Early Modern Times – a study in scarlet

Early Modern Times - a study in scarlet

Dear readers,

Amidst the greys, browns, and whites that become browns in winter, there is nothing like a vibrant colour to raise one’s mood. We may take for granted that brightly-coloured garments and other objects are readily available, but as this recent article on ‘The insect that painted Europe red’ explains, the craze for scarlet red in early modern Europe came at the cost of imperial conquest. Before the sixteenth century, Europeans concocted red dyes using various compounds–including not quite successfully imitating the Turkish technique of mixing ‘cow dung, rancid olive oil and bullocks’ blood’–but could not produce an intense red hue with any efficiency.

But then, in the decades following the first European voyages to the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century, and in search of plunder for the glory of Spain, God, and himself (of course), the infamous Conquistador Hernando Cortés came upon the Aztecs in Mexico. The Aztec empire, he found, was flush with deep, vibrant red cloth. The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and eventually the Aztecs had long been harvesting abundant cochineal insects from cacti and crushing them to produce vast quantities of scarlet red dye. And so, in the course of plundering and destroying the Aztec civilisation and establishing a permanent Spanish foothold in the Americas, the Conquistadors and their colonialist successors began to export thousands of pounds of cochineal from the late sixteenth century onward. This striking and abundant pigment appeared not only in European garments, but also in Baroque art, including Caravaggio’s 1595 painting The Musicians (pictured above). Thus, the early modern craze for cochineal red was itself steeped in scarlet of a different sort, given its bloody associations. How many people, one might ask, had ‘dyed’ so that Europeans could wear red? I surmise, however, that Puritans at the time would have regarded the craze of cochineal dye as an immoral ‘Red Menace’ and swear to be ‘better dead than red’. Baroque artists would have surely been seeing red after hearing this philistinism, uttered by such cultural ignoramuses–unlike themselves, the self-styled ‘well-red’.

Unlike Mexicans who rightly feel that their own historic practices of dyeing have been unjustly overshadowed by European appropriations of cochineal dye, their neighbours to the north have oft preferred to see themselves as the true representatives of early modern English culture. Indeed, Americans of British stock have sometimes prided themselves on speaking in a more authentically ‘Shakespearean’ accent than those in England today. However, this piece on ‘How Americans preserve British English’ argues that this is an over-simplification. It is true that the first English settlers in what would later become the United States of America retained some of the pronunciations of Shakespeare’s England which were eventually dropped in much of modern British English (including the pronunciation of ‘r’). Indeed, the posh English accent we associate with Shakespeare’s plays would not even have been that of Queen Elizabeth I herself.

Nevertheless, modern American English pronunciation is much closer to that of eighteenth-century English–the age of Samuel Johnson and Daniel Defoe. With that in mind, the Scottish comedian and actor Robbie Coltrane need not have put on Received Pronunciation when playing Dr. Johnson in the hilarious Blackadder III episode ‘Ink and Incapability’–in which Blackadder’s dogsbody Baldrick mistakenly burns the only copy of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, and Blackadder and Baldrick have to re-write the entire Dictionary in one night. And surely Americans can feel proud to speak a dialect approximating that of Britain’s most famous lexicographer (and subject of perhaps the least dramatic biography in the English language); and also of the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. In the latter respect, revolutionary Americans can regard their nation as ‘Defoe’ of British tyranny.

In our classes next week: In EMSP 2000, Laura Penny‘s students complete their discussion of Hume’s Enquiry and turn to Diderot’s horrific account of genetic experiments involving hybrid monstrosities composed of bits of pasture and woodland animals along with trees and Parker Brothers toy brands, Ram-Moose Nerf-Yew.

Kathryn Morris will guide her EMSP 3000 pupils into the underworld with the work of that French heavy drinker who created a typeface so diabolical that it was suited only for the denizens of Inferno, Bernard ‘le Buveur’ de Font-in-hell. She will also lecture on Reformation views of witchcraft by such figures as Luther, Calvin, and contorted Korean rice sculptures designed by the Princess of Arendelle in Disney’s Frozen, Anna’s-bap-twists. The students in her ‘Body in Early Modern Europe’ class will turn to the ‘Reproductive Body’ with an examination of midwifery and fandom of circus clowns’ fake tricks, known as con-juggle love.

In her course on the ‘Renaissance print & cross-cultural exchange’, Jannette Vusich’s students consider works by that German dramatist obsessed with suffering through Verfremdungseffekt, All-Brecht enDürer. Those studying Leonardo Da Vinci: Between Art & Science, meanwhile, will ponder perspectivism on the boob-tube in fifteenth-century Florence, Renaissance teleVision Theory.

My students in EMSP 4000 will discuss the critique of Rousseau in the work of that forger of nuclear technology, ‘Atom Smith’. Those in my Pirate & Piracy class consider the Dutch thinker named after a strange mixture of other-regarding encouragement and self-effacement concerning collective hygiene, ‘You-go Groty-us’, as well as the surprisingly parsimonious yet mutilating quarter demanded by seventeenth-century pirates, ‘Buck-and-ears’.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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