Amsterdam. “Still, the smell becomes an indicator of possible illness and infection.”

And the locking measures have changed the city’s scents, with fewer cars on the road and fewer odors wafting the streets of restaurants. The changes, the researchers said, underscore how the study of odors in communities over time provides clues to historical attitudes toward disease and other cultural aspects of everyday life. The meaning has been largely ignored in academia, but more attention has been paid in the last decade.

“With the smell, you can open up questions about national culture, global culture, differences between communities without getting into fights right away,” said Dr. Lehmans, adding that introducing smells into museum exhibits or classrooms makes people open up to discussions in ways they do not always do when discussing other issues of national identity. “It’s such an open topic and it has a great research and communication aspect.”

Dr Lehmans said researchers were interested not only in studying the good scents of past centuries, but also in bad odors, such as manure or the stench of industrialization and wastewater problems plaguing some European cities. They can also be distributed in museums to help people connect with the past, as long as they do not scare visitors.

“What we want to do is think, along with the olfactory artists, about how you can get this story to your nose – how to make people realize what we’ve done with industrialization in Europe,” said Dr. Lehmans. “That’s the challenge.”

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