In Living Colour
05 September, 2013
The discovery of a medieval document always excites interest, especially when it is well preserved. The Hawick Missal Fragment is not only a rare survival, but also a thing of remarkable beauty. It is particularly precious, dating from the 1100s or early 1200s, with its lavish decoration still largely intact and its colours still vivid.
A missal is a book of liturgical texts and music, for use by a priest and choir during Mass. This one was discovered in 2009, in the family papers of the Rutherfords of Knowesouth, near Jedburgh. It was produced for use at a procession on Palm Sunday – the start of the most important week in the Christian year.
Now Historic Scotland is celebrating the discovery of the book by staging a series of concerts inspired by the Hawick Missal. The first concert, Fragments of Blue, was a multimedia event staged at Jedburgh in July.
The second concert, Fragments of Black, takes place next Saturday, 14 September, at Kelso Old Parish Church. It will feature new music by the internationally renowned composter Michael Nyman. This will also be a multimedia presentation, with spectacular use of lighting, imagery and video. A third concert, Fragments of Red, will be staged at Melrose Abbey next Easter.
These concerts are named after the main colours used on the Hawick Missal, which would have been produced in a monastery. The monks who wrote and illustrated this spectacular manuscript would have had to make their own dyes. Ink as we know it now did not exist. It was not until the 1400s that a good quality printing ink was produced by mixing soot, turpentine and walnut oil.
The monks would have made their ‘inks’ from a variety of natural products. Some had mineral bases, such as ground red ochre; however, the majority of inks were derived from plant pigments.
Black could be produced a number of ways. The root of flag iris mixed with sulphate of iron makes a good black dye. A deeper black dye can be made from oak apples. A small round growth on an oak twig, an oak apple is caused by chemicals injected by the larva of certain kind of gall wasp, which lays its eggs in the twigs. These chemicals release gallotannic acid which produces a rich black colour, unfortunately this also tends to be corrosive and can damage the vellum (stretched animal hide, used before the days of paper).
Blaeberry berries were used to produce a deep bluish purple, lady’s bedstraw roots for a red-orange colour, and the flowering tips of heather provide grey or green. Yellow was obtained from birdsfoot trefoil or the flowers of the flag iris.
Red was a particularly difficult colour to produce. It is possible that monks could have made it from ‘crottle’, a form of lichen. However, a red pigment made from the non-native plant madder was widely traded in the early medieval period, and considered very valuable.
Madder is unusual in that it produces a pigment that can be stored for long periods. Most plant-based pigments had to be freshly made. The seasonal nature of pigment production must have been an important influence in the timing of work on illustrated manuscripts.