Exploring Historical Blacks: The Burgundian Black Collaboratory

By Paula Hohti

Here at The Recipes Project, we are proud to have the opportunity to, from time to time, amplify the incredible collaborative projects of our contributors by cross-posting their work in their own words. This is the first entry in a series of posts on collaborative research into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. We look forward to sharing more from their project throughout the month to come. This post is reproduced from their entry at Refashioning the Renaissance on February 21st, 2019. (Joshua Schlachet)

Last month, I participated in a workshop on historical black dyes in the Netherlands, titled “Burgundian Black Collaboratory.” co-organised by Jenny Boulboullè from the ERC ARTECHNE Research group and Claudy Jongstra—a talented and creative textile artist working on historical wool fibres and natural dyes—in collaboration with Natalia Ortega-Saez, and the Museum Hof van Busleyden.  Led by Jenny and hosted by Claudy on her farm in Hùns, I and the rest of the group spent three days in a green house in the Dutch countryside, trying out recipes and testing how ‘a perfect Burgundian black,’ once seen as the utmost civic and professional colour, could be created by using historical dye recipes. The aim of the workshop was to provide material for the planned exhibition at the Museum Hof van Busleyden, and an e-book project, edited by Jenny Boulboullé and Sven Dupré.

Black is the most difficult colour to dye, because it washes out easily and degrades faster than other colours. Given the complexity and expense related to dyeing black, historical recipe books are full of black dye recipes, from simple and cheap procedures that could be applied by men and women at home to complex and expensive recipes that required professional skill and economic capital.

In the ‘Burgundian Black Collaboratory,’ we worked in groups to test these recipes, using Flemish and Italian sources, including the Venetian Plichto by Rosetti (1548), which is the first known book of dye recipes intended for professional dyers. This allowed us both to explore the process and methodology of reconstructing historical recipes (the recipes are vague and rarely include accurate measures!) as well as to evaluate how well the original recipe might have worked in terms of creating black.

Black was traditionally produced from barks and roots that contain tannins (such as alder, walnut and chestnut). To provide a colour that stayed longer, dyers started combining tannins with iron salts that acted as a mordant. This produced a more beautiful black, but the result was corrosive to the fabric.

A better -but much more expensive and complicated – way to achieve black colour was to use a madder and woad base overdyed with tannins such as gall nuts. By the late sixteenth century, the best-known method to get a beautiful, deep black was to dip the silk or wool first in either a woad or indigo bath that gave the cloth a beautiful blue undertone, and then, when the fabric was dry, to overdye the fabric with madder (red dye) on an alum mordant.

The challenges of reconstruction, and the great differences between recipes of black, became well visualized and materialised in the results.  Some did not turn black at all, others were initially black but turned brown overnight when they were dry, while others were just beautifully deep black. These differences were due to the fact that some recipes did not provide as precise instructions as others, they were misleading, or they simply did not work.

The fascination and interest of dyers over black reflects the fact that black was an ultimate colour of power, status and fashion in early modern Europe. By the end of sixteenth century, it was essential for young men of wealthy families to have their portraits painted in black.  

Although deep, sumptuous blacks with blue, purple or red undertones are usually associated only with the elites and merchant classes, black was, in fact, the most important colour also in clothing of our ordinary artisans and shopkeepers.  Our initial data shows that, for example in Siena between 1550–1650, whenever colour was mentioned, 25% of all male and female clothing consisted of garments dyed with different types of blacks, including jackets, breeches, over-gowns among others.

Recipes for dyeing black, intended for domestic use by ordinary people, were available also for our artisan groups through cheap printed pamphlets and booklets that were sold at a cheap price by, for example, street peddlers. One of the recurring recipes for home-based black dyeing, described ‘for women after they have spun their yarn,’ was prepared by boiling oak gall with a small amount of copper sulphate and Arabic gum -the latter which was added to give the black a degree of lustre. While this might have produced a reasonably beautiful black colour, the copper made the woollen yarn weak. For this reason, professional wool dyers, at least in Venice, were forbidden by their guild to use this method.

We will be experimenting with the Refashioning the Renaissance team with domestic dyeing and colour, and investigating what kinds of blacks among other colours our artisans wore, what these looked like and how durable these were.

Please keep an eye on Michele’s talk and article on how to use printed sources as evidence for the history of lower-class dress, on Sophie’s dye experiment during our trip to Columbia University’s Making and Knowing Project, and my forthcoming articles on Colour, on red dyes, and the social and culture meanings of black in sixteenth and seventeenth century European fashions.


