|Bellini - portrait of a young man in red, circa 1480|
When writing my Eleanor of Aquitaine novels The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne, I read (in secondary sources - I have not yet found the primary one) that Eleanor was married in a scarlet gown. This again led me to a spot of trawling. Wikipedia (without references) described it as "a type of fine and expensive woollen cloth common in Medieval Europe. The world "scarlet" is derived from Old French 'escarlate' (itself derived from low Latin and Persian). Scarlet cloth was produced in red, white, blue, green, and brown colours, among others. The most common colour was carmine-red though, which resulted in the double meaning of the word as a colour designation.'
That was all I needed to know at the time, but I was still curious and even when I move on from a subject I am always keen to add to my knowledge base. Having recently acquired The Enclyopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles circa 450-1450, edited by Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward, I was delighted to find a highly detailed entry on the subject of scarlet.
Although it's a similar name, the scarlet cloth mentioned in European inventories of the high middle ages does not get its name from low Latin or Persian as I had been led to believe, although that appellation does remain in the mainstream and I can understand why. The Persian term comes from a 9th century red silk cloth, widely traded in the Middle East and known as siklat, more commonly siklatun and the Persian Farsi word sakirlat. Sounds feasible doesn't it? And indeed it is recorded in the charter for the Abbey of Cluny in 1100 as 'de scarlata rubea tunicam.' The Persian version was a luxury silk textile dyed red with
|Kermes dyed silk coronation cope of Roger II|
of Sicily. So of the Persian etymology, not European
The European origin of the name 'scarlet' seems to have originated in high German from 'Scarlachen' in the early 11th century, meaning 'scraped' 'smoothed' or 'shaved' cloth. In other words the cloth was napped with shears. The best wool for this shearing process was English wool and it was in high demand among the Flemish weaving towns who specialised in making this kind of cloth. Around the middle of the 10th century that the new horizontal treadle looms began to emerge and it became possible to weave heavy weight woollens that could be teaselled and shorn to produced a high quality cloth that had a texture as fine as silk but was in fact wool. If you trawl through the Renaissance paintings of men of status in their winter best, they're all clad in in their scarlet robes!
The European version of Scarlet with the name from German origins was also dyed with kermes. The cost of the dye and the fineness of the wool made scarlet cloth the textile of the rich. In the early 15th century, a length of scarlet would have cost a purchaser in London £28, 10s 0d. A master mason in London at that time earned 8d a day, so it would take him more than two years to afford just one length of that cloth, and that was without having to keep body and soul together! It was a textile beyond the reach of Joe Public - unless of course it was gained as a spoil of war. After the sea battle of Sandwich in 1217, the Dauphin Louis's French treasure ship was captured and the wealth, including fabric, distributed among those who had taken it. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, completed less than 10 years after the battle says 'If only you had seen the sailors, rich in clothes and money, walking up and down the road, dressed in scarlet and silk, (eskarlete e de sei).
Scarlet was always dyed with kermes, but it wasn't always red because it might be mixed with other dyestuffs. Woollens were often dyed with woad because woad did not require a mordant and was easier to work with than mordant based dyes. Once the base blue from the first dyeing with woad was in situ, the cloth was redyed with a mordant and kermes was added in the case of scarlet. Depending on additions and mordants, the scarlet cloth could end up as brown, perse (ashy purple), murrey (mulberry) and sanguine - a bluish red. Some cloths had differently dyed warps and wefts to form a stripe and were redyed once woven with the kermes and were known in Flanders as striptje scaerlakenen.
So, 'scarlet' was a high status cloth, woven from English wool and always dyed with kermes, but not always red in colour. Its main centre of production was Flanders, spilling over into Northern Italy, specifically Florence. England, although the producer of the wool, only had a small scarlet industry.
A couple of sources: