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Hungary water (sometimes called "the Queen of Hungary's Water") was the first (European) alcohol-based perfume, claimed to date to about the late 14th century. According to legend it was first formulated at the command of a Queen of Hungary, sometimes identified as Isabella but usually as Elisabeth, or in one document "Saint Elisabeth, Queen of Hungary" (this may be a conflation of multiple individuals). These legends, and the documented references to this preparation, mostly date to the early to mid-17th century, so the details may have become confused in the intervening centuries.
The queen in question is frequently assumed to be Elisabeth of Poland (1305–1380), although the particulars of her life do not match those in the more common legends; it is even more unlikely that it could be Saint Elisabeth of Hungary (1207–1231), who is additionally too early and not a queen (note that the technique of distillation only became well known in Europe between about 1150 and 1250). The only plausible Queen Isabella (late 13th century) likewise seems to be too early to be a strong candidate.
The exact date of the invention of Hungary water is lost to history. It is equally unclear who in particular created it. Some sources say that a monk-recluse who first gave it to Elizabeth, though most likely it was made by court alchemist (who could also have been a monk, thus reconciling the two traditions). The oldest surviving recipes call for distilling fresh rosemary (and possibly thyme) with strong brandy, while later formulations contain lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, costus, orange blossom and lemon.
Hungary water was known across Europe for many centuries, and until eau de Cologne appeared in the 18th century, it was the most popular fragrance and remedy applied. Similar to other herb and flower-based products, Hungary water was not merely (or even mainly) a fragrance, but also a valuable remedy; the early recipes advise the user to both wash with it and drink it in order to receive the most benefit.
References and external sources
- The invention of this water is most probably related to the Black Death epidemic that ravaged Europe between 1346 and 1350.