How orange were the Middle Ages?

It has been quite a while since i rubbed shoulders with reenactors. Studies do not leave that much time. What’s more, Bangor’s reenactors are a somewhat disappointing bunch of people – they are extremely good at drinking tea, but as to everything else… Well…

Latvian reenactors are a bit better. You can actually argue points of costume and material culture with them. Their arguments may be naive, or limited – or good. At the very least reenactment makes you think about things you take for granted, such as colours.

Now, we all know that the Middle Ages were never all that dark but actually sparkling with colours. Any textbook will tell you that. The question is: how bright?

Between seeps of authentically prepared mead and kvas as well as mass-produced (but good) wine at the Riga 810 festival we girls spoke about fashion.

What colour to choose for the dress? Red is a noble colour, and it looks good, too, but at least half reenactors of both sexes wear it habitually to festivals. And you want to stand out.

Actually, there is a severe limitation on what colours you can choose: it is what linen or wool you can buy cheaply. For an unknown reason, the linens sold at a discount usually have very bright colours, which you can hardly get by natural means. And not everyone has the patience to die fabric before turning it into a dress.

One colour that you would not see at every festival but which seems to tune in nicely with medieval love for brightness is orange. Again, the question is how orange would it be? One natural die which would give the colour is carrot juice, but I actually do not have the time to experiment with it right at the moment. And I do not think my horse would appreciate the waste of carrots.

Another way to look at it is through medieval illuminations, and looking at my collection of miniatures from the Lancelot-Graal cycle, I spotted a few which celebrate the medieval passion for orange.

So the answer is: yes, the Middle Ages were quite orange (at least as orange as they were red or blue).

Now to my evidence. First, an image from the Queste del Saint Graal, the symbolic tournament. The one which Sir Lancelot mistakes for an ordinary tournament, decides to support the wrong side (black knights) against the white knights, get beaten, taken captive and for a good measure admonished by an obliging recluse for his sinfulness and stupidity. The manuscript is from Poitiers (France), dated c.1480 (the ms is at Bibliotheque Nationale Francais, indexed Francais 111, the illumination is on f. 252v).

This picture is about horse fashion in clothes rather than human question, so I will proceed to the other illuminations. They all come from the same ms, Francais 342, dated 1274, produced in Artois (France). You won’t be surprised if I say that they all depict scenes from the same Queste del Saint Graal.

The below picture is an earlier version of the symbolic tournament. More knights in orange-clad horses, and some of the guys are wearing orange tunics to match. There is also an orange shield.

Lancelot meets with a damsel who tells him some interesting news. Both Lancelot and the damsel are dressed in orange and dark red hues. I have to admit it is a more tasteful combination than the one above, with orange tunics and green shields.


Now the Grail story proper unfolds: Sir Perceval witnesses the prehistoric King Mordrain preparing to take the Eucharist. The Eucharist is served on an altar covered by an orange cloth, and Perceval himself wears an orange tunic. The colour seems to be popular on the Grail quest. Or maybe the illuminator had a stock of it.

This image is one of my favourites – I am using it in my PhD research and I was inserting it into the paper I am presenting at the International Arthurian Congress at Bristol in three weeks’ time, but then I realise that I cannot fit everything into my 15-minutes’ slot. Here Perceval is about to speak with a recluse, who is also his aunt and the former Queen of the Waste Lands, though Perceval does not recognise her. Perceval is wearing a different tunic (you need a few changes of clothes on a quest), but his horse is clad in orange.

Now this is a scene of Lancelot at the Chapel Perilous. The unfortunate sinful Lancelot manages to oversleep the appearance of the Grail (he is lying in full armour under a pleasant green tree). Moreover, as Lancelot snores away, a wounded knight who came to the chapel for healing is cured by the Grail, after which the knight takes Lancelot’s horse and sword and leaves without another word. That’s as much as we can say about the chivalric professional solidarity. What drew my attention to this picture is the orange garment (seems to be a tunic) which the knight’s servant holds over his arm.

And, last but the not least, another of my favourites: the chastising of King Bagdemagus. King Bagdemagus takes a white shield with red cross which only the best and purest knight may carry, and is of course chastised for his presumption. As the king leaves the abbey where the shield is kept, he is struck down by a white knight. The illumination is very dynamic and emotional – the two knight in full charge, Bagdemagus’s lance deflected by the white knight’s shield, the white knight’s lance striking straight into the king’s chest. Behind the king, his excited arms-bearer is cheering his knight on. Notice that the king and his servant are wearing orange tunics, and the white knight has an orange helmet. It definitely looks like the illuminator was somewhat constrained by the dies available to him.

To crown it all, looks like orange was not uncommon in medieval clothes and armour. It also looks rather bright on the illumination.

Given that I am not a specialist in medieval costume and dies, I would welcome any comments or corrections. Also, if someone knows what die, apart from carrot juice, can be used to make fabric orange, I would be grateful to hear about it.

Notes:

The manuscript images are available in larger size and better resolution from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France: go to ‘Recherche’ and choose the manuscript you need by clicking ‘Index’ next to the ‘Cote’ in the search form. Or you can look at all the Queste and Lancelot manuscripts they have available by writing ‘Queste’ or Lancelot’ in the ‘Auteur, titre’ field.

More photos from Riga 810 festival are available in my Google album. The festival took place on July 2-3, 2011, marking the anniversary of the city; here is its programme (in Russian).

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About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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