“Two centuries ago no one could have imagined that something as valuable as cochineal, ranked alongside gold and silver as one of the great treasures of the Spanish empire, would eventually be forgotten,” explains historian Amy Butler Greenfield, author of A Perfect Red. Cochineal, for the uninitiated is a small insect that when dried and crushed generates a dye that produces a luxuriant, and long-lasting red colour. While researching her Master’s thesis, on the introduction of chocolate to Europe, Greenfield noticed constant reference in documents housed in Seville’s Archive of the Indies to ‘grana’ and ‘grana cochinilla’ which piqued her curiosity. Amongst Spain’s most important imports from the new world turned out to be a red dye.
This information led Greenfield, years later, to research the story of cochineal, and the reasons why red dye would be so important to pre-industrial Europe.
One of the starting points is the colour red itself. Human kind has always had a special relationship with this colour in particular, as she points out, “anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, demonstrated that the first colour terms developed in most cultures make a distinction between bright and dark. If a language has evolved to include three colour terms, almost always the third term refers to the colour red. Words specifying other colours only develop later, after the word for red is established. Interestingly, Berlin and Kay also note that it’s not uncommon for the ‘red’ term to be related to the word for blood. They cite examples of aboriginal societies where the same word expresses both concepts”.
The importance of red in medieval life wasn’t just limited though to a natural affinity. It was also valued because it was relatively rare. Medieval dyers, who were highly skilled and trained, could produce many rich colours, but red was one that was extremely difficult to produce, or at least in a form that was durable. Vegetable roots which produced ‘madder’, a red dye, were known from ancient times but the dye was susceptible to slight changes in alkalinity and temperature. Insect dyes such as oak-kermes, St John’s blood and Armenian red were all highly valued but difficult to come by (in records presented by Greenfield, it cost tent times more to dye fabric an intense red than sky blue, in a medieval Florentine dyeshop). As a result, red garments were costly and thus an important status symbol.
A Perfect Red provides fascinating cultural snippets, all based around this special colour. For example, who would have thought that it was common practice to paint figures of the Virgin Mary dressed in red? “Many people associate the Madonna with the colours blue and white, ” the historian agrees, “but in Renaissance paintings she is often shown in red robes, or a combination of red and blue. There are good reasons for this. Although red had some connection with the idea of sin, it was even more strongly associated with the Church and with God. It was the colour of the burning bush, Pentecostal fire, the blood of Christ, and sainted martyrs, not to mention the emblem of the Church itself. It was also a colour associated with high status: a person wearing red cloth was a person of great estate, who deserved great respect”. (Seemingly “the practice died out partly as a result of artistic trends during the Baroque period. By the nineteenth century, when the Pope officially declared Mary’s colour to be white, the colour red had fallen from grace and was more likely to be associated with sin than with the divine. “)
The discovery of America by the Spanish crown opened up a new world with various riches unknown in Europe of the time. One of these riches was cochineal, the small insect that was to be found in abundance on certain types of cactus growing in Mexico (particularly in the Oaxaca region). Cochineal had a number of advantages over dyes in use at that time in Europe. Due to its chemical composition, it produced both a deeper and longer lasting red, and it was easier to cultivate, albeit in Mexico. By the 1570s, Europe’s textile industry had been converted and had become largely dependent upon the use of cochineal. Thus providing much needed revenue to the Spanish throne.