7/30. Mango #2, oil on linen panel, 5x5 in. SOLD
I had long wondered what was meant by "red gold" in medieval literature. Was it, like so-called red or rose gold today, simply a colored gold alloy? If not, why was it called red? Of course, the answer to this might have to do with what the color "red" once meant.
A cursory explanation was offered by Nigel Barley in "Old English Colour Classification" (Anglo-Saxon England 3, 1974). His theory of Old English colors states that they were centered on a light-dark axis, and that a few colors had derived from ancient horse color terms (which Earl Anderson would later elaborate upon) - these special colors were normally used of "animate" things, or else to describe some other-dimensional aspect of an object's surface. But despite this over-ruling ancient "binary opposition" of light and dark, hues sometimes were distinguished, even if, on the hue axis, the Old English colors didn't line up with our modern color system. Barley gives a table, like the one below, that shows "how simple is the solution to that most perennial of old disputes in Anglo-Saxon - the use of read to describe gold" - we see that the Old English colors read and geolo once lay in different places on the spectrum from those of modern English "red" and "yellow":
..Modern English....Old English
*Hæwen and baso were not basic-level color words.
Barley writes, "Recourse is often had to highly ingenious and learned explanations urging that gold in medieval times had a relatively higher copper content and that it was consequently redder than modern gold. We are told that the adjective was used only for the alliteration or because it had become a set phrase. As elsewhere, such explanations lack an anthropological perspective and so fail to realize that Old English 'red' is not our red and that we cannot blandly equate the two categories." While Barley's explanation considers the "variation from culture to culture in the position of boundaries," Earl Anderson suggests we also determine the possible focal point of the color red in Old English. He writes,
"Contributing to the reputation of 'red' as the color par excellence is the extraordinary stability of *rudhró- (together with its northwest variant *rowdhó-) in the Indo-European languages," he says; *rudhró- possibly is a loanword from Sumerian urudu 'copper' from Sumerian *burudu, "which gave the Euphrates river its ancient name[.]" The connection to copper or ore can be found in Latin raudus, pl. rudera "piece of copper, copper coin," Russian ruda "ore." *Rudhró- is found in the Greek erythros and Latin ruber. The variant *rowdhó- appears in Baltic, Celtic, and Germanic languages, e.g. Lithuanian raudas, Old Irish ruad, Welsh rhudd, Old Norse rauðr, and Old English read (and noun rudu "redness").
The virtual universality of 'red' as a semantic category is a linguistic by-product of the artistic and ritual use of ocher among primeval human cultures the world over. Ocher is a clayish soil containing hydrated oxide of iron, with colors that include yellows, reds, and browns. Iron ore is found also is found in the purer forms of red hematite and yellow-brown limonite. Ocher, hematite and limonite in pulverized form often were used as pigments by ancient man. The colors of these ores can be intensified and darkened by heating them and by mixing them with water or with some other liquid.... The material culture, ... considering the early importance of ocher in it, may very well be the motivator of 'red' as a basic color term in languages around the world.
Anderson goes on, "In the Iliad, [erythros] is used for the color of copper as well as of blood, wine, and nectar.... For speakers of contemporary European languages, 'red' has its focal point in the color of fresh blood. We should take care, however, not to project this intuitive knowledge of red onto languages other than our own, for blood, copper and ocher all are possible candidates as the material basis of red." So red might have been more earthy than we are used to today (and possibly why Aristotle was against describing the dawn as erythros). The problem of "red gold" is made more puzzling, says Anderson, by the fact that "gold" (Germanic *gelto-) was derived from "yellow" (*gelwoz), but that it is
modified by 'red,' not by 'yellow' until later medieval times. [The 14th-century poem Wynnere and Wastoure has the phrase ȝalowe golde.] This certainly differs from the situation in the sixteenth century, when Thomas Cooper (1578) defined the verb flaveo, 'to be yelow, or of colour lyke golde,' and ... when Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary (1755), defines ruddy as 'Approaching to redness,' and then gives, as a second meaning, 'Yellow. Used, if at all, only in poetry.' Johnson was thinking of Dryden's line, 'A crown of ruddy gold inclosed her brow,' a relic reminiscent of the Old an Middle English ways of describing gold, which by the eighteenth century had become forgotten to the extent that he didn't know what to make of it.
The modifying phrases used in Old Norse are raut gull 'red gold' and bleikt gull 'bright gold' (cf. OE blac [easily confused with blæc "black"]); Old Norse also has raud mani 'red moon' and et rauða 'egg yolk.' Among the twenty-eight times that read- is used in Old English poetry, the phrase read gold appears four times. Read- modifies gold about twenty-one times in the Old English corpus, and it modifies blod about twelve times.... Among the fifty-four times that rot 'red' appears as the most frequent color word in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, eighteen times it modifies golt.
