Let The Sweet Smell Of Incense Rise Up

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I was recently writing a scene in a novel in which the main character appears to become unwell during mass.  His worried friends cast around for reasons why he might not be himself and one of them suggests incense as the cause, as it’s some time since he has attended mass. Then I had the dreadful thought: would there have been incense during mass in Calais in 1367? A lot of my research  (and these posts) starts in this way.

Incense was in use long before the fourteenth century in the Middle East and is recorded in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. It was used in the Temple in Jerusalem and was one of the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel. In the book of Numbers Aaron and Moses used it stop a plague, and people hoped that it would have the same effect during the Black Death and later plagues. It is a spice or gum that gives off a sweet smell when burned. This is usually achieved by placing it on burning charcoal.

The use of incense in the western church is recorded from the sixth century. The smoke as it rises up symbolises the prayers of the earthbound parishioners rising up to Heaven and the sweet smell represents the sweetness of those prayers to God.

These days, if we’re used to the idea of incense in church at all, it’s usually as dispensed via a small hand-held thurible, or censer. These are usually shaped like a ball and made of metal, with perforations to allow the smoke to escape. There is a lid through which the charcoal and incense can be inserted. Thuribles hang on chains which the thurifer holds. The thurifer is the name of the acolyte or altar server who holds the thurible. When the thurifer swings the thurible the smoke, with its attendant smell, is released. Fourteenth century thuribles were very similar, although some were much more elaborate. Rather than being spherical some were representations of churches and the perforations were in the shape of windows.

Perhaps the best-known thurible in the world is the huge one in Santiago de Compostela cathedral – the Botafumeiro. Botafumeiro is Galician for thurible. These days the Botafumeiro is 1.6m tall and looks like a very large urn. It’s suspended on ropes from the ceiling of the cathedral and it takes 8 men to set it in motion. You can see a video of it here. The current censer dates from the nineteenth century, but (smaller) censers have been swung from the ceiling here since the eleventh century, according to tradition. Millions of pilgrims must have been awed by the sight over the years, but that’s a story for another post.

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