Musings on the changing perception of color over time
I was listening today to Radiolab’s Colors episode. They mentioned the “wine-dark sea” of Homer, and talked about the perception of color as it varies across culture, language, and history.
This got me thinking about how color was used in narrative and in poetry in different times and places during the medieval period. There are certainly differences in nuance, and may be differences in outright perception.
This is a topic that has a long and rich history within literature studies but it’s something that bears some thought for those of us who are trying to re-create authentic style in our composition, and for those of us trying to understand the texts that we are preparing for performance.
Here are a few references and commentary on various aspects of this topic to serve as jumping off points for discussion or further research.
Some psychology/linguistics/anthropology links related to this topic.
- In a study of the Himba people of Namibia (Reviewed in an APA Article) and another reference (the second is in French, Google Chrome does a good job translating and it’s worth the effort). Roberson, et all find that the Himba do not perceive a difference between blue and green. The second reference talks about differences in perception of green between English and Korean speakers.
- In Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) Berlin and Kay argue that color perception evolves sequentially and is related to language terminology. This is an older study and their position has elaborated since then but this is a good early study on the topic.
Another point worth considering is what colors were available in various media such as painting and dyeing at various places and times. It is often the case that technological change drives perceptual or societal change. The ability to re-create a given color is likely to emphasize the need to describe it more exactly, so there is probably a coordination between the development of color technology and the way it is described in writing and performance.
- Pigments through the ages gives an illustrative history of known pigments in various times.
- The blog Pigmenthistory gives additional perspective and information on this topic.
Finally some links to various aspects of color perception in English literature, specifically. There is extensive writing on color in literature. These are just three examples relevant to three different periods.
- The Old Salt Blog discusses the fact that in Shakespeare’s the Tempest, the sky is referred to as blue, but not the sea, and the theory is presented that the color shift in perception about the sea occurs around 1700.
- In the Chaucer Review there is an interesting article about “Aspects of Chaucer’s Adjectives of Hue” (on JSTOR). In this article the main colors referenced by Chaucer are white, red, green, yellow, black, grey. He uses french terms for the color blue and it’s not the most common color he references.
- His primary use of color is to describe people, (red-face and hair, green-envy, brown-work outdoors, yellow-hair), then after that to describe things in nature (red, white, green — “the main interest being flowers, not foliage.”), Third his interest is in clothing (black, green, white primarily but also purpure, azure, scarlet and some others), then animals (white, black, grey are most common), then stones and minerals. The article also lists which poems have the most color references and talks about color symbolism.
- There is emphasis in this article that when color is used in Chaucer there is often a moral component. This is certainly different than the modern sensibility where color has emotional overtones or even is just purely aesthetic.
- In Miscellaneous Notes: Color Words in Anglo Saxon (Modern Language Review April 1951), Lerner discusses the use of color as used in Anglo-Saxon poetry and shares an interesting insight: He belives that the there is an important difference between the dominance of “hue” in modern color perception versus “brightness” — which he argues was more significant than hue in understanding Anglo-Saxon color perception. He points to usages of brun which has a sense of “shining” versus wann which has a sense of “dull”, and shows examples where each of these are used across multiple different hues.
Some of the questions that come to mind from the above that would be good jumping off points for discussion:
- How should we use color in works we are writing? Is there an aspect of how color was perceived in the various times and places that we should try to re-create in our own works, at least some of the time?
- What did color mean in the poems and stories we read?
- What items get described with colors in various periods?
- How did the categorization of color affect the metaphoric, literal, and physical view of the people who lived in the period we study?
In your preferred time and place, what color is the sky?
If you have links or suggestions of articles or other material in these areas that you have found helpful, or if you’ve researched or written something yourself, please comment below.
How Owen got started in the bardic arts:
The key points:
- My first day at camp: When I found the courage to take a stand
- The day I found my harp: When I met the muse for the first time
- The day I performed my first poem: When I found an audience
In middle/high school I did theatre. Mostly tech (lighting, sound, set,
and costume), but occasionally I got stuck acting. I got started the
summer between 6th and 7th grade when I went off to an 8 week summer camp.
