Episode 106: An Illuminating Development

The 12th and 13th centuries saw the saw the transfer of book production from monasteries to professional bookmakers. In this episode, we look at the birth of the Medieval book trade. We also examine how early illuminators worked with color, and how early English dealt with the introduction of new colors terms into the language.


44 thoughts on “Episode 106: An Illuminating Development

  1. Awesome work Kevin. I can’t wait till you get to the Modern period. I’ve always been fascinated about the great vowel shift and am looking forward to knowing more about it. #Patience hehe

    • Thanks! I’m looking forward to the Modern English period as well. With the development of various English dialects, it will be a juggling act to keep all of the balls in the air at the same time.

  2. Yo, Kevin! Did you catch that final Jeopardy clue? It was something about Flemish for church of the dunes. And I totally crushed it thanks to you. Going to try that patrion thing. I only wish I could pay you what you’re worth. Just drove from CO to MI and your podcast made it easier to forget that I was still in Nebraska. Thanks

  3. Kevin, great episode, as always; thank you! The part about color was fascinating, especially how color words have the same basic linguistic progression all over the world. When you were talking about the color green, and how it is cognate with grass and grow, what immediately leapt from the far recesses of my mind was this refrain: “and the green grass grows all around, all around, and the green grass grows all around.” I hadn’t thought of that song in many decades, had to look up the rest of the lyrics, and now I’m wondering about their etymology, too. In case you didn’t learn the song in your childhood: http://www.songsforteaching.com/folk/thegreengrassgrewallaround2k.php

  4. You mentioned that an alternative word in Anglo-Saxon for black was something like swaert. (forgive the speeling it’s hard to catch that from a podcast). Is this related to the German word for black (schwarz)?

  5. Hey Kevin – do you have pictures of some of the “corrections” you talked about on the podcast? Specifically the one with the team of little men using ropes to pull the missing segment up to where it belonged?


  6. Not quite the same era, but there’s a very interesting account of book binding in London in the 1600s in the diaries of Samuel Pepys (pron. Peeps).

  7. While listening to this episode in my Mazda, resplendant in its Bordeaux-tint mica-flake paint, I found it hard to believe that a culture would not need to talk about colour. A cursory search of the interwebs doesn’t reveal much so this is home-grown speculation. Perhaps where necessary they would say “blood-coloured”, “sky-coloured”, etc. Supposedly Eskimos have many words to our one “snow”, but in reality we have: powder, crust, flakes, drift and so on. We grab other words and combine them with snow to describe something.

    The fact that a specific word does not exist for a thing may not necessarily mean people don’t talk about it or are unaware of it, but it probably means it’s not important.

    PS: the French world for egg yolk is “jaune” (yellow).

    • I think you’re on to something. I’m going to try to address this issue in more detail in an upcoming episode where I intend to discuss the introduction of colors like blue and orange to the English language.

  8. It seems odd to think that there could be languages without words for basic colors like red or blue, but there was a recent article in The Economist (Jan 20-26, 2018) commenting on how few abstract words for smell exist in many languages. We most often say something smells like smoke or mildew or something else, rather than giving the smell a specific name. The Economist article described a study where researchers found that a group of people who were hunter/gatherers had a greater number of abstract words for smell in their language when compared with a group that farmed, presumably because the former group relied more on smell in their lives.

  9. Question about ink and encaustic. Have you heard of something called encaustic painting? It’s a process wherein the artist creates a paste of melted beeswax and pigment. The artist, when working in encaustic will heat the mixture, shape it, and let it harden. The result is that the colors have remained vibrant even if the art is thousands of years old (see the Fayum Mummies for examples). In this case the “burning” in the process has to do with the fact that artists had to light a candle in order to melt the wax so they could work with it, rather than using an acidic solution to apply the paint.

    • The only thing I know about encaustic is that it originally involved a type of burning process that was not clearly explained in the early texts that mention it. I wonder if encaustic painting is the same as the original method or a more modern method that has appropriated that name?

