Ahhh…. The joy of vacation. I’m just back from NYC where I was able to meet up with Risky Megan which was loads of fun. I am assuming she will have excellent news to share with us soon. My trip to NY was writing business related as it turns out I got elected to the RWA Board of Directors. And yes, for those of you wondering, my tiara was a perfect fit. (grin) I looked very spiffy.
I’m home now and on vacation for the rest of the week, which is lovely and so far I have done an epic amount of not very much at all.
I am going to share an interesting thing I came across the other night as I was
procrastinating, beginning my vacation doing important research.
This pdf about medieval pigments is my favorite thing ever just about since that time I was working with my son on the Roman wax tablet project.
Don’t be fooled by the rather boring B&W cuneiform tablet photo on the first page. The rest of this document discusses pigments and bonding agents identified from the beginning of human history through about 1500 and talks about how to make them. With pictures.
This is fascinating for history geeks. And how did I find this you might ask? Because of twitter. Someone remarked on a story in which the author compared the heroine’s breath (or something) to cinnabar. And there was a WTF discussion and much wondering about cinnabar in food. And one person said the most they could find was some medieval references to recipes.
And I thought, huh. This cannot be right. If cinnabar was safe to eat we would be eating it now. And if it was not safe to eat, we would have stories that listed poisonous food people ate in times past, and we do not have such stories involving cinnabar. So I Googled the subject myself and found that first off, cinnabar is toxic. And second off, cinnabar and recipes occur in the context of recipes for paint.
And that lead me to the medieval pigments pdf which I read from start to finish with much excitement because that’s how we roll here at the Riskies.
It’s not much of a surprise to learn that modern chemistry has taken some of the vibrancy out of paint pigments. Some modern colors don’t have the iridescence of pigments that were once made from organic minerals or metals. OK, yes, also much of the poison (but not all). Don’t distract me with product safety arguments. Orpiment, by the way, is actually arsenic. Who knew? Certain colors and their composition are lost to us. The ingredients point, as well, to the importance of world trade. Ear wax, my friends, reduces froth in a binding agent. I did not know that either. Nor do I know who dug around in their ear and said, huh. I wonder what happens if I put this in the binding agent for my paint?
Now I am sharing this information with you. Because that’s how I roll.
One of the yellow watercolors available in the 19th century was said to have been made from a combination of earth and urine of cows that had been fed only with mango leaves.
I thought you would like to know that. 🙂
There was a yellow pigment in India made with cow urine, as I learned in some of my ancillary research, though I did not come across the diet reference.
I love the stuff we dig up sometimes!
And Sandy, thanks, I really appreciate knowing that. 🙂
Oh and congrats on getting elected and thanks for volunteering to use your knowledge and experience to serve through this time of huge changes in the industry.
Thanks, Elena! This is a great time to be writing romance, I know that for sure.
Congratulations! And thank you for sharing that wonderful article. Whenever I read any type of recipe I wonder how someone discovered it or worked it out, and I was also struck by the use of ear wax! One can see why painters needed assistants to prepare their colours, and I wonder whether the monks illustrating manuscripts preferred to do their own preparation to ensure the best possible results given that the quantities they needed would have been much smaller.
HJ: I know! So many interesting questions. I bet the folks over at the medieval manuscripts section at the British Library would know. I believe some MS artists are recognized — they might know if their paint was unique to them or if MS from the same location were sharing the same pigment batches. Like, one guy makes a batch of blue and parcels it out, or if everyone made their own.
And that is how a simple question or thought results in being sucked into internet research, not coming out until hours later. It is wonderful to have this resource available, but it often results in things, like housework, not getting done. Thanks for sharing this with us.
LOL, librarypat!! How true that is. (Looking around in dismay at my house , knowing that people are coming for Thanksgiving…and yet, here I am, doing this! Not even research, which of course can be excused.)
Carolyn, thank you for this!! I LOVE this kind of research…. and these kinds of questions!! Some of the research I did for The Rake’s Mistake showed that individual artists even in our period still had distinctive individual recipes for certain colors. (That’s a key point in that book’s art-counterfeiting subplot.) I wonder, with HJ, if the medieval monks could also be ID’d that way!
Thank you also for giving up some of your time to serve on the RWA board. I hope you’ll find it rewarding, and I know you’ll be great!
From the article, I infer that this is very likely. The British Library has a Medieval manuscripts blog and twitter account that are well worth following as they often discuss issues like this. They are digitizing these MS so there are stunning high-resolution images and wonderful discussions about them.
Here’s the link to the blog:
And here’s a link to their twitter account: