1001 Past Tales Tonic or Poison? The History of Eau de Melissa and Carmelite Water

Tonic or Poison? The History of Eau de Melissa and Carmelite Water

01/28/17 06:54:50 (6 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

Imagine for a moment how different the well-known story recounted by Dumas in The Three Musketeers would be if the (fictionally evil) Cardinal Richelieu had been poisoned by his beloved Eau de Melissa, which factual history assures us he carried everywhere to partake of to aid his heart and chase away migraines instilled by the worries of running the most powerful state of his times.

One day in 1635, Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, commonly referred to as Le Cardinal Richelieu, sniffed his talisman of Eau de Melissa, and discovered a discrepancy to its scent. A refined nose, or a well familiar smell gone awry, it quickly alerted him to foul play. Apparently Le Duc d'Orleans had had the contents tampered with, as an analysis of the contents of the bottle later proved. It seems like replacing the gemstones on the queen's necklace, featured so prominently as a Richelieu plot device in the Dumas novel, is not without its peer in real life! 

The story of this evil plot of assassination through poisoned aromatic cordial is not without precedent, but it definitely prompted one of the first commercial uses of a seal of authenticity. The Carmelite nuns who had been producing Eau de Melissa under their own aegis, marketed as Carmelite Water, proceeded into sealing their products with a red wax bearing the seal of their convent. 

All this story of intrigue revolved around a humble plant, the melissa, or lemongrass or citronella. Melissa officinalis, a vivacious plant in the Lamiaceae family, is also called lemon balm or piment des abeilles. 

Melissa was introduced to France via the route which plants usually followed: either the tradition of the Middle East via interaction during the crusades or the pharmacopeia of monasteries. It was the latter for melissa with a detour from the former. Namely Benedictine monks got to know the practices of Arab doctors in Spain where they used melissa for its superior anti-anxiety properties. Avicenna, the great medicine and philosopher himself, used to say that "mellisa enhances strength, reanimates courage and gaiety and chases worries away". But it was not only common monks who used it. Charles V who retired in the monastery of St. Juste in the early 16th century, was a chronicled user and fan of an alcoholic dilution based on melissa and lavender, which gave rise to what soon became known as "eau de carmes" or Water of the Carmelites. 

The connection with the Discalced Carmelites is an interesting one in view of the move of the Italian congregation and their settlement in Avignon, France (alongside the papal seat) and later on in Paris, on the rue de Vaugirard, in the second decade of the 17th century. The distiller of the Discalced Carmelites of Paris however did not keep the recipe for Water of Lemongrass just for them and their use, but acted as a true artistic director; he not only revamped the recipe of the cordial, inspired by an unnamed doctor who included 14 plants and 9 spices to it, accenting some of the "notes" and giving it the enduring appeal that it still to this day possesses. 

The actual formula went from simplistic to really complex in increments, which are fascinating to unravel. The original recipe given by M. Déjean in his Traité raisonné de la distillation ou la distillation réduite en principes (3rd edition, Paris.1769), contained only 2 plants and 5 spices. It involved nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, clove, coriander, citron juice and melissa leaves steeped into eau de vie and white wine. Another recipe chronicled in Codex involving melissa, citrus and angelica alongside 4 spices, namely nutmeg, coriander, clove and cinnamon. Finally the Carmelite formula augments the count of both plants and spices to 7 and 6 respectively. 

For the proper Carmelite Water the ingredients need to be distilled beforehand, one by one, according to specified directions. The materials were then mixed in varying proportions in a large pot with alcohols in a bain marie, over a low fire, and then cooled off by plunging the mix into ice mixed with sodium chloride, to lower its freezing point, for a maturation period lasting a week. 

According to E.Soubeiran's Nouveau traité de pharmacie théorique et pratique (Paris, Crochard, 1836), allegedly two formulae existed side by side: A simple alcohol-based formula of melissa and the more complex Water of the Carmelites which has no material predominate in the scent profile of the finished product; a true blend. 

During the reign of Louis XIV Eau de Carmes/Carmelite Water competed nose-to-nose with Eau de Reine d'Hongrie, on which I wrote a dedicated historical article HERE. The ladies of the Royal Court used the Carmelite Water as a tonic against the vapours as well as a scented refinement that made living in close quarters with poor plumbing a more comfortable living, to be sure. 

Antagonists copied the recipe and therefore the Carmelites seemed to obtain and succeeded in securing protection of their elixir by royal letters from Louis XIV and then Louis XV and continued to produce it during the French Revolution. In 1831, the last brother Carme yielded the formula to M. Amédée Boyer.

The commercialized form of Carmelite Water/Eau de Carmes, which survives to these days, is therefore called Eau de Carmes Boyer and has stabilized its formula into a specified 14 plants and 9 spices/woods/rhizomes blend. It therefore includes: melissa, angelica, lily of the valley, citron, watercress, marjoram, primrose, sage, rosemary, lavender, artemisia, winter savory, thyme and chamomile as well as coriander, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, green aniseed, sandalwood, dried angelica roots, dried gentian roots and fennel.  It was instructed to use the tonic water on a drenched sugar cube or as a splash into a glass of water. 

A simple at home recipe for making a melissa cordial (yes, taken internally as well as used as a toilet water on skin and handkerchief) can be found on food.com from where I borrowed it. 

You will need: 

1 air-tight glass jar
1.25 cup vodka
3 tablespoons dried angelica leaves 
3 tablespoons dried lemongrass leaves
1 tablespoon crushed coriander seeds
1 nutmeg cut 
2 tablespoons cloves
1 cinnamon stick

How to:

Put vodka into a glass jar and pour the rest of the ingredients one by one. Cover with the lid, shake and leave in a warm place for 3 weeks. Strain and store in a new glass bottle with a well-closing cap. 

A votre santé! 

Find the author's historical articles amassed on: 1001 Past Tales


Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian & perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder & editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume. Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and in 2011. She is consulted as a fragrance historian & expert, and has been curating fragrance installations at museum exhibits at the Milan Expo 2015 and elsewhere. She also contributes to publications around the world.

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Love it - thank you!

Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Because some people were interested in making the recipe, and also because spring is just around the corner, just when the plant is ready for getting, I thought you might find the following growers, who sell angelica plants, a useful reference.


Drying the leaves should be perfectly easy! Just cut them, wash them under running water, let them dry on a flat surface (like a tray) under a cloth at a dry, warm place for a few days. And they're ready to use.

drugstore classics
drugstore classics

Informative and enjoyable. Thank you, Elena!


I'm sure I will never make it as the ingredients aren't easy to access here! If everything came in a kit, I would. But this was very interesting and fun to read.


Love this! I'm a food & wine fan as well as perfume lover, so this is so fun to read and contemplate making! Now to find the ingredients - I have no idea where to find Angelica leaves ...


Love these historical articles!! Why this potion sounds divinely inspired and might be a tasty cocktail as well as a scent. :) Great article, thanks for posting it.


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