Flights of whimsy: Isatis tinctoria – no sequences but a great song

The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). From wikipedia.

And now for something completely different… woad. This is stuff that I learned by accident (sort of) while preparing the real “science” page for Isatis tinctoria. That page is appropriately under the species heading of the “Arabidopsis relatives” system. But I personally think that putting history, art, folklore and song together with science makes them all more interesting. Some, but not all, of what you will find here comes from a real scientific article which may or may not be available free of charge.  The same material, however, is available from Wikipedia. The rest of the stuff will be appropriately linked.

Woad has a number of other “common” names, at least in English. It is also Dyer’s woad, glastum (apparently a Gaulish word adopted into Latin), or (for reasons totally unclear) “Asp of Jerusalem”. Whether the “Dyer” in the name refers to the use of the plant for dye, or to one of a couple of botanists named Dyer, I have no idea. For vernacular names in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and French, look here. In German, it is waid, Färberwaid, Pastel, or Deutsches Indigo. After looking all these up, it is still unclear why it is Asp of Jerusalem, or whether it is as “interesting” in any other language..

Indigo from Isatis tinctoria; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany.

In any case, woad’s main claim to fame is as a source of the brilliantly blue dye, indigo. (You can still buy it… on Amazon, for example.) Its use and history go back to the Iron Age, to the ancient Egyptians, to Julius Caesar, to the Spanish Inquisition and to Napolean. At one point, in the city-state era, its trade and availability in Europe (i.e. Italy) were controlled by Genoa, aka Gênes (in French). The dye was “bleu de Gênes”, and hence our favorite garment today is “blue jeans”.

As a dye source, woad was widely cultivated in Europe, and there were actually “important woad growing regions”.  It also figures in centuries of Chinese traditional medicine. Toulouse (France) became prosperous from the woad trade. This bit is particularly awesome: “In the triangle created by Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, woad… ‘hath made that country the happiest and richest in Europe.’ “The prosperous woad merchants of Toulouse built splendid mansions. “One merchant, a Spanish Jew who had fled the inquisition, was credit-worthy enough to be the main guarantor of the ransomed King Francis I after his capture at the Battle of Pavia by Charles V of Spain.”

Isatis tinctorial was, indeed, important enough that when an alternative and more concentrated source of the dye, Indigofera tinctoria (Fabaceae – “true” indigo, as opposed to Baptisia spp. – “false” indigo) began to be imported from India to Europe, a combination of protectionist trade policies, fake news, and death penalties were used to prohibit its import. “It was proclaimed that indigo caused yarns to rot. In 1577 the German government officially prohibited the use of [Indian] indigo, denouncing it as that pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil’s dye. … a recess of the Diet held in 1577 prohibited the use of ‘the newly-invented, deceitful, eating and corrosive dye called the devil’s dye.’ This prohibition was repeated in 1594 and again in 1603. In France, Henry IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of ‘the false and pernicious Indian drug'”. The Wikipedia article includes references to back all that up.

Dyer’s woad being invasive. Photo by Steve Dewey, Utah State University,

In current times, the dye is still enormously important – it is the “blue” in blue jeans. For most of our cheaper clothing, it is a petroleum byproduct, i.e. it is chemically synthesized but exactly the same molecule. With the increasing popularity of “natural” and “organic”, however, the market in the biological product is again growing, especially for high end goods. But it seems to be the “pernicious Indian drug” that is being planted, at least in the US, where it is being planted instead of tobacco in Tennessee. That’s good, but also too bad, in a way, because the real woad is perhaps even more economically important – and available – throughout the western US as a pernicious, invasive, noxious weed costing either (or both) hundreds of thousands of dollars or thousands of volunteer hours per year to control.

Speaking of noxious invasives, I surmise that the ancient Britons thought the same about the Romans, and this is where my initial interest in woad arose. “Everyone knows…” that the Picts painted themselves blue with woad and went into battle with little or nothing else on.  Or not. For an actual discussion of this, I recommend reading “The problem of the woad”, here. It’s an interesting read.

Woad painting by Simone Parrish

Regardless of that little controversy, the use of woad for body painting has been revived at least in the context of Iron Age Celtic reenactment/living history groups. The linked page there will tell you much, if not perhaps all you need to know, about how to prepare, grind, dissolve, mix into body paint and apply woad. I also recommend this one as a fun read.

But finally, the actual, real, major impetus for me wanting to put this post together is the drinking song originally written by a housemaster at Eton in the 1920s and distributed originally in the British Boy Scouts song book.

It is sometimes called the “National Anthem of the Ancient Britons” despite the fact there was no such nation and the tune, Men of Harlech, is certainly not ancient. But then, who cares.

Click the pint to play the song. Click here for the full story and the lyrics.


Acknowledgments: Many thanks to the members of Oak, Ash and Thorn (Dale Hill, Doug Olsen, Mitchell Sandler, Dave Swan and Tom Wagner) for recording the song, releasing it first on an LP and re-issuing it on a CD, and then for giving permission to include it here.  Order this and other paraphernalia at their website. The various pints in the video represent a miscellaneous collection of mostly ads from various pub websites. Many readers will find no need for encouragement to patronize them.

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