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Smell and the Past: Noses and Environments from the Rome to Virtual Reality - HIS00177M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Will Tullett
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

Can we ever smell the past? What role can our own noses play in historical method? How does the history of smell re-invigorate and re-orientate our understanding of key historical themes? Does the history of smell offer us a new way of understanding chronology that moves us beyond traditional categories such as medieval, early modern, and modern? This module introduces students to key debates in the field of smell history. Using the growing interdisciplinary scholarship, a range of primary sources, and the digital tools produced by the EU-funded Odeuropa project (including the ‘Smell Explorer’ , which contains over 700,000 historical text extracts from the 1500s to the 1920s), this module will examine the history of smell from the ancient world to the present. We will engage with the ways in which past subjects used their noses and think about the shifting smellscapes that have surrounded people.

Each week we will aim to start with our own olfactory perceptions – by sniffing scents, engaging in smell-walks around York, or handling (and, of course, sniffing) objects – before we delve into the historical discussions to which those acts of smelling are linked. The module will move across different historical approaches ranging from histories of the body and gender, through technology and medicine to material culture and the environment. Our studies will trace some of the many ways in which smell has been used to emphasised difference and reinforce inequality. We will trace some of the interesting episodes in the history of ‘smell tech’ from the seventeenth century pomander to the evolution smell-o-vision. But we will also think about how the shifting relationship between humans, more than human animals, and the environment have been mediated by smell over time.

Throughout the course we will critically engage with key narratives in the history of smell. Are our noses less sensitive today than in the past? Do we live in a relatively deodorized world compared to the environments of historical subjects? Or are these the wrong questions to be asking about smell and the past? This module aims to arm you with a wide-ranging understanding of the history of smell and its archival sources. But it also aims to make you more critical noses who are better able to understand the ways in which odours past and present intersect in our lives today.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of this module are to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of a specialist historiographical literature;
  • Present findings in an analytical framework derived from a specialist field;
  • Solve a well-defined historiographical problem using insights drawn from secondary and, where appropriate, primary sources.
  • Set out written findings using a professional scholarly apparatus.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative essay, consulting with the module tutor. Students prepare for eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Smelling the Past
  2. Food, Medicine, and Public Health
  3. Gender, Deodorants, and Body Odour
  4. Sexuality, Psychology, and Perfume
  5. The Law, Pollution, and Urban Planning
  6. Racism, Colonialism, and Inequality
  7. Religion, Magic, and Cosmology
  8. War, Violence, and Animals


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students submit a 2,000-word formative essay in week 9.
A 4,000-word summative essay will be due in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative essay within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For reading during the module, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Tullett, William. Smell and the Past: Noses, Archives, Narratives. London: Bloomsbury, 2023
  • Reinarz, Jonathan. Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. Chicago: Illinois University Press, 2014.
  • Hsu, Hsuan L., The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetic. New York: New York University Press, 2020.
  • Huang, Xuelei, Scents of China: A Modern History of Smell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.