Color in the Middle Ages

Every society has interesting ideas about colors – what they represent, which of them look better than others, and what colors to avoid. Here are five colorful facts about color in the Middle Ages, courtesy of the research of French historian Michel Pastoureau.

The Middle Color

Medieval scholars inherited the idea from ancient times that there were seven colors: white, yellow, red, green, blue, purple and black. Green was the middle color, which meant that it sat balanced between the extremes of white and black. It was also considered a soothing color, so much so that scribes often kept emeralds and other green objects beside them to look at when they needed to rest their eyes, while the poet Baudri de Bourgueil suggested writing on green tablets instead of white or black ones.


Knightly colors

Arthurian romances, one of the most popular forms of literature in the High Middle Ages, often made symbolic use of color, especially in the depiction of knights. Pastoureau writes:

The color code was recurrent and meaningful. A black knight was almost a character of primary importance (Tristan, Lancelot, Gawain) who wanted to hide his identity; he was generally motivated by good intentions and prepared to demonstrate his valor, especially by jousting or tournament. A red knight, on the other hand, was often hostile to the hero; this was a perfidious or evil knight, sometimes the devil’s envoy or a mysterious being from the Other World. Less prominent, a white knight was generally viewed as good; this was an older figure, a friend of protector or the hero, to who he gave wise council. Conversely, a green knight was a young knight, recently dubbed, whose audacious or insolent behavior was going to cause great disorder; he could be good or bad. Finally, yellow or gold knights were rare and blue knights nonexistent.

This 15th-century manuscript depicts the different colors of a monk’s habit – black, white, gray and brown.

Black vs. White monks

During the Early Middle Ages, the rules for monks noted that they should not be concerned with the color of their clothing. However, over the centuries their dress became darker, with the Cluniacs, one of the most influential monastic communities, believing that black was the appropriate color for one’s habit.

A backlash to this idea would emerge in the twelfth century, with the Cistercians adopting a white habit. For the leaders of these monastics groups, the debate over colors was a serious one – Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny and Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, even ridiculed each other’s choices. Peter said that black “is the color of humility and renouncement” while “white is the color for holidays, the glory and the resurrection” indicating that the Cistercians were acting with pride (a deadly sin!). Bernard replied that white was the color “of purity, innocence, and all the virtues”, while black was the color of ‘death and sin’ and was how the devil looked.

The color of Islam

Green is often associated with the Islamic religion, but this idea only developed in the twelfth century. In the Quran green is mentioned eight times, always in a positive sense, as a color of vegetation, spring and paradise. The Prophet Muhammad was also said to have liked to wear a green turban and other green fabrics. However, while green was linked with Muhammad’s descendants, other colors became associated with the ruling dynasties of the Islamic world – white for Umayyads, black for Abbasids, and red for Almohads. Pastoureau believes that it is in the 1100s that green came to be seen as a color that unified the various Muslim peoples. “Its symbolism is associated with that of paradise, happiness, riches, water, the sky, and hope,” he writes. “Green became the sacred color. That is why many copies of the Quran from the Middle Ages had green bindings or covers, as they still do today. Similarly, a great number of religious dignitaries wear green clothing. By contrast, in carpets green gradually disappeared: one does not tread on so venerable a color.”

The ‘Blue Revolution’

Pastoureau’s book on blue starts off by mentioning how neglected this color was among the ancient Greeks and Romans, who rarely wrote about it or made use of it. He even delves into the question of whether or not ancient peoples could even see blue! This neglect continued through the early Middle Ages until the twelfth century. “Then suddenly,” writes Pastoureau, “in just a few decades, everything changes – blue is ‘discovered’ and attains a prominent place in painting, heraldry, and clothing.”

The Wilton Diptych, painted at the end of the fourteenth century, shows the Virgin Mary in a deep blue.

The first part of this ‘blue revolution’ was how this color was used to represent the clothing of the Virgin Mary. The scene of Mary mourning Jesus’ crucifixion was a popular one in the Middle Ages, and once artists started depicting her cloak in a vibrant blue, it soon became the standard. Moreover, other artists, especially those working in stained glass, overcame technical limitations in creating blues, so the color would find itself being used in a variety of mediums, as well as in clothing. Pastoureau adds that by the thirteenth-century monarchs such as France’s Louis IX and England’s Henry III, started wearing blue, leading it to become the color of medieval royalty.

Michel Pastoureau has written extensively about symbolism and colors in the Middle Ages. His series A History of a Color, has four books that have been translated into English – Black, Blue, Green and Red.

Top Image: The month of May from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – three young women are dressed in green.