Purple dye

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Purple dye

Post by FionaDowson »

The Old English word for purple is fiscdeag - fish dye. Does this mean the Anglo-Saxons could make purple dye?

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Brother Ranulf
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Re: Purple dye

Post by Brother Ranulf »

No, it means that at least some of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and others who settled in England were very well versed in Biblical and Classical history - the classical authors were often translated into Old English, as was the Bible.

"Fish dye" refers to the Hexaplex trunculus, Helix ianthina, Murex brandaris and other molluscs found only in Mediterranean waters which were used to manufacture Tyrian purple - usually a deep red colour, although differing processes gave anything from pink to violet. It took around 10,000 of these snails to make a gram of dye, so nobody in England could even dream of making up a batch. The idea that the dye came from fish only indicates the huge degree of separation between England and the Med.
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Re: Purple dye

Post by sally »

although there is a tiny fragment of textile from Viking(?) age Dublin dyed purple with local dog whelks. I have the references somewhere, but not to hand at this moment. Its not therefore totally impossible to make shellfish purple in Britain, but agreed that the reference will be based on wider reading from primarily classical sources

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Re: Purple dye

Post by kael »

There are 8 fragments of cloth with identified dyestuffs 'lichen purple' found in Viking-Age contexts in Britain. To quote the text from 16-22 Coppergate excavation reports:
Perhaps the most significant of the dyes encountered is the one identified as lichen purple. There are a wide range of lichens which give similar shades of purple and which showed little variation one from another in tests (Taylor and Walton 1983). The most important lichens in the ancient world were the ones which grew on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, probably Rocella tinctoria and R.fuciformis. These produced the dyestuff fucus which was used either to extend the more expensive Tyrian (shellfish) purple, or as a substitute for it, or to add a violet hue to red and blue dyes. The use of purple appears to have declined towards the end of the Roman Empire (Kok 1966, 250) and there are no more records of lichen purple in Europe until its supposed re-introduction under the name of ‘orchil’ as a Florentine monopoly in the early 14th century (Brunello 1973, 133, 384).This has led some authors to assume that dyeing with lichen purple was completely abandoned in post-Roman Europe (ibid.), but the evidence of the York textiles cannot support this conclusion.

The lichen purple-dyed silks from 16-22 Coppergate, 1349 and 1352, may indeed be from the eastern Mediterranean silk manufactories where the use of lichen dyes would have continued uninterrupted.The same may be true of a group of figured silks and embroideries of Anglo-Saxon design from Maaseik, Belgium, which also included lichen purple (Taylor and Walton 1983, 15). In some of these, as at 16-22 Coppergate, the dye was combined with others (madder in the Coppergate textiles, indigotin in the others), a practice noted by both classical and later authors, where the dye’s tendency to fade and the necessity of over-dyeing it with faster dyes is frequently mentioned (Kok 1966,249,251, 267). However, the fine wool chevron twill dyed with lichen purple, 1306, was described above as being the product of a European weaving centre.To the evidence of this piece may be added three chevron twills of similar structure from 9th-10th century Milk Street, London (Pritchard 1984); two of these were definitely dyed with lichen purple, one of them combined with woad, and a third may also have been dyed with the same dyestuff. An 11th-13th century fine wool twill from Petergate,York, also contained lichen purple (Walton, in prep. b) and although there is some doubt as to the exact date of this particular textile, it certainly pre- dates the Florentine trade in orchil.

Annette Kok, in her detailed survey of the history of lichen purples, has pointed out that the species of lichen known to have been used in the eastern Mediterranean is also found on the south coast of France. Other species which produce a similar dyestuff are found in the region of the Alpes Maritimes and the Massif Central and still more grow in eastern and northern Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia (although not in southern Britain or northern France) (Kok 1966,252). She considers that the knowledge of the use of this dye would not have been lost after the collapse of the western Empire, but rather may have received fresh impetus from the demands of the new kingdoms of the post-Roman period, which would have inherited the association of purple with aristocracy from the Romans. Furthermore, she points to the medieval records of the Norwegian lichen dye, ‘lacmus’, and the similar Scottish dye ‘corcur’ or ‘korkir’ as a possible indication of a continuing tradition of dyeing with lichen purple in north-west Europe (ibid., 251-4). Now to her body of evidence must be added the important findings from these Anglo-Scandinavian and late Anglo-Saxon chevron twills, conclusive evidence that the dye was in use in western Europe between the Roman period and the 14th century.
edit: just as an amendment to the idea that Mediterranean trade goods didn't make it to England, there are also at least 2 fragments of silk textiles found in Britain dyed with Kermes (Coppergate/Cat# 1342, and 1355), another med-native organism. There are also a number of fragments in VA-Scandinavia contexts dyed with Kermes (Evebo B4590) and Cochineal (Veien C348). While I expect that these dyestuffs were rare, they certainly aren't unheard of in VA finds.

See also my pet hobby - VA textiles database:


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