What is the history of the color puce?
Origin and Definition of "Puce"
1787, from French puce meaning "flea," from Latin pucilem (nom. pulex) meaning "flea," cognate with Sanskrit plusih, Greek psylla, .... "flea." It is the color of a flea. (Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary)
of a dark or brownish purple.
a dark or brownish purple.
1780–90; < French: literally, flea < Latin pūlic-, stem of pūlex (Random House Dictionary)
Historical Mention of "Puce"
The earliest mention of "puce" in history is in connection with French Queen Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) who is said to have held "puce" as a favorite color. Puce has a similar origin to that of the color carmine. Both these colors are derived from insects that secret blood-red colorant that is used as a pigment in cloth dying and painting. Carmine, used from antiquity, comes from the cochineal while puce, as the etymology and definitions above make clear, comes from the troublesome and often quite dangerous flea (e.g. bubonic plague and typhus). In the case of the cochineal, the red comes from the resin of the bark that it eats whereas, in the case of the flea, the red comes from the blood of this parasite's host.
While English translations of Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d’Arthur, such as the translation by Keith Baines, refer to Gareth, the Red Knight in "The Tale of Sir Gareth," as the Puce Knight, this is merely a translation convention so as not to confuse the heroic Sir Gareth with the villainous Red Knight of the Red Lands. Since we must reject Le Morte d’Arthur as the historical beginning of "puce," we find that the color puce has historical roots in the sensuous court of Marie Antoinette and begins its life c. 1787, or between 1780 and 1790.
Source of the Color Puce
The brownish purple color of puce is seen in nature under two circumstances. Should a hapless sleeper have been bitten by a flea in the night during the 1700s, dark spots may stain the snow-white linen (linen: cloth made from reeds) sheets and be found upon awakening. Should an individual happen to espy a flea upon their person or upon the person of another individual, if the flea can be caught and smashed, the parasitic flea will release dark fluid resulting from biting its host.
Cultural Association Between Fleas and Puce
This raises the question of how a parasitic flea's secretions could be associated with a Queen's new and favorite color. The answer, which bares directly on the history of puce, lies in the historical association of fleas with the unbridled, i.e., uncontrolled, desires of l'amor, of love. By the 1300s, the firmly established French idiom (conveyed in English) "to have a flea in the ear" meant to be provoked with amorous desire. French poetry of 1300 and 1400s speaks of putting fleas in young women's ears to arouse desire in them. A French poem written in the 1600s by Jean de la Fontaine illustrates the continuance of this idiom associating fleas with provoking amorous desire:
A longing girl
With thoughts of sweetheart in her head,
In bed all night will sleepless twirl.
A flea is in her ear, ’tis said. (Jean de la Fontaine qtd by Michael Quinion on World Wide Words)
Cultural Association of Fleas with Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette had an unstable position in the court of Louis XVI because his physical condition, phimosis, made procreation of an heir a difficulty and an improbability. Since Marie Antoinette's sole role in the royal household was to bear and rear the royal offspring and future Kings of France, the absence of procreative relations with Louis made Marie Antoinette essentially superfluous. Consequently, according to Mylynka Kilgore of the University of Texas, Marie Antoinette established a role and position for herself by usurping that of royal mistress to the King, a role represented by exuberance and extravagance in opposition to the representation of the Queen's role through modesty and purity. As a result of willful association with the role of mistress, Marie Antoinette's image was one of uncontrolled desire: Her image was one of a young woman with a flea in her ear.
The color puce has as one of its sources the dark spots that might be found on sheets after being in sleep. Marie Antoinette's sheets were checked every morning for signs that her virginity had been overcome by King Louis. The color puce came into existence. Puce was Marie Antoinette's favorite color. Courtier's for centuries had written lewd poems about using fleas to induce sexual desire in pure young women.
History of the Color Puce
There is no historical record that states the reason puce came into being or that says that the reason Marie Antoinette favored puce was because she could not escape the ironic similarity between the spots left by gorged fleas and by spots courtiers and ambassadors hoped would indicate the promise of an heir to the French throne, but there certainly is an interesting cultural connection between the idiomatic role played by fleas in French culture and the role of mistress Marie Antoinette was forced to play in the French court.
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