These dye recipies were translated from the Innsbruck Manuscript, which was written circa 1330 AD in Tirol, in what is now western Austria. They are the oldest recipies for fabric dye to be found in the German language. The Innsbruck Manuscript was a great many things: A Latin-German dictionary of fish, insects, birds nad plants, a treatise on astrology, and a collection of household recipies and remedies.
The text itself I found in Ein Buch von Alten Farben a wonderful work on medieval textiles and dyeing by Emil Ernst Ploss. He included the original text and facsimile of the Innsbruck manuscript, along with commentary and suggestions concerning the identity of the more obscure items used therein.
I translated the text into English with the help of the books listed in the bibliography.
The primary mordants used to make the color fast in the below recipies are alum (alaun)and urine (harn). A mordant, for the non-dyers out there, is a substance that causes dye colors to stay on the fabric rather than washing out and fading. It is usually dissolved in water and boiled with the fabric/fibre to be dyed; the fabric is then removed from the mordant, rinsed, and placed in the dye bath itself.
Twelve of the fifteen recipes mention alum, either on its own or as "alum-water", water with alum dessolved in it. Alum, or aluminum potassium sulfate, has been a basic mordant for a long time; it has been used for centuries by a numnber of cultures, and is still used today as a mordant by many dyers.
Urine also has a long history of use as a mordant. one particularly gruesome recipe for indigo dye, found in Scotland, specifies that the urine must sit in the sun for seven days and be stirred daily before being used! The ammonia and other chemicals present in urine worked as a fixative. They also encouraged the development of certain colors.
Another mordant found in the recipies below is Ezzeich. Ploss translated this as lime water, a water solution of calcium hydroxide. In Thomas Cooper's 1815 Manual on dying fabric it is used with copperas to "raise the color", or make the color visible. A similar technique is used in the below recipe for red, which specifies that lead oxide be boiled ezzeich until die varb wirt ziegelvar, or "the color becomes reddish." An alternative translation of ezzeich would be the modern german "essig", or vinegar, which can also be used as a mordant. Indeed, it's still used when dying easter eggs to make the dye colors stronger.
One notable aspect of the Innsbruck dye recipies is their "overkill" when it comes to the use of mordants. The only recipies that contain no mention of the above substances are ones in which the dyestuffs act as their own mordants: Rusty iron and Black Walnut Nutshells are both notable for their colorfastness.
The other recipies, however, combine alum, urine and lime water/vinegar with great frequency, often mentioning all three. The reasons this could be are many; perhaps less of each substance is used when they're used in combination. Perhaps a great deal of mordant is required to dye linen, which doesn't take color at all well, or the dyer needs to make the colors particularly strong and fast to counteract the fugitive nature of some of the dyes. It would be interesting to experiment with the recipies to see how the mordants affect the color of the dyes.
Many of the recipes specify chemical as opposed to organic dyestuffs. One ingredient, verdigris (a combination of copper acetate and various copper salts) was used both to produce a green color and to mute or darken bright colors. Cinnabar, or vermilion (mercuric sulfide) was another chemical used. Even lapis lazuli isn't exempt as a dyestuff. Some of the chemicals were rather dangerous; lead oxide is used in one recipe to produce a red color, and orpiment, or arsenic trisulfide, is specified when attempting to create a good yellow. Iron oxide, in the form of rusty iron, is also used to color fabric.
Gum Arabic, usually employed in the making or pigments for painting and ink for writing, is also used with lapis lazuli, cinnabar and verdigris in two of the below recipies to "fix" the color. According to Ploss, using gum arabic in this fashion produces a fabric which is stiff and rather brittle.
The first edition of this article was published in the January 1997 Tournaments Illuminated. It generated some good feedback from people with suggestions on interpretation or corrections for certain words and phrases. Their comments have been incorporated into the article below. In particular I'd like to thank Lady Solveig gargan Skjaldvaradottir (Doris Rubruck) and Martin