Dr Sophie Read
The work I am going to undertake while at CRASSH
will provide the foundation for my next major research project, provisionally
entitled ‘Perfume and Paradox: The Rhetoric of Scent, 1550-1750’. This book will
explore the place of the sense of smell in general, and of perfumes more
particularly, in the literature of that period, drawing on an emerging field of
interdisciplinary research into the ‘lower’ literary senses of smell, taste and
touch. The first stage of the research is to trace the early modern literary
life of a single outlandish substance: ambergris.
Ambergris, we now believe, is a pathological
growth from the stomach of a sperm whale, possibly caused by illness or
irritation; when expelled from the whale and exposed over the course of years
to the action of sea and sun, it develops a distinctive odour, like the
transfigured ghost of musk, which has led to it being much prized in the arts
of medicine, cookery and perfumery.
This account of its origin, even now not secure,
is relatively recent; when routes of trade and travel were opened up in the
early modern period, this valuable but uncategorizable substance was the
subject of fascinated speculation, and poets of the time (Herbert, Herrick, Milton)
used it as a figure of the mysterious and the exotic. My time at CRASSH will be
spent exploring ambergris in the early modern world: the history of its
importation, the myths and speculations that surrounded its origin, the beliefs
about its medical and aphrodisiac powers, its uses and status, what it smelt
like, and, above all, what it signified to the contemporary literary
About Sophie Read
Sophie Read is a faculty lecturer in English and has been a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, since 2006. Her first monograph, Eucharist and the Poetic Imagination in Early Modern England (which includes chapters on Southwell, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw and Milton) is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press later this year; she has also published on Shakespeare, Andrewes and Swift, as well as contemporary poetics. Her new research project builds on a long-term interest, both practical and theoretical, in perfume and writing about scent.
For administrative enquiries please contact Michelle Maciejewska.