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Tyrian (or imperial) purple was by far the most superior colour in the ancient and medieval world, but is very expensive. Mohammed Ghassen Nouira makes Tyrian purple using traditional Phoenician methods, with fantastic results. I hope to work with him soon…
Orchil purple, obtained from lichens, was a cheaper alternative, and probably used in the Book of Kells. However, it is hard to source and ecologically unwise to do so. Isabella Whitworth has done a lot of work on dyeing textiles with orchil…
Instead, I used the folium or turnsole plant (chrozophora tinctorial). It was known in the medieval period for its red, purple and blue dye. Theophilus wrote about how to extract blue in his 12th C work, De Diversis Artibus (spoiler - wee is involved. Wee is ALWAYS involved)
The purple dye was soaked into linen cloths and then sold to illuminators. By rehydrating the cloths, the dye could be extracted. Through the power of the internet, I got some from Kremer Pigments
From analysis of another purple manuscript, the Codex Brixianus, it was hypothesised that the colour was applied through soaking in a dye bath rather than painted on…
So the usual caveats apply - I am not an artist, conservator, influencer etc. I am a book historian sodding about in my kitchen, trying stuff to see what happens (usually with my cats)
I took a sample of vellum (calfskin) and wrapped the folium cloth around it, so both sides would be in contact with the dye. Then I added a minimal amount of distilled water to rehydrate the cloth.
I left it for about an hour. It seemed to have soaked in pretty well, so I took it out and stretched it on a very rustic mini parchment frame. (The calfskin had already been stretched and scraped, as I don’t think you’d want to do this after the dye had been applied)
The next day, all seemed good. Taking some text from the Codex Amiatinus, I scribed some gold letters on. As the Codex Amiatinus was made in Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, it’s unlikely that Tyrian purple was used – probably orchil, but maybe folium
This isn’t strictly speaking a faithful recreation, but it’s lovely to see what a freshly made manuscript with purple parchment and gold lettering would have looked like
The purple parchment eater
I also wanted to know how you could treat the surface afterwards. You can get away with a lot with uncoloured parchment by scraping the surface with a knife to correct mistakes. Not so much with the dyed surface – as soon as you raised the knap, it ruined the effect
I wondered how colourfast it was as well. Tyrian purple was prized for its longlasting effect, whereas cheaper alternatives were said to fade after washing or in sunlight (I DO NOT endorse washing manuscripts). I put a snippet in some water - after a few hours it had faded (top)
I put some on the window sill as well to see how direct sunlight affects it – but that will take longer to see the results. But this was fun, and I was pleased to get such striking results using the cheaper alternative
And Leoba wants you to know that the purple dye does not detract from the tasty vellum flavour #medievalstuffwithcats
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