I was standing in line for dinner the first night, and one counselor was
talking with another “Yeah — the problem is that all these kids will want
to act, none of them will be primarily interested in helping out behind
the scenes with the tech stuff” A sudden flash of inspiration struck me
about how no one ever achieves anything without being willing to take
I turned around on the spot and said “Who says no one wants to do
tech — my name is… and I want to learn.” This was more or less when
I overcame my shyness about speaking out, though it was several years
before I linked this lesson up with performing.
The fall after summer camp, I started playing string bass in middle
school. I was waiting for my best friend to finish an after school
violin lesson, and made some sort of half-snarky comment, which resulted
in the instructor looking up at me and saying “You’re tall enough —
tomorrow you’ll stop by and we’ll get you started on Bass. (reference the
observation in the previous story about risk-taking — I couldn’t exactly
back down). Later that year, I fell in love with harp music when I heard
Alan Stivell’s Renaissance of the Celtic Harp and made some comments about
wanting to learn harp some day.
So I went to high school, and had a serious crush on a girl in my class.
She had joined the cross-country running team, and so I, of course did, too.
(The silly things we do). The coach was also in charge of organizing
volunteers for the local Renaissance festival, and had arranged for his
team to have a games booth to raise money. So we showed up (I’d made my
own costume), and no one really had any idea what to do to draw customers.
So I listened (the first duty of a bard, right?) and figured out how the
busking thing worked, so I started calling out to people to come try their
hand at our game. We raised $500 that day, I lost my voice, and got the
assignment to be in charge of the booth for the rest of the fair. This
was when I learned that making a fool of yourself can be done deliberately
and with dignity. (That was Saturday. Sunday I learned the power of
But I never applied the (Saturday) lesson to actually get as far as asking
her out on a date. We wound up having a brief conversation shortly before
we both headed off to college, where we asked each other why we hadn’t
gotten together, but she was going to UVA having graduated a year early,
and I was probably going off to college a year early as well — leaving
HS for college without waiting for the diploma. This was when I realized
that not saying what you feel can have as big or bigger consequences as
saying, exposing your inner self, and possibly failing. If there was one
thing I would have done differently in high school it would have been to
have had the courage to tell her how I felt about her.
When I went off to college, I discovered that I missed having music to do
(the String Basses belonged to the Middle and High Schools), and the
December of my junior year in College when I was home, my dad surprised
me by saying “here’s some money go buy yourself a harp, then.”
So I drove into Baltimore and found one. There was a small,
bullet-holes-in-the-sign store across the street from Peabody Music
Conservatory, called “Ted’s Music Shoppe” I went in and there was this
huge 5 foot harp hanging from the pillar. I pointed at it, and Ted’s son
took me next door to the warehouse, where 5 bins back on the right were
several more of it. She was the third one from the right. I looked at her
and she spoke to me: “Get me out of here, NOW! and I might even let you
play me some day.” (I’m not used to having musical instruments talk to me
like that, but it was very clear and vivid). So we left. The price he
asked was exactly what I could afford. ($375 for a 5 foot floor harp. I
figure the harp talked to the owner because that wasn’t a haggled price,
and even back then (1984) that was about half of what the price should
So I had a harp. What to do with one? I spent several months learning to
tune it, and fumbling about with it. That summer I was staying in Madison
WI (University) between terms, so I went down to State St (pedestrian mall
near campus) and played street harp — there weren’t any other harpers,
the other musicians played saxophone, guitar, clarinet. I didn’t really
make any money at it, but one day this guy came walking up with a Mandolin
on his back and asked me if I’d ever heard of the SCA. (I had, from
gaming, from the Renaissance Festival, and from another group, called
Dagorhir, which I was in in Maryland while in High School.) So I figured
— “they could use a harper, even a not very good one” — so I went to my
first SCA fight practice that night.
