Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history


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We Three Trees of Orient Are

Gum arabic

In the previous post I mentioned gum arabic. I vaguely thought it came from a tree but I don’t actually know much about it. Wikipedia’s entry here explains that it is known by many names, including acacia gum, which starts to give the game away. The trees concerned are Senegalia senegal and Vachellia seyal and Wikipedia continues, ‘The gum is harvested commercially from wild trees throughout the Sahel from Senegal to Somalia, although it has been historically cultivated in Arabia and West Asia.’

Frankincense 

Thanks to a generous travelling friend I have a small amount of two valuable resins which also come from trees: frankincense and myrrh. As precious gifts from kings at Bethlehem, frankincense and myrrh obviously predate Christianity. Frankincense (and myrrh) were consecrated incenses described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It is worth reading Wikipedia’s explanation of the value and reverence in which frankincense was held.

The substance is tapped from varieties of tree, the Boswellia sacra being one. Over-exploitation of the  tree is contributing to a decline in population, as is the fact that seeds from tapped trees demonstrate lower germination rates.

Myrrh

The trees which are the primary source of myrrh are Commiphora myrrhaIn ancient Egypt and along with natron it was used for embalming mummies. Is this why the Christmas carol contains this rather glum verse?

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Perhaps not, according to Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes. Her explanation has a surprising take on myrrh – to those of us unfamiliar with Old Testament texts. Read versions of Esther 2:12 here.

Apart from playing its part in the narrative of the Christmas story, myrrh is still used is Eastern and Western Christian rites, including the sacraments of chrismation and unction.

Sources:

Wikipedia: frankincense, myrrh, gum arabic

Jewish Encyclopedia

Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes

King James Bible Online

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Gall-ink…

Last week I found some oak-galls, or oak apples, in a hedge. They were easy to spot after the final fall of leaves. Oak galls are nothing to do with acorns. They result from  chemicals injected into a developing leaf bud when a female gall wasp lays eggs.

photo 4

Oak galls spotted in a hedge

The galls contain high proportions of tannin and, mixed with iron salts, were historically the source of a purple-black or brown ink. The comprehensive and scholarly Iron Gall Ink Website has an ink history here. The fourth century  Codex Sinaiticus, one of the most complete versions of the Bible, was written in iron gall ink, in Greek. Follow the link to read about a great collaborative project, and an entire website devoted to the Codex. Because the manuscript has been broken up and spread worldwide, the project exists to reunite it digitally. 

Anyway, I picked the galls and am soaking them out. Apparently I can use a solution of rusty nails to make up the ink, according to Wikipedia’s recipe, and I shall try it in the New Year when I have found my Gum Arabic.

All this think-ink reminded me of an encounter with shaggy ink caps (Coprinus comatus) a few Novembers back. I found an ink-cap-ink recipe – and the delightful word deliquesce – on Regia Anglorum’s site here, recipe number 3. No cauldrons were available that week, so a plastic pot emptied of E numbers sufficed for deliquescing. The fungi did their thing and weren’t particularly smelly at first. They just looked a bit sinister (shaggy ink caps aren’t poisonous, although I wasn’t planning an omelette). I put the increasingly soggy black mixture in the corner of my studio and forgot about it. Until it began to make its presence felt. 

It produced a putrid, mouldy, rotting smell which was murderously  incriminating. I poured the mixture through a sieve at arm’s length and improvised a cooking put from an empty tin. If the smell was bad before, nothing compared to the hellish fumes that arose from the pot once on a stove (some recipes suggest that boiling reduces and blackens the mixture). The mixture obediently reduced to a ghastly, shiny black mucus. The stench was so bad I had to hold my breath to stop myself gagging. To hell with research like this – I couldn’t live with the smell. I poured off the mixture and found a large paintbrush and some paper and made a simple snot drawing (see below). I then introduced the mixture to the far corner of the garden.

The conclusions the Ink Cap Escapade were:

1.That the recipes I found are incomplete, or some additional ingredient neutralised the decomposition and the smell. Vinegar, perhaps? As the fungus is only found in autumn, there must have been a way to preserve the ink through the year without knocking out an entire community of Cistercians with the pong. Or maybe I’ve stumbled across a new cause of the Reformation.

2. A lot of ink caps would be needed to make a good black and you couldn’t use a quill with the snot-like stuff I made. It needs to be blacker and more runny. It was too thick for a small paintbrush. Maybe I boiled it too hard.

3. Perhaps monks had no sense of smell.

 


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It’s all gone a bit Rumsfeld..

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” 

United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, 2002 

 

With the Christmas break just round the corner I know that if I don’t hit certain things right now it will be endlessly harder to pick them up in the New Year. So I have stopped making new work (see above) and am  organising the references for my co-authored DHA paper.

I am into Harvard References. I don’t have an academic background but occasionally I stray into Dark Territory and have to abide by the mighty rules, one of which is correct referencing. Writing up the DHA paper has meant revisiting texts read and absorbed maybe five years back. I have been favoured with a good memory and this means I sometimes remember very well that I know something, but don’t remember how or why. If I recognised the need to know at time of reading I will have taken a note of a source.  But as is the way with research, sometimes I don’t always know the relevance of a fact or a comment until a few years down the line. Then it can become vital – and that’s when it all goes a bit Rumsfeld.

So to his much lampooned statement (which I have always felt is more sane than many suppose) I’d add the following:

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. We just don’t know where we read them…”

And I recommend the University of Exeter’s helpful online resource here.