    • The first thing I thought of when listening to this podcast was the encaustic painting method I studied in art history. Fascinating to learn this about ink methods as well. Thanks for the amazingly well researched and interesting podcast. It is one of my all time favorites.

  10. Pingback: Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  11. I know that the word for orange in Old English was “geoluread” (literally “yellow-red”), but nothing else about it. I was wondering if there was a time period of overlap between geoluread and orange or if the change was more sudden.

    Another thing, regarding purple, there is a similar scenario regarding flag colour schemes, where purple is very rare due to how rare and precious the purple dyes were (before the modern era with synthetic dyes cheap enough to produce en masse). Do you happen to know if there is any correlation between the prominence of items with basic colours to the widespread use of those words in the language (English specifically for the purposes of this podcast)?

    • Those are two very good questions. Unfortunately, I don’t have a definitve answer to either. I am not sure how quickly “geoluread” disappeared as a distinct word. I suppose one could argue that it still exists as “yellow-red” for certain shades of orange.

      With respect to the prominence of colored items influencing the existence of words representing that color, I think you have cited the best example which is “purple.” The color was so closely associated with that particular dye and with the clothing of emperors that it entered English with that same association. I think you can make the case that “orange” has a similar history. When the citrus fruit was introduced to England, the word for the fruit was soon extended as a general word for the color of that fruit. “Blue” also has a similar history. A rich vibrant blue color became prominent in the 1100s and 1200s. The color started to be used in stained glass windows in cathedrals. The Church mandated that it be used in paintings of the clothing of the Virgin Mary. The French king also adopted the color for the clothing and heraldry of France. Shortly thereafter, the word “blue” started to be used as a distinct word for that color (whereas previously blue was covered by other words which also included shades of green or purple.)

      • “I suppose one could argue that it still exists as “yellow-red” for certain shades of orange. ”

        What? Us? Argue? Here?

        I am proud of my national colours – green and gold – but confess to being still confused as to what colour is described as GOLD.
        Mostly the flags/banners/emblems etc seem to me to be green and yellow.

        Perhaps the wave of computing will help some of us to allocate colours by the three values for RGB codes in Windows MSPaint.exe?
        (signed) “Still on my second pass”

  12. Also, it is incredibly difficult to find information on the Ancrene Wisse when one doesn’t know how to spell it! (I eventually got it, luckily!) Fascinating.

  13. Did you say that the zero was a “mathematical innovation from the Muslim world”? Some evidence points to India in the fifth century A.D, and some even earlier. Does the same also apply to “Arabic numerals”?

    • Yes, ‘Arabic’ (or ‘Hindu-Arabic’) numerals have their ultimate origin in India. My wording could have been a little better there. I was trying to say that those numerals were introduced to Europe from the Arab world. I actually discussed the Indian origin of Hindu-Arabic numerals in Episode 90, so check that out if you haven’t listened to it yet. I also touched in the Indian origin again in the most recent episode – Episode 114.

  14. I’ve always wondered about the word and color pink. Pink seems to stand apart. By this I mean the accepted color families are usually the primary (red, yellow, blue) and secondary (orange, green, purple) colors plus white, black, and brown. When I buy my daughter an 8 pack of markers or crayons I get the above colors (minus white for obvious reasons) plus pink. Pink is a light red, or red mixed with white, and seems to be universally acknowledged. But we don’t have the same acceptance for other ‘light’ colors. Even as I write this I struggle to name them. Light blue = cyan, light yellow = ?, light purple = fuscia?, light green = chartreuse?, light orange = ?. I suppose I could ask the same for the darker hues of colors. But I’m getting long winded here, so I’ll just ask:

    What up with pink?

    • Believe it or not, “pink” did not originally refer to a color in English. It first appeared in the 1500s as a word for a specific type of flower. Over time, things with a color similar to the flower were called “pink-colored.” Eventually, the word “pink” was adopted as the word for the color itself. This evolution is similar to “orange” which originally was the word for the citrus fruit, and later was adopted as the word for the color of that fruit. I don’t really know why “pink” was so widely accepted as a distinct word for a hue or shade of red. Perhaps its close association with girls and feminine attire had something to do with it. Just a guess.

