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What is it? A plant native to the Mediterranean and Asia (chrozophora tinctoria). Grows in nutrient-poor soil in warm climates. Also known as turnsole. The fruits it produces in the summer contain three seeds. Theophilus refers to it, suggesting medieval illuminators on the Continent used it (bk. I, ch. 33)

How is the pigment made? The purple dye can be squeezed from the fruits produced by the plant. The dye is then soaked into clothlets and dried, ready for transportation. The colour is released by rehydrating the cloths as needed. 

Was it easily available in England? Possibly, but there has been no firm identification in English manuscripts.

Is is safe? Yes. But always take care to wash hands after touching.




What is it? A lichen that contains orcinol, found in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. The dye properties were known since Classical times.

How is the pigment made? The dried orchil is ground and soaked in ammonia, which then ferments to release the purple. Only records of dye methods have survived, but as orchil does not need a mordant (like alum), perhaps painters used it soaked in clothlets (like folium).

Was it easily available in England? Certainly used in England in the early medieval period. It has been identified in Northumbrian manuscripts of the seventh and eighth centuries. Orchil is not available now, due to conservation issues. The samples of dyed wood and silk (right) have been kindly supplied by Isabella Whitworth.

Is is safe? Yes, but should be left alone due to depleted stock.



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Tyrian Purple

What is it? An organic compound of bromine produced from the secretion of sea snails, mainly in North Africa. Known from Phoenician times and highly valued in the Classical period, due to the large amounts of sea snails that were needed and the labour-intensive extraction process. Smells revolting.

How is the pigment made? The shells of the sea snails have to be broken to extract the toxic mucus produced by the hypobrachial gland. Through oxidisation, the purple colour is released. The glands are then boiled for several days until the right colour is achieved. 


Was it easily available in England? Probably not. There is little evidence for it being used for the purple dyed pages in manuscripts. Despite its high reputation, purples would have been much more easily obtainable from other sources (and cheaper).

Is is safe? Yes, the snails can be eaten.



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