The Old English Physiologus poem know as The Whale describes this creature’s ability to emit an alluring odour, by which it draws into its mouth, and then devours, smaller fish. This passage is predominantly discussed in terms of its Christian allegorical significance: the whale symbolises the Devil and its pleasurable smell his powers of temptation. The association of pleasant odours with saintly figures is well-evidenced, but there appear no such precedent for the Devil. This paper explores the origins of this characteristic in the Physiologus tradition beyond its theological and rhetorical significance, including its relationship to sweet-smelling creatures in Greek and Latin analogues and sources.
Aristotle taught that the five senses form a natural hierarchy, with vision the highest, hearing next, and the others far below. Since human beings were thought to unite corporeal and spiritual substances, sweetness offered the Middle Ages a paradigm for the dual nature of pleasure in two rival systems of explanation, the natural sciences and theology. After sketching the materialist account of tasting sweetness represented by Aquinas on De anima, I survey the use of sweet pleasures in St Bernard’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, Dante’s Commedia, and the Middle English Pearl. Although sweetness is a temptation to carnal sin, it is also a necessary vehicle for describing the highest rewards available to the soul.
Lucca’s surviving customs books provide a rare opportunity to observe a medieval city’s consumption patterns. And what consumables are as alluring as spices and dyes, delights of the tongue and the eye? In this paper, I will track Lucchesi traders importing these and similar fine substances in significant quantities: cinnamon, saffron, and sugar; kermes, indigo, and orchil. Between 1370 to 1410, four decades for which we possess a remarkably complete series of tax records, Lucca experienced war and peace, plague and plenty; I aim to show how the merchants of pleasure navigated their native city’s difficulties and exploited new opportunities.