Anderson discusses the proposed solutions to this puzzle:
(1) The meaning of "red" was indeterminate. Some in the 19th century believed that primitive Germanic peoples had an underdeveloped capacity to see color, hence "red" could be used to describe gold. But this doesn't explain why gold could not also have been described as "yellow."
(2) "Red gold" was merely a poetic convention. This theory, mentioned by Barley above, was just an extension of another 19th-century idea that the severely limited palette of the Iliad and Odyssey was a stylistic choice. "It is true that read gold is a verse formula, always appearing as a b-verse in Old English poetry; but beyond the poetry, read modifies gold sixteen times in prose or in glosses ... [and those examples] are not confined to any one formula. Moreover, the phrase 'red gold' continues to be used in Middle and early modern English, long after the potential influence of oral poetic tradition."
(3) Also mentioned by Barley is the theory that the gold of the Middle Ages "was often darker than that of our own, and contained a considerable alloy of copper," as W.E. Mead wrote ("Color in Old English Poetry," 1899). Anderson says that gold objects from medieval China do tend to have a reddish color, and that in Europe, since the time of the late Roman Empire, "the gold used in coinage often was alloyed with copper, but this was not normal practice for gold used in manuscript illustrations and for jewelry or precious objects." Although Anglo-Saxons only rarely used gold in manuscript illustration before 900, "[later] artists sometimes used it generously, and when they did, they used highly burnished gold, not only for incidental details, in a picture, but non-naturalistically to sectionalize or unify or frame a picture, and to brighten it." And while an inventory of Anglo-Saxon metalwork would indicate a number of gold-copper alloy objects, Anderson believes that
(4) L.D. Lerner, in "Colour Words in Anglo-Saxon" (Modern Language Review 46, 1951), had said that read was one of several color words (including brun, græg, and fealo) relating to brightness (or shininess?) rather than hue - so that read gold really meant "bright gold." This was just a revival of the theory that primitive peoples had a limited "color sense," and of theories like Mead's which describe an ancient preoccupation with light-dark contrasts - so that hwit often meant "bright" instead of "white"; brun when applied to metal meant "bright" with, as Mead says, "a suggestion of redness"; fealo of weapons meant "bright" and slightly yellow; etc. Barley argues the same point when he writes that the color system stressed brightness over hue. But, says Anderson,
the Anglo-Saxons were more likely to safeguard the integrity of gold because of its greater value. In some prose texts, indeed, read as a color-modifier suggests the purity and brilliance of gold rather than its adulteration with base metals. This is the case with an anonymous homily De sanctio Iohanne:Þu gelitenest swa read gold, ealra fugela king, Fenix gehaten
[You shine like red gold, king of all birds, called Phoenix]
... and again [in Ælfric's Catholic Homilies I] when St. John transforms a bunch of green branches into golden rods:ealle þas goldsmiðas secgað þæt hi næfre ær swa clæne gold ne swa read ne gesawon
[all the godsmiths say that they never before had seen gold so pure and so red]
However this may be, the range of referents modified by read in Old English is such that the word in itself could hardly imply 'brightness,' although it is true that bright things, like the sun or the sky or gold, and maybe even blood and wind, could be red. Among the items often described as read in charters are topographic features such as rocks or stones, especially boundary stones (17 occurrences), cliffs (7), ditches (8), a ridge (2), a path or road (14), a slough or wallow (7), a spring (5), stream (6), ford (7), or pool (3). Read, when applied to these referents, evokes an earthen or mineral color.(5) Barley's solution, as we saw above, was that the places "red" and "yellow" occupied on the color spectrum were different from where we would put them today, so that gold was called read and not geolo.
