by John Casey

Critical semantics shows us “literary history, refracted” (13). It allows us to “tell a story about a vanished world” and “see the century in five words” (176, 2). It charts how “luminous usages” have dramatic effects on a word’s semantic history (4). Greene’s Five Words is replete with gestures towards visual experience, but its role is most explicit in his account of “envelopes,” words that speak to “things people saw with their own eyes, and yet necessarily saw through the eyes of allegory” (111). When we see one of these envelopes in action, however, the basic stuff of vision escapes sustained attention. Blood, Greene’s example of an envelope, comes to be seen “as simply itself” in early modern writing (109). It appears as “a substance, a liquid that has a reality apart from the allegories of religion, history, and medicine”—but what features obtain in that reality apart from allegory (109)? 

Aristotelian scholastics, like Francisco Suárez and Eustachio of St. Paul, maintained that all substances were colored and the existence of that color was not predicated on eyes or minds. Scholastics, then, might take Greene’s mention of blood’s substance to necessarily imply its redness, but how is it that we can call blood red? It appears blue beneath flesh. When it reflects light it seems partly white. Poets in antiquity were prone to calling its appearance purple. If blood is red in itself, what is red in itself? Greene approaches the problem of color’s inconstancy when he cites Morocco’s aim to “prove whose blood is reddest” in The Merchant of Venice (2.1.6-7). This is taken as an instance where notions of blood are simultaneously “heavy with accumulated meanings and light of real significance” (129). Color is also evidently meaningful here, but it is not immediately clear how or why. Color’s meaning hinges on the object to which it attaches, but the object to which it attaches is only ever available, as it were, in color. Color’s ubiquity invites a certain kind of initial complacency, but as soon as we look closely at it we find, as Sir Thomas Browne did, that what is “most manifest to the senses” is inordinately “obscure to the understanding” (230).

When Galileo challenges the classical and scholastic idea of the world’s inherently colorful nature, telling us that color is naught but an “empty name” for something that “inhere[s] only in the sensitive body,” our common sense notion of visual experience is upended (185). Color is not, then, a feature of our world, but rather a feature of us. Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, Grimaldi, and others would worry over what color was with greater nuance over the early modern period, but Newton’s impact is perhaps the most famous. Building off earlier theories, he renders the quality of color a quantitative matter. To return to Greene’s example, blood at the beginning of the early modern period is red and merely appears redly by the period’s end. Entire worldviews are at stake in this distinction. Deciding on how color has purchase on reality means deciding whether phenomenal experience or scientific abstraction accurately conveys truth. Despite or perhaps because of the metaphysical problems of color, early modern writing traffics constantly in it across various discursive spheres.     

Setting aside the problems of defining particular colors encountered by early modern lexicographer, [1] color in generic terms could be reliably used as a metonym for the contingency of this temporal plane. Aemilia Lanyer, for instance, tells us that “gaudy colors soon are spent and gone” (188). It might equally serve to highlight judgement’s vulnerability to sense experience. Sor Juana, for example, warns against the “false syllogisms of tint and hue” (falsos silogismos de colores) (59/47). Yet color can just as easily be metaphorically deployed to convey a particular kind of insight. “By portraying myself for others,” Montaigne says, “I have portrayed my own self within me in clearer colours than I possessed at first” (Me peignant pour autruy, je me suis peint en moy de couleurs plus nettes que n’estoyent les miennes premieres) (323/665).  Color helps describe internal and external states alike, but it is not clear that it means anything in itself. It is instrumentalized to point to the truth of certain things and falsity of others.

