Item description for Dragon's Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor (Brill's Indological Library, V. 14) by R. A. Donkin...
In the Dragon's Brain Perfume (a Chinese description of Camphor) once more the existence and importance of world systems of exchange becomes clear. In the pre-industrial world aromatic substances have always counted among the most prominent items of long-distance trade. The finest camphor came from Malaya, Borneo and Sumatra, but long-distance trade took it to societies at the geographical poles of demand - China and the medieval West already in late Antiquity (ca. 6th century A.D.). In India it was in use at an even much earlier period.
The present monograph opens with a survey of aromata generally - origins, time and place of demand - from the Ancient Civilizations to the Age of Discoveries. Chapter two concerns the natural history of camphor; subsequent chapters are organized by regions (India, Western Asia, the medieval West, South East Asia, China and Japan), with a postscript on Origins and Diffusion.
Evidence is drawn from an extensive range of sources in natural and cultural history.The work includes 15 original maps, 28 illustrations, and an extensive bibliography.
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Reviews - What do customers think about Dragon's Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor (Brill's Indological Library, V. 14)?
You'll Never Think the Same Way about Camphor Again Feb 17, 2001
Admittedly, the title is a bit strange. But the high price gives it away: this is a truly scholarly work. The publisher doubtless recognizes that the audience is very specialized. But readers from that special group of historians and other scholars of culture are likely to be knocked over as if by the powerful whiff of...well, something of fragrance so exotic you can't resist.
Who knew that camphor could become the focus of an entire book, replete with world history, maps, and references it would take a sabbatical year to check out in full? Previously, you might only have thought about camphor, if at all, in connection with a certain brand of lip chap and perhaps a chunk of whitish waxy substance in a museum cabinet. But Donkin doesn't just make this seemingly obscure substance the main character of a fascinating (his)tory. He writes a prolegomenon (fancy word for introduction) to humanity's fascination with aromatic substances of all kinds.
I discovered the book because I needed a research topic on plants in the Middle Ages. My work (I'm a professor of Humanities) is on a 14th century Alexander narrative. The year qualifies as Middle Ages, so where were the plants? Well, one short section had Alexander visiting "Indian" (really Sumatran) islands where camphor was grown. My best guess was that camphor came from a plant--could this be my topic?
A keyword search at the university library brought up Donkin's book. Bingo! I found out that not only does camphor come from a tree; it comes from three different types of tree, and several other non-woody plants as well. (Actually people just had different ideas about which plant's resin produced the substance to be called "camphor.") Moreover, I found out all about the Arab geographers my author, who was Turkish, would have read.
Would my research purposes have been satisfied by something less than Donkin's book? Yes. It is hard to imagine who would ever need this much information about camphor. But the book is about a lot more than that.
The epigraph indicates that the author worked on this book over the course of fifty years. The notes he compiled cover the history of the camphor trade in Europe, the Arab world, India, Southeast Asia, and China. They tell about physicians, alchemists, adventurers, storytellers, merchants, all in some way connected with camphor. There are fascinating maps and pictures, too. My favorite illustration is a stylized painting of a leopard prowling in front of camphor trees.
The fact that there isn't one single passage where Donkin sets out, "The uses of camphor are as follows....." makes the book all the more like a novel with intertwining strands. Unexpectedly, one comes across a reference, say, to use of camphor in beverages. How was it made into beverages? Who drank it? What did it taste like? No clues--on to the next topic. Organization within chapters is admittedly rather loose. I would have preferred summaries of all the botanical information, medical information, uses of camphor information, in one place. A few Arabic words were misspelled. The botanical information wasn't too clear, as though extracted from sources without much understanding. But those are minor criticisms. If I had compiled that much information--about anything--my organization would be loose, too.
Once my current quirky piece of research is done, I doubt that I'll have much practical use for information on camphor. Of course obscure information is to be treasured for its own sake. But what will stay with me will be the spell cast by the whole. Starting with one minor feature of the vast world of materials and humans, Donkin weaves a spell-binding web of cultural insight.
*Dragon's Brain Perfume* offers a lot to think about with regard to the tremendous effort humans go to, and the immense prices they pay, to get things that smell good, or at least interesting: spices, perfumes, incense, and, of course, taste sensations. (Recall how dull the palate is with a stuffy nose.) Coca Cola is aroma in a vehicle of sugar and water, with prickly bubbles to enhance sensation. Any sophisticated packaging is aroma. Soaps, candles, shampoos, cleaning products--all have to have fragrance, or be "New! Fragrance Free!" to be marketable.
Modern technology allows thousands of fragrances to be manufactured, but in earlier times, people had to get down to the grit and get plants. Donkin explains that the geographic range of aromatic plants is quite limited--I didn't know this. To be honest, I didn't buy the book. I got it from the library, with some trouble. If you're a member of that limited audience--a scholarly obsessive with an nose for the exotica of everyday life, it will be worth a lot of your trouble, or money, if you have it, to get a hold of this book.