(Isatis tinctoria) Its use as a dyeplant is very ancient indeed, for it was known as a dye in Egypt, and later on, in Roman times (Ponting). Pliny described its use. It has to be assumed that the Britons in Caesar's time knew about it, if we are to judge rightly from his description of the way they used it. The original runs "omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horribiliore sunt in pugna adspectur". It was a war paint, then, with blue or green stains on faces or limbs to look more terrible, the idea perhaps being that an enemy could not possibly withstand an army of such grim aspect (Elton). Far from a sign of savagery, Graves pointed out, the use of woad either to stain or tattoo themselves, is a proof of advanced culture, for the extraction of the blue dye is a very complicated chemical process (for descriptions of the technical processes, see Ponting. 1976; Leggett. 1944; and Hurry. 1930). Pliny said the matrons and girls of
Britain stained themselves all over with woad, and Graves said this was probably done in honour of the goddess Anu, as goddess of the dark blue night sky, and the dark blue sea. It was unlucky to dye cloth with woad while a man or boy was in the house, and the legend of St Ciaran was given as an illustration of the superstition. While St Ciaran was still a boy and at home, his mother, who believed in the superstition, told him to leave the house so that she could get on with some dyeing. Ciaran, in a fit of mischief, ill-wished the dye and twice spoiled the process. The third time, his mother begged him to bless the dye, which he did, and it proved to be perfect (Hurry). So male exclusion seems to have been the rule in Ireland, and if this was also the case in Thrace and the northern Aegean, it would account for the nasty smell which, according to Apollodorus, clung to the Lemnian women, and which made the men quit their company. For the extraction and use of the dye is such a smelly business that the woad-dyeing families of Lincolnshire have always been obliged to intermarry (Graves). It is recorded that Queen Elizabeth I could not stand the smell, and the sowing of woad seed was forbidden within five miles of any of her residences (Leggett). Apparently, these families had traditional chants of their own which they sang during the plucking of the woad leaves. One of them has as its first verse:
Molly of the woad and I fell out,
O, what do you think it was all about?
For she had money and I had none,
And that is how the strife begun (Hurry).
Garments dyed with woad were often worn by special sections of the population - the "blue-coat" was the habit of serving-men in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the same garment formed the dress of a beadle in Shakespeare's time. The blue uniform of Christ's Hospital boys dates from the time of Edward VI, the school's founder, although woad is no longer used in the dyeing of the cloth. Certain colours seem to have been fashionable at different seasons of the year. Blues (woad, that is) predominated from September to December, and they almost disappeared from January to May, when russet or reddish fabrics came in (Hurry).
Cloth-dyeing was not the only thing for which the woad vat was useful in the Middle Ages. They supplied a blue pigment used by artists, especially in the illumination of missals. It was got from the scum that floated on the surface of the vats, known as the "flower" of woad, or "flory". It was used by Italian artists from the 13th to the 16th century. Evidently, there were two shades of blue that could be got, for there was a distinction made between "indigo" and "azure". There are yet other uses, for the seedlings of woad, when about five centimetres high, can be eaten as a salad. They taste rather like mustard and cress. And an oil similar to linseed oil can be extracted from the seeds (Hurry). There were medicinal uses, too. An ointment, for instance, has been made from woad to heal ulcers (Brownlow), while Gerard said that "the decoction of Woad drunken is good for wounds in bodies of a strong constitution, as of countrey people, and such as are accustomed to great labour and hard coarse fare".
Woad is OE wad, which accounts for the pronunciation change in versions like Wad, pronounced, at lkeast in Lincolnshire, to rhyme with 'mad', though the usual name for woadmen, "waddies", is pronounced to rhyme with 'bodies' (Wills). Woad was once called in Latin 'vitrum', which could mean either glass (hence a supposition that the plant was used in glass-making), or the blue colour that woad produced. The late Latin for the plant was 'glastum', (Glastonbury has a first element that seems to mean "place where woad grows" (Cameron)), and glastum gave the French 'guide', Italian 'guado' and Spanish 'gualda', and thus was indirectly responsible for our place-name.
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