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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
IV/ Black and White Power

“Nay ’tis in grain, I warrant it hold colour”: The Materiality of Black in Middleton’s Black Book

Chantal SCHÜTZ


L’obsession de Thomas Middleton pour la couleur noire, celle de l’encre et de l’atrabile, débute dès la publication de son premier opuscule satirique, le Microcynicon. Elle trouve son expansion dans le Livre Noir et se déploie ensuite tout autant dans sa prose que dans ses textes dramatiques, qu’ils soient comiques ou tragiques. Allant des teintures et tentures funèbres d’Un monde de fous, Messieurs aux animaux qui l’incarnent, la noirceur toute matérielle de Middleton témoigne de la place des sens dans son appréhension du monde qu’il dépeint. Au-delà de la noirceur, la notion même de couleur anime et structure l’imagination de ses personnages, dont les stratagèmes sont parfois énoncés en termes de teinture. On se concentrera ici sur les instanciations matérielles de la noirceur dans le discours satirique que Middleton prête à Lucifer et ses acolytes dans le Livre Noir. Partant de la remarque de Gary Taylor sur le caractère auto-référentiel de ce pamphlet, on analysera les différentes manières dont Middleton intègre la substance même du noir dans son texte.

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  • 1 The Oxford Complete Works actually refers to “the style” instead of “the school” [of night].

1The blackness of night, humours or complexion constitutes a recurrent trope in many early modern authors’ works, including Shakespeare, who develops many conceits around the colour, from the “school of night” (4.3.253)1 of Love’s Labour’s Lost to Othello’s skin, from the extended word-play around Rosaline’s dark face and hair to Hamlet’s “suit of sables” (3.2.125). Thomas Middleton shares this common fascination for blackness, which pervades many of his texts, both dramatic and non-dramatic. Middleton’s obsession with black, however, focuses very much on the material instantiations of the colour — that of ink, contrasting sharply with the white paper on which it is used, but also that of the black bile (or atrabile) supposedly secreted by the spleen.

2Nowhere is blackness explored more than in a relatively early satirical work of Middleton’s entitled The Black Book (1604) that purports to be the Devil’s last will, and which is generally assumed to be a continuation of Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil (1592) as well as an accolade to Robert Greene’s cony-catching pamphlet The Blacke Bookes Messenger. Laying open the Life and Death of Ned Browne one of the most notable cutpurses, Crosbiters, and Conny-catchers that ever lived in England (1592). The powerful polysemic symbolism of blackness provides the focal point for this dialogue between the dead Nashe, the prolific Greene and the aspiring playwright, and The Black Book proves to be a case in point for the intertextuality that characterizes much of Middleton’s works (Chapman 243). But the materiality of Middleton’s blackness is testament to his eminently sensual approach to the world he portrays and mocks, revealing how the evils he targets are deeply ingrained in the very fabric of the beings who exercise them and intricately connected with the society that engenders them.

3Black is presented in a variety of forms in the eponymous Book, ranging from vegetable to animal, from mineral to humoral. It is consistently contrasted with whiteness and light. It is grounded in the geography of London and vested in the clothing of the city’s denizens, yet it is used metaphorically and metonymically to represent villainy and Hell. And all of these conceits have echoes in Middleton’s dramatic works, where he continues to display what G.B. Shand calls “an intensely tactile and visual savouring of descriptive detail” (Shand 205). The blackness of melancholy, however, seems to have little place in this world, and the voice of Lucifer aims primarily to achieve its goals through a systematic inversion of values and a baffling of expectations that sometimes amounts to performative self-contradiction.

Black books, black dyes

  • 2 For a detailed analysis of Middleton’s relation to the materiality of books, see Hope 2012.

4Continuing in the satirical vein of one of his earliest works, Microcynicon, subtitled Six Snarling Satires in a direct reference and tribute to Joseph Hall’s Virgidemiarum and Marston’s Toothless Satires (Wall, 1970), Middleton chose to invest the very vehicle of his invective with material self-referential characteristics. Microcynicon is a diminutive octavo written in “nigrum true-born ink” (16) with a pen which the author assimilates to a quasi-satanic weapon: “My pen’s two nebs shall turn into a fork” (18). By virtue of the Bishop’s Ban, an injunction issued in June 1599 forbidding the publication of all satires, the little book had been publicly burnt at Stationer’s Hall, in an apt prefiguring of the flaming inspiration claimed by The Black Book. The latter makes an even clearer statement about itself, since the title and front page matter is printed in white on a solid black background, and the bulk of the text, consisting of Satan’s solipsistic description of his scramble through the squalid suburbs of London, and including the Devil’s mock testament, is printed in black letter, the old-fashioned gothic typography that was used for editions the Bible, or “Good Book” (Fernie 428, Shand 205). The different layers of the book, black front page, T.M.’s “Epistle to the reader”, followed by a Prologue where “Lucifer ascend[s] as Prologue to his own Play”, concluded by a short speech addressed by the book itself to the reader, combine to create an intensely physical allegory of the reversal of values it purports to address2. The opposition of black and white described by Michel Pastoureau as defining and structuring the early modern world (2004, 169) is nowhere more evident than in this carefully crafted little work, written, as was often the case for Middleton’s non-dramatic works, after an outbreak of the plague and the subsequent closure of the playhouses in 1603.

  • 3 The proverb is used for instance in Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.60: “They that touch pitch will be (...)

5The contrast between black and white is invoked from the very start of the Epistle, as Middleton incorporates and reverses the words of a proverb in his address to “the truly virtuous [who] can touch pitch and never defile themselves” (3-4) in order to state “the true character of this book” (2) and explain his “politic” purpose (22) of stripping bare the vices of the time3. The Black Book is thus named according to its author “because it doubly damns the Devil” (28), but the title would normally lead the reader to expect either a catalogue of rogues and criminals, or a book devoted to the black arts (Shand 207).

6But while the Epistle teems with moral conceits and allegorical embodiments of evil, it relies heavily on the metaphorical language of dirt and soiling as carried out by dyers, a profession traditionally looked upon with suspicion and resentment, both because of the stench and filth the activity involves and because of the many opportunities it provides for deceit (Pastoureau 2004, 190-92). Blackness here is above all equated to grime, and more specifically the poisoning of water by the residual muds of dyeing: it is the “black nature and filthy condition that poison the towardly spring of gentility and corrupt with the mud of mischiefs the pure and clear streams of the kingdom” (30-32).

7That Middleton was keenly aware of the realities of dyeing is made evident in his repeated use of the phrase “’tis in grain”, which means the dye is fast, in two plays written the year after the Black Book was published, A Mad World, my Masters and The Revenger’s Tragedy. The plays share a few lines that are particularly relevant to the theme of disguise, deceit and death: first the sudden inspiration of the protagonist (Vindice in the first, Follywit in the second) is celebrated with the words “Thanks, thanks to any spirit / That mingled it ’mongst my inventions” (Revenger’s Tragedy, 4.2.200-01; Mad World, 3.3.71-72). Then the plot is confirmed with the words: “nay ’tis in grain, I warrant it hold colour” (Revenger’s Tragedy, 4.2.222-23; Mad World, 3.3.82-83). Vindice’s plan is to dress his mistress’s skull up as a woman procured for his nemesis, while Follywit’s is to impersonate the courtesan his uncle keeps, in order to steal his jewels: both exclamations thus conjure up visual references of memento mori scenes involving the repentant Mary-Magdalen shedding her bright clothing and weighing her jewellery against a gaping skull — scenes that are often represented against a dark backcloth. The ultimate failure of those tricks, which both indirectly backfire against the perpetrator, suggests a lack of reliability of the dyeing process or of the dyes themselves.


