Up Horn, down Corn
- Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day by Joan Thirsk
Oxford, 365 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 19 820662 3
‘Woad, used by Queen Boadicea’s warriors as war paint, is making a comeback on the Fens of East Anglia,’ runs a recent press report. Perhaps the reporter had already read Joan Thirsk’s new book, since he refers to the closure of the last woad factory in the region, at Parson Drove near Wisbech, ‘80 years ago’, which is a fair rendering of the 1914 demolition date given by Thirsk (who puts Parson Drove in Lincolnshire, although it and the farm, called Woad Mill Farm, are in Cambridgeshire). The reference to Boadicea and war-paint will not amuse her, however, since perpetuation of woad’s mythical association with naked soldiers prancing about in the chilly fenlands does nothing for its status as a serious agricultural crop, with a long history as the supreme dark-blue natural dye, more subtle if more expensive than indigo and prized for US Army and police uniforms long after the introduction of chemical dyes. It did not have a continuous history as a serious crop, for reasons which Thirsk makes plain: it is labour-intensive, it exhausts the soil, its fermentation smells strongly, and it requires a woadmill close at hand. She dates its introduction as a crop grown widely, though never extensively, in England, to the late 16th century – so much for Boadicea – partly under the stimulus of the rising price of imported Italian woad, but mainly because falling grain prices made alternative crops attractive.
Vol. 20 No. 7 · 2 April 1998
Woad, according to F.M.L. Thompson in his review of Joan Thirsk’s Alternative Agriculture (LRB, 5 March), has a ‘long history as the supreme dark-blue natural dye, more subtle if more expensive than indigo and prized for US Army and police uniforms long after the introduction of chemical dyes’. The ‘woad’ vat used for the dyeing of uniforms was actually made with indigo: woad was added simply to assist the fermentation process. In fact the supreme blue dye is unquestionably indigo (strictly speaking, ‘indigotin’), which is extracted from several plant species but most famously from Indigofera tinctoria. Woad plants produce the same blue indigotin, but in far smaller quantities than the tropical plants. When woad was the only available source of (indigo) blue dye in medieval Europe (imported Indian indigo was so expensive it was used only as paint pigment), it was widely used. But once colonial trade took off in the 17th century, woad was doomed, as the desperate producers realised. Indigo from tropical plants was soon being imported in vast quantities from both the East and West Indies at competitive prices. As Thompson says, woad failed to make a ‘convincing comeback’ in the 1879-1939 recession: by then, British planters in India were sending thousands of tons of indigo annually to England, and synthetic indigo was also appearing on the scene.
Why should woad’s introduction as a crop grown widely in the 16th century (due to inflated prices of French woad, not Italian as stated in the review, but not in Thirsk) put paid to the Boadicea ‘myth’ when there is firm evidence that woad was already growing in England in the Iron Age?