Color, in early modern rhetorical terms, meant figurative language. The colors of rhetoric communicate something more than propositional content. They show that language can be used non-literally, can speak outside the bounds of truth and falsity. In Puttenham’s account, poetry’s colorful rhetoric “inueigleth the iudjement” in a way that ordinary speech does not (8). Actions, no less than words, are called colored when they trouble judgement. Calvin tells us that the custom of confession ceased because “a certain woman faining that she came to confession, was found so to have colored under that pretence the unhonest companie that she used with a certain Deacon” (fol. 140v). Color indexes a gap between what seems and what is. Color’s absence is then noted to close this gap. The Princess, in Tyler’s translation of Calahorra’s The Mirrour of Princely Deeds, is “not able to colour her affections” (70). Internal states are made external affairs through the language of color. Using color in these ways emphasizes that judgment is predicated on sense experience, but we also see that truth sometimes exceeds sense experience or is perverted by it.  

The Blason des Couleurs, a fifteenth-century book frequently translated and published in new editions across the sixteenth century, does not tarry with color as such, but rather tries to fix the significance of particular colors by tying each of them to human qualities (e.g. Violet means loyalty [90]). It tries to establish an effective semiotics of color and render color experience less contingent upon perceptual experience. Color could, for the author of the Blason, be coded such that it signified something other than itself.[2] Rabelais refers to the Blason’s practice of defining color’s meaning the very “practice of tyrants” (l’usance des tyrans) (234/117) What color means, he tells us, is a result of natural law and does not need scholarly argument. Merely look around the world, he says, and you will see that black just means mourning (238/123). Discussions of color again lead to divisive ends. Whether the features of the world are inherently meaningful or whether that meaning is composed by us is yet another question posed by color. 

Color led to abstract problems, but it also had practical consequences on early modern life. Sumptuary laws fixed certain colors to certain social statuses and thus rendered status a perceptual matter. One could see a courtier chromatically. Novel hues like indigo from India or cochineal red from Peru meant profit for merchants, exoticism for consumers, and exploitation for the people whose lands were colonized. Global trade endeavors show that color is in and of itself valuable, but that that value is culturally relative. At the English Factory in Edo, Japan, Richard Wickham discovers that his clientele crave only what he calls the “saddest cullors” (172). Over and above what color means is color’s ability to transmit some inchoate feeling or affect that is not necessarily explainable. Just as defining color in literal terms is a difficult if not impossible project, so too is explaining why it is that color moves us in the ways it does.

This emotive dimension of color is most explicit when the color of skin is at issue. Lazarillo de Tormes tells us that upon first meeting Zaide, a black man (un hombre moreno) who becomes his stepfather, he was afraid of him because of his color and bad disposition (el color y mal gesto que tenía) (6/113). Complexion and attitude have equal purchase on judgment. Zaide’s own son becomes afraid of him when he recognizes that his mother and brother are white (6/113). The cause of this fear is left unarticulated, thus an emotional reaction to color difference is somehow intended to be intuitively clear to the reader. The cause of skin color wavers across early modern thought—from conceptions informed by the Bible to one’s informed by climate and geography—but these causal accounts never quite explain why recognizing color difference should have affective force. When Pierre-Esprit Radisson finds himself captive and naked before a group of Iroquois people, he does not speak their language and assumes that their “laughing and howling” must be related to the color of his skin which “was soe whit in respect of theirs” (118). Not only does skin color cause an affective reaction, but affective reactions are registered in skin color. Whether one blushed spontaneously or applied blush cosmetically factored into discussions of feminine vice and virtue. Humoralism looked under the skin by attributing values to the different colors of bile. Mere color never seems to be taken as simply a quality of things or matter of perception. Melancholy etymologically means simply black (melas) bile (khole), but more readily stands for a certain kind of sadness. 