I played harp at events for 4 years, sang a little bit with the
Jararvellir Music Guild, was Herald for the Dance Seminar (which involved
doing more or less what I’d done at the RenFest) but didn’t do any
“bardic” stuff — writing/sharing my own work (I’d gone to postrevels and
sang along, but not led anything) until the week I left Jararvellir for
Nordskogen. My girlfriend and I had suddenly broken up, and the town was
too small to have all the same friends and not be on speaking terms. I’d
spent a lot of time the month before I left hanging out at Thorbjornstead
(Thorbjorn the Greysides’ home, with him, his wife, daughter, and the
various people who lived there). The previous winter, my harp had
suffered an accident when I slipped on the ice, and Tjukka (there is only
one Tjukka) who was living there, helped me to repair it. Tjukka also
offered to help me move to Nordskogen, which was a godsend, since I had
little money at the time, and would have had real trouble getting
everything moved without him driving behind me in a van with most of my
stuff (mostly books). He was at the time staying there because he had very
little money, too, but he wouldn’t let me even pay for gas. This is where
I learned that one can speak with simple actions more loudly than with
I wrote a poem for Thorbjornstead, and read it to them the evening
before I left. (Strong blow the winds of fate to sea). A month later,
at Nordskogen Warlord tourney (the first W in WW), I performed that
piece at a bardic circle. They looked at me and said “That’s very good,
do you have anything else?” — I had to tell them that I didn’t.
I left the circle and went off and walked around the site and
“The Smith” came to me — I wrote it down and went back to the circle, and
said “Here’s another one.” And that’s when I realized that I could write
poems and that people would listen to them. But that I should expect to
have to perform them.
It was funny two weeks later when we were all in Jararvellir for their
summer event (Warriors Day, the second W in WW), and the Baroness
of my new group was talking to the Baroness of my old group, and
said “why didn’t you tell us you were sending us a bard?” “who” “Owen”
“Owen?” “yeah, nice poetry” “He does?” <blink>! <blink>?
The following spring I went to A&S and wanted to enter a sonnet, but found
out that you couldn’t enter a sonnet at regional, because it was a mail-in
category. So (after griping a bit) I decided to do something to make it
easier for people like me who wanted to share their poetry to have a place
to do so.
But that’s all prelude: when did I know I wanted to be a bard?
The Thursday after that Nordskogen Warlord, I went to fighter practice. I
had two new pieces I’d written since the event and O wanted to share them.
The first was a forgettable filk about the events of the weekend, and the
second was “Fly Dragon, Fly” — I sang them for Angus Ulrich, who had been
the victor in the Warlord Tourney, (and was therefore the subject of the
filk) — he listened to both of them and then said:
“Owen, there’s more to you than beer and twinkies”
Which, coming from him, still amounts to possibly the greatest praise
I’ve ever received.
That was when I decided to try to be a bard.
This is in a similar voice to that of “The Book of the Patron”
— but it speaks to what is quite probably my favorite quote and best guidance for anyone who would seek to be a patron, or actually for anything at all.
Patronage and Social Interaction (in the Bardic Arts and Elsewhere)
Be noble! and the nobleness that lies
In other men, sleeping but never dead,
Will rise in majesty to meet thine own.
James Russell Lowell. 1819-1891.
Let us speak first of nobility. What is nobility?
The Noble is in command of their own time and resources, judges himself
and his actions by his own standards, and does things to do them well.
The Servant does things to please another, judges himself and his actions
by another person’s standards, and does things to get them done.
Nobles often also serve. Noble service occurs whenever one volunteers to
serve and when one’s own standards exceed the expectations of those who
one is serving.
Noble comes from the French noscere — to know:
1. To perceive or apprehend clearly and certainly; to understand; to
have full information of; as, to know one’s duty.
2. To be acquainted with; to be no stranger to; to be more or less
familiar with the person, character, etc., of; to possess experience
of; as, to know an author; to know the rules of an organization.
To know is therefore to have a relationship with the subject. To be noble
is to have a relationship with the world and people around you. A
relationship of understanding and respect. It is this special and quite
real relationship that transcends the game we play and makes it something
more. We are not just here to learn history, or study strategy, or do cool
crafts, but also to call forth this thing from within ourselves.
Patronage is ultimately the act of standing in a noble relationship to
someone else, an artist, a student, or anyone, and encouraging them to
strive for their own nobility.
