What is it? Ochres are natural clay earth pigments and one of the first pigments used by humans. Red ochre (Fe2O3) is made mainly of haematite (iron oxide).
How is the pigment made? Grind the extracted clay into a fine powder and wash the impurities out.
Was it used in English manuscripts? Yes.
Is is safe? Yes. But always take care to wash hands after touching and avoid inhaling raw pigment.
What is it? Artificially made lead oxide (Pb3O4). It was used since Classical times and the orange red is clearly identifiable in many medieval manuscripts. Also known as minium.
How is the pigment made? Seal lead in a pot with vinegar. After a month remove the build-up on the lead and put this residue over heat. First it will turn white, then yellow (massicot), then red.
Was it used in English manuscripts? Yes, it was the main red until vermilion became popular from the tenth century.
Is is safe? No. Lead is harmful to humans and animals. It can also cause other pigments in close proximity to discolour. Wear a mask, gloves, and eye goggles in a well-ventilated area if handling the pigment.
What is it? A plant found in Europe (Rubia tinctorum). The roots contain alizarin, the compound that gives it the red pigment. It was probably introduced to Britain in the early medieval period.
How is the pigment made? The plant needs to be at least three years old until the roots are ready to harvest. Once harvested, dry the roots and chop into small chunks. Heat gently for 48 hours, add alum and potash. For Rose Madder add more alum.
Was it used in English manuscripts? Yes. It was easily available as pigment and dye as there is evidence of dye manufacture in viking York and the pigment has been identified in manuscripts.
Is is safe? Yes. Can also be drunk as a tea.
What is it? Artificially made mercury(II) sulphide (also found naturally as cinnabar). Cinnabar was mined in Spain since pre-Classical times, although they were aware of its toxic properties. The technique of making artificial vermilion was apparently known about by the fourth century, and described in a ninth-century text by the Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan.
How is the pigment made? Mix mercury and sulphur together and heat. Collect the recondensed matter that has formed at the top of the vessel and grind to a brilliant red.
Was it used in English manuscripts? Yes, it became popular in Europe and Britain from the tenth century.
Is is safe? No. Wear a mask, gloves, and eye goggles in a well-ventilated area if handling the pigment.
What is it? Sappanwood (caesalpinia sappan), a tree native to Southeast Asia. The branches contain brazilin. Available in Europe from Southeast Asia as a pigment and dye in later medieval period.
How is the pigment made? Harvest the branches from the tree. Grind to a powder and soak in vinegar overnight. Boil to reduce by half and add alum and calcium carbonate.
Was it used in English manuscripts? It has not been identified so far in medieval English manuscripts, but it was being used in French manuscripts by the later medieval period. It is also depicted in an Italian medieval herbal from the thirteenth century (BL, Egerton MS 747, fol. 18r).
Is it safe? Yes. But always take care to wash hands after touching and avoid inhaling raw pigment.