Colour in the Middle Ages

Every society harbours unique and intriguing perspectives on colours—what they symbolize, which ones are deemed more aesthetically pleasing, and which should be avoided. French historian Michel Pastoureau has unearthed fascinating insights into the medieval period’s relationship with colour. Here are seven vivid facts about colour in the Middle Ages based on his research.

The Middle Colour

Medieval scholars inherited the idea from ancient times that there were seven primary colours: white, yellow, red, green, blue, purple, and black. Green occupied a central position, symbolically balanced between the extremes of white and black. It was also regarded as a soothing colour. Scribes often kept emeralds and other green objects nearby to rest their eyes. The poet Baudri de Bourgueil even suggested writing on green tablets instead of white or black ones for this reason.

Even the seas were usually depicted as green in the Middle Ages – Bibliothèque national
de France, MS. fr. 343, fol. 32r

White vs Red

Michel Pastoureau writes that “the true medieval opposite for white was not so much black as red.” This can be seen in the way Europeans adapted chess. When the game was adopted in Europe, the pieces and chessboard were painted in white and red, contrasting with the black and red sets common in India and the Middle East.

It was only towards the end of the Middle Ages that the white versus black dichotomy became more favoured. A key factor in this shift was the advent of printing, where black ink was used on white paper, reinforcing the perception of these colours as natural opposites.


Knightly Colours

Arthurian romances, one of the most popular forms of literature in the High Middle Ages, frequently employed colour symbolism, particularly in the depiction of knights. Pastoureau notes that these narratives used colours to convey deeper meanings and character traits. He 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.

Black vs. White monks

During the Early Middle Ages, monastic rules stipulated that monks should not concern themselves with the colour of their clothing. However, over the centuries, their attire became increasingly darker. The Cluniacs, one of the most influential monastic communities, believed that black was the appropriate colour for one’s habit. This perspective faced backlash in the twelfth century when the Cistercians adopted a white habit.

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

The debate over monastic colours was intense among the leaders of these orders. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, argued that black represented humility and renunciation, while white symbolized pride and was suitable for holidays and resurrection. In contrast, Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot of Clairvaux, claimed that white stood for purity, innocence, and virtue, whereas black symbolized death and sin, even likening it to the devil’s appearance.


The Colour of Islam

Green is widely associated with Islam, but this association only developed in the twelfth century. The Quran mentions green eight times, always positively, as a colour representing vegetation, spring, and paradise. The Prophet Muhammad favoured green garments, including a green turban. While green was linked to Muhammad’s descendants, different colours were associated with the ruling Islamic dynasties: white for the Umayyads, black for the Abbasids, and red for the Almohads.

Mihrab from the Kachan mosque, 1226. Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst. Photo by Gary Todd / Wikimedia Commons

Pastoureau believes that green became a unifying colour for Muslims in the 1100s. He writes, “Its symbolism is associated with that of paradise, happiness, riches, water, the sky, and hope. Green became the sacred colour.” Consequently, many medieval copies of the Quran had green bindings or covers, a tradition that continues today. Religious dignitaries often wear green, whereas green gradually disappeared from carpets to avoid trampling on such a venerable colour.

The ‘Blue Revolution’

Michel Pastoureau’s book on blue begins by highlighting the neglect this colour faced among the ancient Greeks and Romans, who rarely wrote about it or used it. He even explores the intriguing question of whether ancient peoples could perceive blue at all! This neglect persisted 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 significant shift in the ‘blue revolution’ was the use of blue to represent the clothing of the Virgin Mary. The scene of Mary mourning Jesus’ crucifixion was popular in the Middle Ages, and once artists began depicting her cloak in vibrant blue, it quickly became the standard. Additionally, artists, especially those working in stained glass, overcame technical limitations in creating blues, allowing the colour to be used in various mediums and clothing. Pastoureau notes that by the thirteenth century, monarchs such as France’s Louis IX and England’s Henry III began wearing blue, leading it to become the colour of medieval royalty.

The Decline of Yellow

Yellow initially benefited from its resemblance to gold, which bolstered its reputation. Many medieval heraldic symbols incorporated yellow, and possessing blonde hair was considered highly fashionable. However, in the Later Middle Ages, yellow began to acquire negative associations, including envy and heresy. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was increasingly depicted wearing yellow clothing. Consequently, it was unsurprising that when the Catholic Church convicted the Czech reformer Jan Hus of heresy in 1415, they dressed him in a yellow robe for his execution.

Giotto, Judas Receiving Payment for His Betrayal, by Giotto in 1305. Wikimedia Commons

Yellow also became associated with Jews, and as European Christians enforced clothing regulations on Jewish communities, yellow was often (though not always) included. By the early modern period, yellow fell out of favour, perceived as gaudy and unpopular.

Michel Pastoureau has written extensively about symbolism and colours in the Middle Ages. His series A History of a Color, includes books on Black, Blue, Green, Red, White and Yellow.


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