Performance and Persona are fundamentally interlinked topics. How you present yourself and who you present yourself as provide part of the context in which the other material you present will be viewed.
This is something I wrote many years ago. This is written in the persona of the author of a “Medieval How To” books, like Baldesar Castiglione’s “The Book of the Courtier” or Raymon Llull’s “Of the Order of Chivalry” — so it reads as very didactic.
The basic points still seem relevant to this discussion.
Performance is the sharing of experience. Performance requires
venue and an appropriate arena. Venue is the guarantee of an
audience. Arena is the location where the performance takes
place. While many types of performances can be accomplished
with minimal arena (storytelling, poetic recitation, etc),
no performance can be accomplished without a venue.
The creation of venue is the job of the patron. The patron
guarantees an audience for the performance. This can take
many forms from sponsoring and announcing a public entertainment,
to simply requesting a song or story while standing in line
waiting for feast.
When a performer has no patron they must act as their own patron.
This is called busking. One special form of busking occurs when
the performers stand as patrons for each other. This is
frequently called a bardic circle.
Every performance has a patron, whether it be a single
individual, or a group of people acting together. When a
group of people are acting together as a patron, it is usually
advisable for them to appoint someone to speak on their behalf.
This person may be titled the emcee, host, herald, or such other
name as suits the occasion, or may simply fulfill the function
without special title.
If a patron wishes to sponsor an entertainment, they should
announce it in advance, so that an audience may gather to hear it.
If it is an open entertainment (for any performer who would come)
then this should be sufficiently in advance that the performers will
have time to prepare appropriate material. The announcement should
state what kind of material is requested or that it is simply
“open to hear anything on any subject”.
Performers would do well in turn to note that in places where
the custom is that most or all circles are “open subject,” the
announcement may omit this point — however it is always polite to
inquire if you are not sure whether your piece will be acceptable.
It is the duty of the patron to request the performance. If a
circle or other entertainment is to be conducted, it is the duty of
the patron to open the circle, either by performing or requesting
the first performance. The patron sets the rules for how performances
will follow each other, whether it is “free for all,” “pass the lantern,”
“bear pit,” “by request,” or some other method.
Depending on the method chosen, and the community of performers
present it may or may not be necessary for the patron to exercise
active control of the circle subsequent to the start, however it is
the patron’s responsibility to step in or make requests as appropriate
to keep the circle going, and if time or space limitations require it,
to close it at the end.
A good patron is one who is able to encourage performance effectively.
The art of the patron is thus to set the rules for performance of the
entertainment in such a way that they do not become tedious to the
performers or the audience or detrimental to the performances.
The patron is also a performer. One who acts as a patron should strive
to give the best performance they can, in order to better encourage
excellence from the persons performing for them.
(from “The Book of the Patron” — (c) 1998)
Hector of the Black Height shares his insight on the mechanics of the Bardic Arts on this page.
Hector comes at many of the same questions that I find fascinating, from a different angle. Frequently we arrive at similar conclusions, though sometimes we follow different paths to get there. His insights into these topics are always valuable to me,
The web of narrative has many strands, stories spring from the points of connection. Each strand represents its own path. What is most important is understanding how to make, wear, and care for the cloth so that it may continue and be of use to many.
I was asked this question a long time ago by a young lady who declared herself to be my student.
This is the answer I gave in October 1995.
To craft the truth in words of cunning rhyme
To speak good sooth to all in careful prose
Defend the weak falsely accused of crime
And seek to heal the wrack of sorrow’s woes
To ever be a servant to the art
To choose the right path though the way be hard
To share the hidden secrets from the heart
This is what it means to be a bard.
20 years later I think it’s still a reasonable place to start from.
Two of the invaluable lessons I learned from my first declared student:
- Teacher is an accusation. There is no appeal to this accusation.
- Earnest questions from others are some of the greatest gifts you can ever receive.
The definition of “what is a bard” will be different for each person:
- Different people may prefer to use different terminology,
- Each person’s definition will be informed by the culture and place they come from (in all the dimensions these terms can have),
These will also influence the material they choose to present and encourage.