The semantics of color change depending on an array of contextual factors. Its meaning varies as much as our visual experience of it varies. It can speak to permanence as much as impermanence. It can highlight authenticity and duplicity at once. The only consistent feature of color’s usage is that it often goes unnoticed. It is a feature of writing and the world that is perhaps too ubiquitous. Color is, as I have outlined above, remarkably well-suited to the work of critical semantics, but it also pushes at its limits. It continually draws attention to what Greene calls “the physical reality we see with unlettered eyes” (112). Critical semantics, as Greene notes, is motivated in part by a desire to avoid limiting empirical horizons to literary ones. Color stubbornly keeps these empirical horizons in mind, but it also asks us to broaden the scope of literary scholarship.  The “unlettered” experiences of oral cultures and blind people as well as the “unlettered” work of textiles and fine art, to note just a few examples, play important roles in grasping how early modern color functioned. Critical semantics helps us notice and remark upon color’s rather unwieldy discursive role, but my hope is that attending to this semantic integer necessarily pushes us beyond both semantic and historical concerns. The complexities of color may come to the fore in the early modern period, but they are not limited to it. Getting a handle on color’s role in early modern writing through critical semantics is, I think, a necessary initial step towards understanding how this seemingly trivial, arguably secondary, and often banal feature of visual experience can play such an integral, subtle, and recalcitrant role in contemporary life.

Works Cited

Anonymous. La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, y de Sus Fortunas y Adversidades.  Edited by Aldo Ruffinatto. Madrid: Castalia, 2001.

Anonymous. Lazarillo de Tormes.  Edited and translated by Ilan Stavans. New York: Norton, 2015.

Browne, Sir Thomas.  Pseudodoxia Epidemica.  In The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne.  Edited by Norman J. Endicott.  New York: Norton, 1972.

Calvin, John. The Institution of Christian Religion. London: Reinolde Wolfe and Richarde Harison, 1561.

De Calahorra, Diego Ortũnez. The mirrour of princely deedes.  Translated by Margaret Tyler.  London: Thomas East, 1578.

De La Cruz, Sor Juana Inés.  “Soneto 145.” In Antología de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Edited by María Luisa Pérez Walker.  Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1993.

---. “Sonnet 145.” In Selected Works.  Translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Norton, 2015.

De Montaigne, Michel. “Du démentir.” In Les Essais.  Book 2.  Edited by Pierre Villey.  St-Germain: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

---. “On Giving the Lie.”  The Complete Essays.  Translated by M. A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 1993.

Farrington, Anthony, ed.  The English Factory In Japan, 1613-1623. Volume 1. London: British Library, 1991.

Galilei, Galileo. The Essential Galileo. Edited and translated by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008.

Greene, Roland.  Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Labé, Louise. Complete Poetry and Prose: A Bilingual Edition. Edited and translated by Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Lanyer, Aemilia.  The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeroum.  Edited by Susanne Woods.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rabelais, François. Gargantua.  Edited by Pierre Michel.  Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

---.  Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Translated by M. A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 2006.

Radisson, Pierre-Esprit.  The Collected Writings, Volume 1: The Voyages. Edited by Germaine Warkentin.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

Scaliger, Julius Caesar.  Exercitationes exotericae de subtilitate. Paris, 1557.

Sicille.  Le Blason des Couleurs en Armes, Livrees et Devises.  Edited by Hippolyte Cocheris.  Paris: Auguste Aubry, 1860.

[1] Early modern dictionaries deploy various strategies in order to define colors. For instance, “Bleu” in Hollyband’s A Dictionary of French and English (1593) is defined as “skie colour.” Timothy Bright’s Charactery: A Short, Swift, and Secret Writing By Character (1588) tends to define particular colors as simply “colour.” There are also numerous examples of colors being defined in ways that defy our expectations. “Pink,” for instance,” is “a kind of yellow used in painting” in Phillips’ A New World of English Words (1658). I have relied on the University of Toronto’s Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) for these definitions. This tool is available at .

[2] The literary consequences of the Blason can be seen in Louise Labé’s mention of “pages and servants decked out in uniforms with colors representing [their master’s] long-suffering devotion, perseverance, and hope” [pages et laquai habillez de quelque livree representant quelque travail, fermeté, et esperance] (234/117).mRather than using colors to signify traits, traits could, following the Blason, signify colors.

Join the Colloquy