8Only relatively recently had black dyes become sufficiently stable to be used for fabrics on a large scale, but by 1604, black clothing had been adopted by many courts of Europe and moneyed classes (Pastoureau 2008, 121-25). Quality ink and superior dyes both relied on the same (expensive) ingredient: gall, a parasite of the oak. In the concluding words of the Epistle, Middleton uses the polysemy of the word “gall” to associate the colour he has just extensively referred to with the provocation he aims at “harlots” and “villains” whom he intends to “spur-gall” (33) — the meaning here points to the chafing of a horse by spurs, an image of physical irritation that recurs several times in the book, especially with the name Frig-beard, carried by the Devil’s first interlocutor in Pickt-Hatch, a disreputable suburb whose name also suggests blackness (“pick” is a synonym of “pitch”). Black clothing forms a leitmotiv for Lucifer’s tour of London, where he puts on the “black gown of his office” (476) to become a counterfeit constable, then successively meets the black-clad watchmen (118) and encounters or quotes various characters whose normal garb would be black: a widow, a merchant, a lawyer, and the Black Knight of the Post sent by Pierce to bring him his Supplication — a knight of the post is a perjurer and professional giver of false evidence, “a fellow that will swear you any thing for twelve pence” as Nashe puts it (Pierce Penniless, sig. B4). Also identified by their dark clothing are the “black dogs of Newgate” (735), a popular name for “diabolical catchpoles” (warrant officers in charge of arrests for debt, here assimilated to extortioners), which provided the title for a 1596 pamphlet by Luke Hutton and a 1602 play for Worcester’s Men (Shand 217). The sober black clothing that Follywit claims to have been wearing before he fell into debauchery (Mad World, 1.1.14) is completely absent from the Black Book, in spite of its many references, concrete and allegorical, to garments and attire. The apparently honest citizens who drape themselves in this sober clothing are in fact already given to devilish or sinful behaviour.

9Most striking is the reference to the “pieces of black cloth […] snatched off the rails in King’s Street at the Queen’s funeral” (426-28) that make up Pierce’s coverlet, while his smudgy sheets seem to have been stolen by night from a gaping grave in “St Pulcher’s churchyard”, an image very similar to the memento mori mentioned above, with its conjunction of skeletons and beauty (pulcher, a mispronunciation of the word “sepulchre”, is the Latin for “beautiful”). The topicality of the dynastic change is addressed with characteristic sarcasm, the pomp of funeral and coronation reduced to scraps of stolen fabric, once again echoed in Mad World when Follywit promises to repay his grandfather after his death, this time with expensive hangings that he will buy with the money he is about to steal from him: “I’ll pay him again when he dies, in so many blacks; / I’ll have the Church hung round with a noble a yard” (2.2.41-42). The quality of dyes is invoked afresh when, in the epilogue, the Black Book itself addresses the reader, like a living emblem, asking “[…] am I black enough, think you, dressed up in a lasting suit of ink? do I deserve my dark and pitchy title?” (824-26), claiming that in this case the cover does indeed make it possible to judge the book, having exposed the deceits of which the authorial voice states that they are the “shadowed villainies” that he aimed to “unmask” (11) and “strip […] naked” (24).

Mineral and vegetable forms of blackness

  • 4 A sticky, resinous, black substance, obtained as a residue from the distillation of wood tar.

10But blackness is not only the result of human action and transformation — nature affords variants of the colour in many different forms, and several similes and metaphors contribute to building up a swarthy environment to Lucifer’s amble: cormorants and crows figure in good place, the first as emblem of “deceit and luxury” also known as “Scylla and Charybdis” or “devouring gulfs” (17-19), while the second are invoked in connection with the “crow-black mustachios” of Lieutenant Frig-beard, a character that warrants a long description in which he is compared to Lucifer’s “devils in Doctor Faustus when the old Theatre cracked and frighted the audience” (156-57) or the “grim porter Cerberus, which showed that all his body beside was made of filthy dust and sea-coal ashes” (170-71). Middleton thus connects the animal and bodily to the many mineral and vegetable forms of blackness, usually the consequence of burning: jet, pitch4, coals or charcoal and the resulting soot, ashes and dust. These culminate in the legacy made by Lucifer to “Barnaby Burning-Glass, Arch Tobacco taker of England” in whose description the blackness of soot in the smoker’s brain and that of jet in his lungs are brought together. The reference to jet provides a transition towards the blackness of food since the will anticipates that the worms will be misled by the jet-smooth organs in the tobacconist’s corpse and take them for “black pudding” (789-94), comically associating deceit and death with the triviality of body-parts or the respect due to the expectations of worms. The realm of food is similarly invoked in a conceit that opposes the “black juice of villainy” to the “red food of murder” (302) while an earlier comparison of unused charcoal to black puddings “which lay for a dead fire” (258) plays on the same contrast between the coarse and the refined.

