Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!


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