Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Puritan's "Sad" Colors

I've begun reading, with great pleasure, David Fischer's Albion's Seed, which is about the four main waves of British immigration to the thirteen colonies, and how native folkways survived, in their different modes, in different parts of the country.

The four waves of settlement, according to Fischer, are (1) East Anglia to Massachusetts (the Puritans), (2) southern England to Virginia, (3) North Midlands to Delaware (mainly Quakers), and (4) the borderlands of North Britain and Ireland to the Appalachian backcountry (the so-called "Scotch-Irish"). My own ancestors were largely part of the fourth, and biggest, wave (the surnames includes Cook, Morgan, Kincannon, McManus, etc.). Anyone interested in the complicated historical and cultural linkages of the UK and the US would enjoy this book.

I did come across one questionable detail in the discussion of the first wave. One of the "folkways" Fischer discusses for each section is called "Dress Ways." Here he refers to the Puritans' preference for what they call "sadd colors." It is clear from his discussion that Fischer takes the word "sad" here to mean morose, gloomy, and melancholy; and this becomes a symbol of the dreary melancholy of the Puritan lifestyle.

But Fischer should know that the word "sad" originally meant "serious, grave, sober, thoughtful, not frivolous," and this usage continues by the time the word acquired the additional meaning "morose, melancholy." You can see the older usage in Shakespeare:
"The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum" (Henry V, 1), i.e. the serious judge

But, mighty lord, this merry inclination
Accords not with the sadness of my suit (Henry VI, Part 3)
And here's one from Spenser:
And by his belt his booke he hanging had;
Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad (Fairy Queene, I.1)
In Romeo and Juliet, it looks like Shakespeare is playing on the two senses of the word:
BENVOLIO
Tell me in sadness, who is that you love?

ROMEO
What, shall I groan and tell thee?

BENVOLIO
Groan? why, no;
But sadly tell me, who?

ROMEO
Bid a sick man in sadness make his will--
A word ill urged to one that is so ill:
In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.
Benvolio wants Romeo to tell him, in all "sadness" (=without joking), who he loves; but Romeo takes it, playfully, as "moroseness."

I think the Puritans' preference for "sadd colors" just meant they wanted people to dress soberly and modestly, not gaudily or ostentatiously. They were not to dress in mourning, but were to avoid fancy or flashy clothes. Fischer quotes from a contemporary source some of the "sadd colors": "Sadd-colours the following; liver colour, De Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger-lyne [a shade of brown], deere colour, orange colour." Imagine a Puritan dressed in "French green," if you can! Have the Puritans gotten a bad press, through ignorance of their language?

I'll post some more about Fischer in the weeks to come. Albion's Seed is tremendously informative and entertaining, even if I think he got this one nuance wrong.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989), pp. 139ff. For the history of "sad," see C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 75ff.

2 comments:

Benjamin Gosling said...

Greetings, and what an interesting website! Rather puzzled by the Quakers converging upon Delaware - it would be a bit crowded, also the state didn't exist until later, I think. Early Quakers went to NJ, Long Island, RI & Penn'a, besides a few elsewhere. Regarding dress, black was generally discouraged, being the colour of the persecuting priests & lawyers, besides being expensive. Preferred were the folky, country colours: brown, buff, fawn, sage green. All that changed by 19C, alas.
Christian greetings, Ben Gosling, conservative Friend,
Suffolk, Old England.

marly youmans said...

Hilarious--I love the name of your blog. Hope life is good in your "stately pleasure dome," and that nobody from Porlock stops by.

I have three books that depend on some degree on "Albion's Seed," so I can say that I am a great lover of that book!