Medieval(ish) matters #7: what it meant to be ‘blue’ in the Middle Ages (and more killer rabbits)

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove discovers what it meant to be 'blue' in the Middle Ages, why food and cathedrals were brightly coloured, and continues his search for the truth about medieval killer rabbits

Tournament between the Duke of Brittany and the Duke of Bourbon. (Photo by Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Was it a bad thing to ‘feel blue’ in the Middle Ages? No, is the answer, because the colour wasn’t always associated with sadness – as it often is today – but with loyalty. I’ve been enjoying a recent article in the Journal of Medieval History by the University of Nottingham’s Dr Matthew Ward about the association between the colour blue and the concept of loyalty in the Middle Ages (True blue: the connection between colour and loyalty in the later Middle Ages). He details how in later medieval English and continental texts, particularly in heraldic or chivalric literature, blue is the colour of the steadfast and faithful.

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Dr Ward does make clear that “many colours have had a range of attributes associated with them, some of which are far from consistent and “vary according to time and place”, but he sees a particular link between blue and loyalty in the later medieval period. He describes how the French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (d. 1377) was one of a number of authors at the time who “espoused the relationship between azure and loyalty in a deliberation over the significance of a variety of colours: White denoted joy, green changeability, red passion, black grief or mourning, and blue was without doubt attached to loyalty”.

Green for the devil, blue for the loyal

He also notes how Geoffrey Chaucer (who you can hear more about on this recent podcast) relates blue to loyalty in the Squire’s Tale. Meanwhile in the Chaucerian contemporary tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he suggests that “the colour blue could also be used ironically to expose the disloyalty of an individual”. Why the knight is green in that story is another matter, and if you listen to the In Our Time podcast on that topic , the University of Bristol’s Professor Ad Putter explains there that “the colour green is associated with nature in the poem, but green is also the colour of the devil”.

Back to Dr Ward. “Every colour was attached to an assortment of attributes during the medieval period and blue was no exception,” he explains. “Even this colour, predominantly connected with positive virtues, could in some cases be used in a negative sense, for example as the colour of demons. That said, a connection between the colour and loyalty developed during the later Middle Ages, couched in the languages of courtly love, knightly virtue and heraldry.”

This got me thinking about how important colour was in medieval everyday life. Southampton University’s Professor Chris Woolgar (who is also editor of the Journal of Medieval History), pointed out in his lecture on medieval eating habits for our recent Medieval Life and Death week that if the colour of a certain food, in the course of its preparation, was altered, it might have been seen as deceiving the consumer.

Bright red food: tasty

Professor Woolgar talks extensively about colour in his book The Senses in Late Medieval England, so I asked him to distil for us what colour meant to the medieval man and woman in the street, and how colourful everyday life was:

“Colour was important in so many ways to medieval people, but not necessarily in ways that we might expect.  So, a shiny colour made an immediate connection to light as a beneficent substance (light originates in what shines, not as we understand it, as a reflection). That virtuous quality meant that a shiny red was to the medieval mind more like a shiny blue than it was a matt red.  It almost has a miraculous quality – in one of the miracles of St Wulfstan a white (albus) horse, belonging to Eustace of Powick, near Worcester, was bitten by a snake or had eaten something bad with its grass, and had turned black; Eustace vowed a penny to St Wulfstan, and made the sign of the cross over the animal, and its head turned back to white – but in Latin to a shining white, candidus, that is, a white that was full of virtue (and from which, as you can see, we get ‘candid’, with its connotations of truth).”

In the panel discussion at the end of our Medieval Life and Death week, we did talk about the most admired personal attributes in the Middle Ages – but sadly we failed to attribute colours to them. Nevertheless, loyalty was one of the qualities that we discussed (which you can still watch here on the website), and that brings us around to chivalry, which I’ve talked about in a previous blog.

As Dr Ward tells us:

“The fact that loyalty became identified with the colour blue suggests that the virtue was conceived as a most significant quality. This was certainly the case in the sphere of chivalry. From the time of Chrétien de Troyes’ romances of the late 12th century, authors had been discussing the essential knightly virtues: prouesse, largesse, courtoisie, franchise (the outward manifestation of good birth and virtue: prowess, generosity, courtesy, nobility of character) and loyaulté, to which other virtues were sometimes added including hardiness and humility.”

