French historian Michel Pastoureau, whose Blue: The History of a Color has just been re-released to English-speaking audiences, is one of our age’s great librarians of civilization. On its surface, Blue is a dull exercise in scholarly record keeping—but in fact, it is an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.  

Pastoureau argues that the color blue is both a naturally occurring phenomenon and a complex cultural construct which is “first and foremost a social phenomenon.” His impressive scholarly narrative does not fall prey to postmodernism’s worse excesses; Blue offers a coherent raison d’être behind Western history, no matter how that story is colored.

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.

Read more at Claremont

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