11Both colour contrasts and food similes form the central scheme for an inserted story told by the Devil about a widow’s visit to a usurer. The widow uses chalk to write an abridged witticism on the unused coals in the miser’s fireplace, but when she returns to pay her debt one year later, she finds the same coals untouched in the fireplace, in spite of the freezing weather. The tale revolves entirely around the opposition between the blackness of the coals, emblematic of the usurer’s soul, and the whiteness of the letters the widow traces on the coals with “peeling of a white wall” (262), reinforced as it is by the references to the ice on the river Thames (277), the “frost-bitten term” of Candlemas (254), or the pasteboard “lenten-face” of the usurer’s man (254). These echo the “whey countenance” the Devil assumes as he dictates his will (587) and the “curds and whey” into which merchants’ troths are transformed at the mere passing of Lucifer on the Exchange (481). As Middleton mingles the animal with the artefacts it serves to create, he contrasts the black clothing of the catchpole Dick Dog-man with the “white feathers” and “pearl-colour silk stockings” of the gallants he arrests for debt (733), while underlining how the satin and velvet cut by the dishonest mercers is exchanged for “white money” (232). All in all, by inverting the colour scheme of the black writing on the white page of the contracts binding merchants and their clients or usurers and their customers, Middleton materially subverts the very integrity or moral validity of these written agreements.

Conventions of blackness

12Blackness is to be found, as we have seen, in the very substance of human beings – in their organs and humours, in the bile and in the blackened lungs and brain of the smoker. But Middleton also resorts to the conventional uses of black as the metaphorical colour of evil, shunning the need for a metaphorical articulation of the colour, and simply resorting to a recurrent use of the plain adjective. Thus Lucifer refers to his “black soul” (80), the “blackness of [his] bosom” (203), his “black and burnt affection” (65), and to the “black order of [his] legacies” (589). Continuing the reversal of values and contagion of evil upon which the whole book is built, Middleton emphasizes the darkness that reigns in Hell as well as in men’s souls, or the places they dwell: simultaneously subverting the sanctity of sanctuary and the mystery of conception, he conjurs up the “cathedral womb” of St Paul’s where “black humours” breed mischiefs “born within less than forty weeks after” (558). Such mischiefs are invested with an autonomous life much like the “crafty dice” of the infernal players with their “little black eyes” intent on watching the Devil (514). The anthropomorphic dice “quake” in Lucifer’s hands and run “like Irish lackeys” (516-17) just as Pierce’s filthy doublet and hose are “bourne like a hearse upon the legs of vermin” (468), showing blackness on the march while poking fun at superstitious beliefs.