Susan Kay-Williams, The Story of Colour in Textiles: Imperial Purple to Denim Blue (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Natalia Ortega Saez, Black dyed wool in North Western Europe 1680- 1850: The relationship between Historical Recipes and the Current state of preservation (unpublished PhD. dissertation submitted for University of Antwerpen, 2018).

Dominique Cardon, Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science (Archetype Publications, 2003).

Elizabeth Currie, Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Riikka Räisänenm Anja Primetta, Kirsi Niinimäki, Luonnonväriaineet (Maahenki 2015).

Tales from the Archives — A Plant for the End of the World

As I sift through materials for my own research on manuals and strategies for famine prevention, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about plants. The near-obsession with the healing properties of plants pervades premodern East Asia, not just in the pharmacological sense but in nourishing one’s moral character.

When recording a book of recipes to stave off starvation, at least in the Japanese case, authors resorted to ingredients at the edge of edibility: fibrous stalks and wild roots, pulped tree bark, the scum from the bottom of your neighbor’s used rice pot. Yet they were equally concerned with spiritual upkeep as they were with bodily preservation.


So, I went digging through our own archives here at The Recipes Project and, to my great delight, discovered Michael Stanley-Baker’s contribution on botanicals for sustenance and salvation in premodern China: “A Plant for the End of the World.” I hope it sates your appetite for pondering plants too, or at least whets it.

By Michael Stanley-Baker

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a
Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman’s Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images
Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.
Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept’s body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.  Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point’s worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning…2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經
Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.  The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  

What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, “Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation” Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.

Worst Housewarming Ever

By Lisa Smith

The Editorial Team debated whether or not to join the digital #ClimateStrike. The team was divided: should we make a political stand at all? In the end, we compromised. Rather than shut down the site temporarily, we decided to have a banner supporting #ClimateStrike week (September 20-27) and a blog post to explain our position.

To pick up on a theme of ‘hospitality’ that is so often a part of the history of food, I chose a banner for the week that suggests a big party–but one that has gone very badly wrong. What can we do to be better guests?  There is no Planet B for us to move onto for our next party once we trash this one.

Although we don’t often directly address it, many of us who work on recipes came to it through an interest in the natural world. What knowledge about plants’ medicinal properties have been lost over time as we became detached from our environments? How have modern agricultural practices reshaped what foods we can taste, and how we taste them? How can historical practices inform a need for agricultural sustainability?

Take, for example, work by Ryan Kashanipour that highlights the overlapping relationship between body, society, and nature. Or by Carla Nappi that describes the ways in which recipes encapsulate medical ingredients, embodiment, and time flows. For pre-modern Europeans, stewardship of the earth even had a religious imperative, as Marieke Hendriksen has argued. Religion was not the only reason, though; seasonality framed day-to-day experience. Our issue on seasonality from May 2017 has a range of posts that consider how seasons and availability affected foods, medicines, and artisanal crafts. I wonder how recipes of the future will be shaped by a hotter climate, fewer seasons, more deadly weather, and rapid change.

I will not hark back to the good old days (always bad historical practice), but we might consider how we can restore a sense of our human bodies and cultures as being part of nature rather than separate from it–or, masters of it. (Carolyn Merchant’s analysis in The Death of Nature seems more pressing than ever.) The work of some contributors offers, perhaps, more hope.  Anne Stobart’s work, for example, encourages us to look around more carefully at plants in our daily life.   Zara Anishanslin has a useful exercise for thinking about how things we use everyday have a global history: everything is connected. Sharing food helps to build cultural bridges and to build a sense of international community, as Megan Daigle describes. And one of our contributors, David Shields, is bringing back old crops, which expands our culinary AND agricultural possibilities.

If you want to know more about the climate crisis, I encourage you to read coverage in The Guardian. A good starting point is today’s article on “The Climate Crisis in Ten Charts”.

There is, of course, no easy answer. But one starting point might be to think more about our interconnected world, whether we are looking at the relationships among humans, animals, and nature, or across geographical regions. It is only by acting together that we can stop the housewarming guests from completely wrecking our home!

Smelling of Roses in Ancient Rome

By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Source: Wikimedia

The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.

Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).

It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.

One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:

There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*

Cupids hanging rose garlands. Roman Fresco, end of the first century CE. Getty Centre. Source: wikimedia.

One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”

Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!

Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.