The Anti-Red Shift—To the Dark Side: Colour Changes in Flemish Luxury Woollens, 1300–1550

The Anti-Red Shift—To the Dark Side: Colour Changes in Flemish Luxury Woollens, 1300–1550

By John Munro

Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 3, edited by Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Boydell, 2007)

Introduction: All those who are interested in the history of textiles—not just their production and trade, but also their roles in providing such basic needs as warmth, protection, and modesty, as well as serving as decoration and status symbols—cannot help but be fascinated by the question of why colour preferences change. The message for economic historians, too often unheeded, is that they must always take full account of fashion trends, and thus of colours. Indeed: Can anyone possibly imagine the use of clothing in any society, past or present, while ignoring its colours?

Thus, for example, those studying the economic history of the early modern Low Countries, the preeminent European region for textile manufacturing, and in particular those who have observed data on textile purchases in sixteenth-century town accounts, will be struck by the very high proportion of luxury-quality woollen broadcloths that were black, uniformly dark black, in colour. For example, as table 4.1 demonstrates, black accounted for the colour of 75.04 percent of all such woollens purchased for the burgermasters and aldermen of Mechelen’s town government (and 81.66 percent by value) in the eighty-year period from 1471 to 1550 (about 233 out of 310 so purchased). Even more striking is the fact that for the more limited period from 1501 to 1550, black colours accounted for virtually all of those textiles: an astonishing 97.6 percent (while browns accounted for the remaining 2.4 percent). That does not mean, however, that other colours were absent from the civic treasurer’s annual accounts. We do find many examples of red, green, blue, and other colours in the much cheaper textiles purchased for the lesser, minor officials and civic employees. The crucial point, therefore, is that the civic leaders, who sought to emulate the upper mercantile bourgeoisie and nobility in dress, had come to esteem black as the primary colour of sartorial elegance in this era. The term “urban patriciate” to describe the political oligarchies that ruled or predominated in these towns of medieval Flanders and neighbouring Brabant has some real meaning.

If, however, we were to go back two centuries, to the era of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, we would find—from the civic treasurers’ accounts of Mechelen, Bruges, and Ghent3—that other colours were far more highly esteemed and, further, that there were virtually no black textiles at all listed in the accounts of this period. In the Bruges civic accounts, the first purchases of black woollens (from the Douai drapery) do not appear until as late as 1389. Not until after the 1430s do black and other dark-coloured textiles—in dark blues, greens, purples, and greys—become decisively prominent. Instead, and especially in the post–Black Death era, by far the most prominent colours are bright vivid ones: various reds, and particularly multicoloured textiles, both those known as “medleys,” made from a mélange of wools in a wide variety of colours, and striped (rayed) textiles, whose weft yarns differed in colour(s) from the warps. In both medleys and striped cloths, red yarns were often predominant.

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