13Black is also synonymous with darkness and shadows, and since Lucifer’s ascent to, and ascendings on, earth take place during the night, there are many opportunities to underline that he is the “Emperor of Darkness” (532). Yet Middleton’s Lucifer is never divorced from the very material reality of the world he visits, and given that he takes on the guise of mortal men, he is exposed to the same accidents and squalor as they are: he “stumble[s] up two pair of stairs in the dark” (406) to visit Pierce Penniless after having left his bill-men in the “pernicious alley” below (398). Above all the scene underlines the contrast of the night surrounding Lucifer with the white sheets of Mistress Silver-Pin, Pierce’s landlady, who appears at the window in “ghost’s apparel” (402), and more importantly with “the sullen blaze of a melancholy lamp, that burnt very tragically upon the narrow desk of a half bedstead” (407-09) in Pierce’s room. The black drapes of tragedy form the backdrop of the eminently theatrical description of Pierce’s abode, but the lamp reminds us both that the flames of Hell burn without providing any light and that black is also the colour of melancholy. The oxymoronic dark flame is reflected in the double reference to the spleen as the seat of black bile (in the Galenic sense) and of laughter (according to Biblical tradition): Lucifer brags that his “tortured spleen / Melts into mirthful humour” (44-45) in the knowledge that there are more devils on earth than in Hell, but it “strikes [his] spleen into dullness and turns all [his] blood into cool lead” (297-98) to hear a bawd claim that he is poor. The long diatribe Lucifer opposes to the lying bawd causes Frig-beard to “burst into a melancholy Laugh, which showed for all the world like a sad Tragedy with a Clown in’t” (370-71). Paradox constitutes the very essence of the Black Book and every opportunity is used to redouble the trope. The cutpurse can indeed “make a flame-coloured purse show like the bottomless pit, but with never a soul in’t” (537-38) while the “usurer can burn so little here and so much in hell” (284) in the words of the widow.


14There is little room for other colours than black in the Black Book — except the ridiculous red velvet of Frig-beard the Pandar (394) and the red herrings in the grotesque blason of Barnaby the tobacconist (Rhodes 20), or the “old Kendal green” of Pierce’s ragged hose and doublet (420). The material instantiations of black, on the contrary, serve as a satirical tool in Middleton’s discourse on city vices as voiced by Lucifer and his consorts but also as a structuring metaphor. Middleton also integrates the stuff of blackness into the very form and substance of darker plays like The Revenger’s Tragedy, and above all in A Game at Chess, showing that the black-white duality remained meaningful to him throughout his writing career. No other colour seems to play as important or material a role in the Middleton canon. The trope of black letters standing out on white paper and gaining autonomous life proves particularly appropriate to Middleton as he repeatedly demonstrates the power of the written word in pageants, mock almanacs, satirical works or plays. Emphasizing the blackness of the body-parts concealed by the sober black clothing of honourable citizens, or the blackness to which these bodies are doomed through decay, by the flames of damnation, or in the bottomless pit of Hell, Middleton consistently reminds us that black is not a dense, impenetrable, one-dimensional colour, but a multi-layered compact of shades and meanings.

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Chapman, Alison A. “Writing Outside the Theatre” in Thomas Middleton in Context, ed. Suzanne Gossett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011: 243-49. Print.

Fernie, Ewan. “Wisdom in Reverse” in The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, eds. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012: 418-36. Print.

Gossett, Suzanne, ed. Thomas Middleton in Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Hope, Jonathan, “Middletonian Stylistics” in The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, eds. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012: 247-63. Print.

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Pastoureau, Michel. Une histoire symbolique du Moyen Âge occidental. Paris: Seuil, 2004. Print.

Pastoureau, Michel. Noir : Histoire d’une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2008. Print.

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Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works, 2nd edition, eds Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, 2005. Print.

Shand, G.B., ed. The Black Book in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works 1603-1627, eds Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007: 204-18. Print.

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Taylor, Gary and John Lavagnino, eds. Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works 1603-1627. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

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1 The Oxford Complete Works actually refers to “the style” instead of “the school” [of night].

2 For a detailed analysis of Middleton’s relation to the materiality of books, see Hope 2012.

3 The proverb is used for instance in Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.60: “They that touch pitch will be defil’d”.

4 A sticky, resinous, black substance, obtained as a residue from the distillation of wood tar.

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Chantal SCHÜTZ, « “Nay ’tis in grain, I warrant it hold colour”: The Materiality of Black in Middleton’s Black Book »E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 20 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Chantal SCHÜTZ

École Polytechnique, Prismes (EA 4398), Université Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle
Chantal Schütz is senior lecturer in English at École Polytechnique (Paris). She graduated from École Normale Supérieure and holds a Ph.D. on Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, my Masters — her French translation of the play was published in 2013. She specializes in Shakespeare and Middleton, with a special focus on music and musical instruments.

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