23 May 2023

Review: Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau book cover

My exploration of colour continues, and this time I'm back with Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. A hefty hard cover with beautiful artwork inside, this massive tome took me several months to read; leaving me wondering whether renewing it nine times might qualify me for some kind of library record.

Topics explored included white and black forming opposites, as light and dark, good and evil.

It was in the specifics that my reading interest picked up. Tidbits about history, like this about chess:
"In the original Indian game, and then in the Arabic-Muslim version, black pieces and red pieces opposed each other on the chessboard - as is still the case today in the East. These two colors formed a pair of opposites in Asia from time immemorial. But in Christian Europe that black/red opposition, so striking in India and Islamic lands, had little significance." Page 42
That's quite interesting, isn't it? But that's not all.
"...over the course of the eleventh century the color of one set of pieces changed to provide an opposition conforming more to Western values, and white pieces faced red pieces on the board." Page 42
I had no idea that European chess boards sported white and red chess pieces for several centuries. Then, in the mid thirteenth century, the colour combinations changed to black/white, which is how we know the game today.

I'm also interested in how the colour black has been perceived in the past, and the ongoing shifts that happen every few generations:
"After the year 1000 the color black began to become less prominent in daily life and social codes and then to lose a good portion of its symbolic ambivalence. In Roman antiquity and throughout the high Middle Ages good black and bad black coexisted: on the one hand, the color was associated with humility, temperance, authority, or dignity; on the other hand, it evoked the world of darkness and the dead, times of affliction and penitence, sin and the forces of evil." Page 46
In the mid 1300s, both before and after the black plague, black signified wealth and public authority as monks and religious orders, lawyers, judges and magistrates began wearing black, making it austere and even virtuous. Following on were clerks and those in government, followed by university professors, lending authority and knowledge to the colour.

You might know that queens in France once wore white when in mourning, but you may not know - or remember - who was responsible for changing the fashion to black for mourning:
"At the end of the late Middle Ages, the kings of France still wore purple for mourning, and the queens still wore white. But at the turn of the sixteenth century, Anne of Brittany...introduced to the French court the use of black for mourning queens." Page 71
That reminds me of another area of interest I have, Victorian mourning etiquette. In fact, I have a few books on my TBR on the topic, but back to Black:
"In the fifteenth century, gray experienced an astonishing promotion. Not only did it make its entry into the wardrobes of kings and princes, but symbolically it became the color of hope." Page 110
I didn't know about the popularity of grey in this period, with the colour even going so far as to represent hope and joy. The trend extended to textile arts and pewter became a sign of high rank when it wasn't previously valued until that time. This reminded me of the sudden rise in the preference for the colour charcoal in business work attire, curtains and couches that came around in the 2000s.

Another random fact, this time about rainbows. I didn't know that:
"Until the seventeenth century,... rainbows were never represented as they are today. Sometimes they had three colors, sometimes four, rarely five, and these colors formed different sequences within the arc than they do in the spectrum." Page 148
How did I never notice this before? That's absolutely fascinating to me! Why wouldn't artists paint or draw what they saw? The rainbows seen hundreds of years ago are the same we see today and they clearly have more than four colours. Perhaps it was to conserve paint or pigment?

If you're old enough to remember the emo phase of the 1990s, then you might be surprised to learn it was nothing new. As the saying goes, history repeats itself. In the chapter entitled The Poetics of Melancholy, the author informs us:
"In the nineteenth century, two attributes often accompanied the representation of the Romantic artist or poet: black clothes and a "melancholic" stance..." Page 165
Later, Pastoureau points out that black leather jackets worn by bikies and rock stars once indicated the wearer was a rebel or an outcast. Now, wearing black is no longer transgressive and doesn't draw attention in the way it once did. Other things change too. Where white was once the most common colour of underwear, this trend has reversed and now black is the most popular. Go figure!

I've always been interested in how the colour black has been viewed by people across time and how it's gone from monastic and austere (Benedictine Monks, and later the Puritans), to officious and indicating an office of good standing, to rebellious and counter culture (goth, emo), to formal wear. 

If you're interested in books about colour, you might like to check out my reviews of the following:

Color - A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles

I borrowed Black from the library, and I don't think I've satisfied my colour curiosity just yet, with the following titles still on my TBR:

The Colour Code by Paul Simpson
Secret Language of Color by Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut
Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Michel Pastoureau presented an academic approach to his subject matter, and as a result, I found some of the content engrossing and some tediously detailed. Nevertheless, I'm still very keen to read his offering on stripes, The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes, but now I know not to hope for an informal Mary Roach type presentation.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Who new, what an interesting niche topic. Thanks for sharing

    1. You're welcome Shelleyrae, it was a great book for the non fiction challenge!


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