RCGS Book Review: Green: The History of a Color

PASTOUREAU Michel

A visitor to Barnes and Nobles often is assaulted with dozens of “History of” books, which are frequently either salacious, grotesque, and/or about Nazis.  More often than not, these books are not worth even the $7.99 bargain price for which they are offered, for it is rare to find an encyclopedic work that is both pleasurable and educational and not fixated on some moral perversity. There are, however, scholars who consistently produce a harvest of books that both teach and delight. The French medievalist Michel Pastoureau is one scholar whose books have consistently informed and enchanted readers with a cornucopia of culture, and his most recent, Green: The History of a Color (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), is no exception.

The initial response to Green might be apprehension: Pastoureau had already written two other histories of color, including the tremendously successful Blue: The History of a Color (2001) as well as its follow up, Black: The History of a Color (2009). Pastoureau’s 2011 The Bear: a History of a Fallen King was a delicious tour of the history of one of the West’s most prized animals, but another book on a color initially appeared to be one palette too many, and it seemed no accident that the color of Pastoureau’s latest book was the color of money. Happily, Green does not disappoint, and the book is both a visual and an intellectual feast.

As always, Pastoureau’s tone is playful; he takes an intense delight in both reading and studying, and unlike many historians, Pastoureau has a deep love for the artefacts produced by his Western ancestors and revels in them like a friendly old man displaying his wares in a curiosity shop. When describing early Europeans, Pastoureau does not feel embarrassed speaking of “our” ancestors, as opposed to the distant and clinical third person.

As he does in his other popular works, Pastoureau begins his tour with the artifacts produced by prehistoric Europeans. We quickly learn that what is odd about the color green is not how important it is as a color for moderns but how unimportant it was for primitives. The color does not appear in what drawings—from the Lascaux cave, for example—that we have from the Paleolithic period.  Even in the Mycenaean world of Homer as well as the Classical Greek period, green is a rare color; in fact,  green was so infrequent in Homeric and classical Greece that some scholars of the Victorian period suggested that the ancient Greeks could not even see green.

Unsurprisingly, when we move north, green emerged as a favorite of Germanic and Celtic peoples and thus was viewed as a barbaric, transalpine color to the Romans who, of course, preferred the more modest red—except for the eccentric Caesar Nero who, like many ancient Romans, would gaze into emeralds to rest his eyes and decorated his famous Domus aurea with lush, green foliage. Generally speaking, however, most sane, moderate Romans preferred the more stately red, yellow, black, and white. This Roman trend of associating the color green with decadence, barbarism, and heightened emotion set always be ranked among the bad colors—when such ranking was done. Nonetheless, green did have a positive connotation for the Romans: the word “green” in Latin is viridis, which is related to vir (man) and virtus (virtue) and was perceived as being a color of virility and life. Centered in between these two vacillating extremes of the ways in which Romans saw the color of green was a more mundane association of green with commoners or plebs; the chariot teams of the common people, for example, were identified with the color green. This use of green as a class distinction stretches all the way to the contemporary period as the members of the British Commons still sit on green benches (the Lords sit, of course, on stately red seats).

As Germanic and Roman culture fused to become the Middle Ages, Roman forms met with Germanic colors, and green gained a new importance for Westerners. Green is fairly uncommon in the Bible, but, as Pastoureau notes, so are most colors—the colors that we read about in vernacular translations of the Holy Book are often originally descriptions of a type of material used in building something as opposed to the actual color the material, i.e, white is often given in place of ivory. Green becomes a “middle” color in the high middle ages; it is to be used on days when neither red nor black or white are to be used. Greenland, discovered by the Viking Erik the Red was given its name as a sign of prosperity. Interestingly, Green, especially when contrasted in the mind of Christians with the crusaders’ white and red, became the all-encompassing symbol of Islam, and even today many Islamic flags have the color green. Allegedly, it was Muhammed’s favorite color and was used as the color of the dynasty formed by his line.

As remnants of pre-Christian culture lingered in the Middle Ages, green permeated this barely-veiled paganism: springtime usually involved decorating oneself with green leaves and plants and young men placing branches in the yards of marriageable girls. The green men of pagan mythology loitered in stories of green chevalier like those found Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as the Green Hunter of Germanic mythology who led nocturnal hunts with both living and ghostly undead hunters. Fairies and imps were often green, and their mythological descendants, little green men, appear on Mars in the nineteenth century (and make landings on earth) in the 20th century. The potions of witches were thought to be green, and demons as well as the devil himself were often depicted as being olive. In the medieval vision of the natural world, nasty aquatic creatures like green toads, frogs, whales and serpents lived in around green water and the treacherous green sea.

Green came under scrutiny in the early modern period during what Pastoureau calls the “Chromoclasm.” The thinkers of the Reformation attacked green as well as other colors as too decadent and Catholic, but oddly Jean Calvin viewed green rather favorably. During the early modern period as capitalism blossomed but Christianity still saturated Western culture, green became associated with greed (Americans were not the first to associate money with the color), betrayal (Judas often wore green), and of the impetuous and wild youth who flocked to the Romantic movement, but, for the average modern Western man or woman—whether or not he or she burrowed in the poems of Wordsworth or Shelley—it was still symbol of hope and life as it had been for millennia. Many modern figures—especially artists—loved green: green was the favorite color of Moliere and Goethe. However, the color terrified such figures as Schubert and the ageing Queen Victoria.

Today, green lingers on as a color of both danger and delight. In the contemporary world, green has become the symbol of health medicine and the environmental movement and those political parties whose platform is built around it. Drawing from the British khaki, it is also the symbol of most of the world’s militaries (armies used to be loud and bright and wanted to be seen by the enemy). Green: The History of a Color, like all of Pastoureau’s books, is highly recommended and will provide both a tranquil retreat and a bite-sized, but hearty and nourishing, educational tour through the greenery of Western civilization.

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