      • Correct me if I’m mistaken, but as I understand it pink was the traditional color for boys’ clothing – it’s a lighter shade of red, which is a masculine color. Pink didn’t shift femaleward until the early days of the twentieth century. (Meanwhile little girls were often dressed in light blue, as the Virgin Mary is.) This is something I read years ago, and so I don’t have a source for it.

        The history of “pink” in English makes me wonder what common colors go unnamed in our language, but which other languages have words for (as easily could have happened with “pink” if not for that flower). I’ve heard Russian has no fine distinction between green and blue – which is hard to comprehend. This isn’t the place for these questions, of course – but your podcast is always reminding me how arbitrary and strange our words’ origins are!

        • I was slow to catch on to — and am now trying to quickly catch up on — The History of English Podcast. What a great series! Coming off #106 – An Illuminating Discovery, I have two suggestions for other worthwhile podcasts. Anyone who hasn’t already heard Radio Lab’s segment from 2012 on the color blue should make sure to listen to:

          And K Ellsworth and Mark L (for two) may enjoy the June 3 2019 episode from Gimlet Media’s ‘Every Little Thing’ podcast (“Pink for Girls, Blue for Boys – Why?”).
          With help from fashion historian Jo B. Paoletti, the host and a caller delve into how our dichotomy between pink and blue evolved.

          Keep up the great work!

        • Actually, in Russian it’s the other way around: not only do we have the words for green (зелёный, zelyonyi) and blue — we also have TWO words for blue, синий (siniy, dark blue, think Facebook logo) and голубой (goluboy, light blue, think sky blue or Twitter logo), and they’re so prominent we have them both as rainbow colours (so we have 7 colours in it) and it’s hard to grasp how there can’t be such a distinction while learning English!
          The issue with blue/green, as I remember it, is very common around the world. What I remember though is Ancient Greek. In Homer’s poems, for instance, the sea is described as green. It’s especially interesting providing that the Greeks were absolutely a seafaring nation.

  15. I’m trying to find the earlier episode where you talk about the connection between black with blanc and blanco but I’m having trouble finding it. Do you know what episode number that is? Love the podcast!

  16. Hi Kevin, thanks for your amazing work. I have discovered your podcast only a month ago and I’m devouring it. You talked about letters and mentioned an OE word „bukstaff“ (phon.). Now, I believe to have read somewhere (don’t remember the source) that „bukstaff“ is a germanic compound word, where „buk“ (pron. book) refers to a tree (beech) and „staff“ refers to pieces of twigs of that tree. To me as a native German speaker this makes sense, because in German a beech is a „Buche“ („u“ is pron. „oo“ and „ch“ pron. similar to the „gh“ in words like „ugh“). And the word for letter (the alphabetical character) in German is „Buchstabe“. The „stabe“ reminds of the German word „Stab“, which means „staff“ or „stick“. So it’s literally a wooden staff or stick from a beech. I also remember (from that very same unknown source – sorry) that the germanic priests sometimes tossed little twigs (or staves) in order to „read“ the future from the patterns the staves formed and that those patterns might be the origins of the runic script. Have you ever heard about that or a similar theory and can you verify/falsify it? Again, thank you for that super interesting podcast. I’m looking forward to hearing more. Best regards, Steven

  17. In this episode you mentioned that the English word blue is actually cognate with black and developed from that word. Can you give me sources for that, because I didn’t see it on any of the regular etymology websites (like Etymonline or OED).
    Interestingly, I wrote an essay a few years back about the Modern Hebrew word for blue, which it seems originally “black.” That makes for an interesting parallel.
    (My essay is available here online: https://ohr.edu/this_week/whats_in_a_word/8285 it’s part of my weekly column of Hebrew synonyms).
    Keep up the good work! I’m glad I’ve gotten all the way up to this episode so far….

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