BLACK; THE HISTORY OF A COLOR by Michel Pastoureau

BlackWhat a fascinating read! Pastoureau has also written the history of blue, and green, and of stripes, among other interesting subjects.   He is a French professor of medieval history and an expert in Western symbology.

Consider our expressions:  black market, black sheep, blacklist, black book, blackball, black hole, black mass, Black Friday.  And the Little Black dress.  Oh, yeah.

Who would think that a color would actually have a history, but it turns out that it does, from the Paleolithic attempts to create a substance with which to paint their pictures, to the spiritual and metaphorical significance of the color through the ages.

Meticulously researched, the book is just packed with wonderful facts about the color and people’s attitudes toward it. He offers us some history on color in general (like “to juxtapose yellow and green, two neighboring colors in the spectrum, forms hardly a noticeable contrast for us. Yet in the Middle Ages it was the strongest contrast that could be created; lunatics and dressed in it and it served to indicate dangerous, transgressive, or diabolical behavior.”)  He tells us:

Color is defined first of all as a social phenomenon.  It is the society that ‘Makes” the color, that gives it its definitions and meanings, that constructs its codes and values, that organizes its customs and determines its stakes.

Here’s something about the ‘unmentionables’.

For centuries all clothing or fabrics touching the body had to be white or undyed.  This was true for both hygienic and practical reasons — they were boiled which decolored them — and especially for moral ones:  vivid colors were considered impure and immodest.  Then, between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth centuries, the white of underclothes, towels, sheeets, napkins, bathrobes, and so on gradually became colored, as either pastels or stripes took over.  What was still unthinkable about 1850 became relatively routine three generations later:  wearing a blue petticoat, a green undershirt, pink underwear, using a red napkin, or sleeping on striped sheets.

I don’t know today just how much metaphysical import our modern society gives to colors, other than what is trendy and what is ‘so last season’, but at times, the color black was extremely important, important enough to have two aspects, a dark, deep profound black, referencing the negative and death and the afterlife, and a brighter version, having other significances. There were even two words for the two different blacks, but today, those differences have lost their significance, and the two word usage disappeared leaving us with only ‘black’ to have to do duty for all the blacks there are.

Did you know that black once had a very positive aspect, one connected with the earth? Egyptian divinities related to death were nearly always painted black, like Anubis, the jackal-god who accompanies the dead to the tomb; and Anubis the embalmer-god. However, black gradually lost its positive aspects, and became associated with evil and danger.

Oh, I could go on and on. What a quotable book. I was highlighting interesting bits, and when I realized that I had highlighted almost every other sentence, I knew I had to be a little more picky. Well, I’m off to go buy a little black dress.



One comment on “BLACK; THE HISTORY OF A COLOR by Michel Pastoureau

  1. Mary Smith says:

    It sounds fascinating.

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