(6) Another possible solution is the theory that
'red,' the color par excellence, has a close semantic association with 'color' in the sense of a 'covering,' exemplified by gilt, paint, or, in paleolithic and neolithic times, by fine red ocher dust sprinkled over a body in a funeral. In the phrase read gold, the essential idea is that gold is a covering; its chromatic value is secondary. For this reason, 'red' is preferred to 'yellow' as a modifier for gold ... In some languages, it is true, the taxonym for 'color' also means 'red': ... [e.g] Spanish colorado 'reddish.' In ancient and medieval Europe, red was a symbol in malo of evil, of the devil, and of a dreadful disease called "St. Anthony's fire" in the Middle Ages and Renaissance ... whereas in bono, red had protective power against evil.... According to this line of reasoning, red, as the color of blood, has a special association with sorcery or magic or the supernatural or the universal life-force and thus could extend to gold, the best of all metals.But, although English "color" was a loanword from Latin color (rooted in celare 'to conceal'), the "closest semantic counterpart to color in Old English ... is hiw, which means 'color,' 'shape,' or 'appearance' but not 'covering.'" And with regard to magic or a universal life-force, Anderson says
the symbolic role of blood is ambiguous in medieval iconography. The wine ceremoniously consumed at communion symbolizes and becomes Christ's blood, shed at the time of the crucifixion as the basis of mankind's salvation. On the other hand, it is a medieval scientific commonplace concerning the blood of animals that 'heora blod is heora lif' [their blood is their life (Ælfric's Catholic Homilies I)], in contrast to human beings, for whom life consists in the soul rather than in blood. There is, after all, then, no particular connection between 'red' and sorcery or the supernatural in Old English.
Of these six possible solutions to "red gold," Anderson says that Nigel Barley "is right if all he means to say is that the Anglo-Saxons thought of gold as read rather than geolo." Anderson suggests a "larger theory," that
Anderson notes that information about relative frequency doesn't say much about the focality of read, but rather the subject matter of the material in which we find the word: the read paths and boundary stones mentioned in charters, the colors used in scientific texts, and the many references to the Red Sea in religious works are all "out of proportion to the probable use of read in the ordinary speech of the Anglo-Saxons. With respect to semantic range, however, [this information] encourages the belief that 'earth tones' are a canonical part of read."
Old English read and its early Germanic cognates preserved the semantic range of Indo-European *rudhró: the colors obtainable through the artistic preparation of ocher and hematite: red, reddish brown, orange, and reddish yellow. The reason for 'red gold' rather than 'yellow gold' is, quite simply, that read is mainly earthen, mineral, or metallic in its focus, whereas geolo focuses mainly on the colors of vegetation, and resembles grene in this respect.
The conceptual challenge that 'red gold' offers has two parts: the semantic range of 'red' is comparatively restricted compared to Old English read. 'Orange,' 'pink,' 'purple,' and 'gold' are basic colors in contemporary English, and thus are sharply differentiated from 'red.' In Old English, in contrast, these colors belong to the semantic range of read.... Leaving aside the biblical hydronym read sæ [Red Sea] which is just a translation of Mare rubum, the most frequent referents are topographic features such as cliffs, rocks, ridges and paths, streams, ditches, pools, mires and wallows, and herbs and nettles. The referents include blood, apples, peppers, grapes, clover, lips, the uvula, bodily wounds, and, of course, gold.
In modern English, as noted earlier, the focal point of 'red' is something like the color of fresh blood, therefore we may tend to think that blood was the prototypical referent of 'red.'
It is quite possible, however, that the prototypical referent of the Indo-European word for 'red' was ocher, the earliest mineral-based pigment to be used universally by mankind. OE read was, in other words, essentially an earthen color, at least originally. The possible focal points include reddish brown, orange, and reddish yellow; the bright red of fresh blood is possible but improbable. At some early point in their history, the Indo-Europeans learned the use of copper as it spread from Sumer to other parts of the Fertile Crescent and beyond, and at that time, ocher may have been displaced by copper as the focal point of 'red'; this new foreign influence on the material culture may have found expression, as well, in *rudhró- based on the same root as Sumerian urud 'copper.' No doubt the focal point and range of this word varied in time and place among Indo-European dialects, affected by changes in the material culture such as the introduction of shellfish or plant-based dyes and advances in medical and metallurgical technologies. It is impossible to prove that the focal point of OE read was something other than the color of blood, but two arguments favor this position:
(1) Of more than 260 appearances of blod- in Old English texts, it is called read fourteen times, and once rudig. Read is the color word most often used to modify blod, but fah~gefah, and sweart are also used....
(2) In the Old English Lapidary ... periphrastic descriptions of the blood-like colors of sardonyx [blode licost "most like blood"] and sard [luttran blode gelic "like clear blood"] are used, rather than read. If fresh blood were the prototypical referent of Old English read, one might have expected a phrase like *read blode gelicost, or possibly blodread which appears four times in Old English ...
These arguments are inconclusive, at best suggesting that we cannot draw firm conclusions about the focal point of OE read. It is possible that read has two focal points, one the color of freshly drawn blood, and the other a mineral color like gold - just as modern English blue has two focal points. We cannot be certain about that, but we can be certain that read was a basic color word whose semantic range included red, orange, pink, gold, and purple.