A good colour for chivalry

So being true blue was certainly a good thing for a late medieval chivalrous knight, and it’s not surprising that blue features prominently in heraldry and coats of arms from the period. However, that wasn’t always the case. Dr Ward makes one further particularly interesting observation, noting that in the earlier Middle Ages, blue wasn’t necessarily seen as prestigious or important:

“By the ninth century, the colour was becoming more popular in manuscript illumination and it took on positive symbolic resonances; once linked with darkness in some instances, the colour was more often associated with heavenly light and majesty. A major turning point in the fortunes of the colour resulted from Abbot Suger’s rebuilding of the basilica of Saint-Denis, which commenced in the late 1130s. Blue and red stained glass windows were installed, flooding the church with blue-violet light. The deep blue luminosity was intended to denote the boundary between the earthly and celestial realms.”

Shiny, gaudy places

That did remind me of the fact that paint conservators have been able to demonstrate that medieval cathedrals used to be fantastically bright and vibrant places, with rich colours in stark contrast to the bare stone we have nowadays. Dr Emma Wells in this recent piece on Canterbury Cathedral tells us that:

“Entering a medieval cathedral would have been a complete assault on all the senses. The smell of incense; the noise of chatter and music; the vast expanse of space above and the feel of the stonework beneath your feet and hands… it would have been very different from what pilgrims would experience in their local parish church. And, in contrast to the plain stone we see today, every inch of the cathedral would have been painted in bright primary colours, even the exterior.”

Exeter Cathedral’s West Front has had a lot of detailed work done on it to show what it looked like once for example, and there used to be a fun game on the BBC website where you could repaint the front of Wells Cathedral, though it’s not been updated for a while

Coventry Cathedral was destroyed in the Second World War, but no doubt in its medieval heyday, it was a riot of colour too. Dr Ward tells us that the phrase ‘true blue’ – in the sense of a completely loyal person – might have been born out of Coventry’s colourful past:

“It is thought that one of the origins of the phrase in England was from the blue thread used in the Coventry cloth industry during the medieval period. The town was known for its woad-dyed blue cloth, the phrase ‘true blue’ referring to the blue as a fast shade, a colour which would never fade… True blue’ may also be a legacy of the connection between the colour and treuth, a Middle English term used to denote fidelity, loyalty, constancy, allegiance and faithfulness.”

I suppose one obvious question is whether everyone in the Middle Ages would have been in on the meaning of the colours they were seeing. Happily, Dr Ward has the answer:

“To suggest that all individuals thought of loyalty on every occasion they witnessed the colour blue in literature or in works of art is of course fanciful. However, those who had read heraldic or chivalric literature, or were familiar with Machaut, Froissart and Chaucer, would have been accustomed to some degree of colour symbolism and allegory. The evidence suggests that during the fifteenth century the association between blue and loyalty was sufficiently well established for it to have been reasonably well appreciated, although not all agreed with what was written.”

Anyway, there’s a few hints there that the Middle Ages was probably a pretty colourful place, but also one where colours had meanings. So I for one will be mindful next time I see a medieval illuminated manuscript or stained glass window, and wonder whether there’s a meaning that I might be missing.

More killer rabbits

Now, on a concluding note, I spotted this excellent blog post from Dr Thijs Porck of Leiden University on strange Anglo-Saxon beheadings. That might sound slightly tangential to what I’ve been talking about here, though of course the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as mentioned above, is all about a strange beheading and the consequences thereof. But actually, the reason I mention it is that I discussed medieval killer rabbits in an earlier blog, and I notice that Dr Porck includes a fine image of a homicidal grinning bunny wielding an enormous axe in his blog.

I had a quick word with Dr Porck about rabbits, and he suggested I have a look at late medieval misericords (the ledges on folding seats in churches to support you when you’re standing up for a long bout of prayer), particularly in Manchester Cathedral. And sure enough, there is an excellent carving there. I’ll quote the description to you from the Historic England website:

“The choir stalls in Manchester Cathedral date from around 1505-1510. This misericord, in the fifteenth stall from the west on the north side of the choir, depicts a hunter bound to a spit, being turned by a rabbit in front of a fire. On the fire sit four pots, in which are placed the head and limbs of the hunter’s dog, and which are attended to by another rabbit. This scene is supported in either side by roses. The carving is meant to “teach the lesson of retributive justice done to sportsmen and others by their victims.”

Kent State University’s Professor Diane Scillia has written about this particular carving in a chapter in Parody and Festivity in Early Modern Art and pointed out that the design is based on an ornamental panel made by Israhel van Meckenem, a contemporary of Hieronymous Bosch, who also had a hellish rabbit carrying a naked human on a pole in his famous Garden of Earthly Delights painting. Professor Scillia suggests that these depictions might have taken inspiration from Carnival or Shrovetide plays that included performers wearing animal masks. So, the plot thickens with these dastardly, devilish rabbits, and now we have them in manuscripts, carvings and maybe even in live performances. I  know a lot of you were interested in this topic, so I’ll be sure to keep you updated in this blog on any further malevolent leporid-based material that I come across.

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here