Erfurt’s Blue – Erfurter Blau

— Leon Lange, Maurane Tiavina Imanga Know King Rambelo and Annalena Grotz

During the late Middle Ages, Erfurt was a prosperous city with a dynamic trade center, and home to one of the first universities in Europe. While its success was a result of many factors, including its geographical location, few people are aware that the colour blue had a significant impact on the development of the city. In the following post, we are examining the influence of the “Erfurter Blau” on the city and its identity.

From woad to blue

One main factor for the rising importance of Erfurt was an indigenous tinctorial plant, woad (Isatis tinctoria), used as a blue-dying fabric. The cultivation and the use of woad was first mentioned in 800 AD, but it is only later, from the 13th to the 16th century that it became highly profitable. (Galian & Gilles, 1993, p. 2) Woad is a plant native to Europe, particularly to the regions of southwest France, Italy, and the Thuringian region. It played a significant role in the textile industry, because it can be chemically manipulated to produce blue dye. Thus, several woad trade routes emerged, connecting the regions where it was cultivated with textile-producing centers. These routes enabled the distribution of woad to various markets throughout Europe (Jaubert, 1900, p. 66).

Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to the use of the plant and the development surrounding it, Erfurt became a dynamic town and an attractive marketplace during the late Middle Ages (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 63). In the following centuries, woad farming gained increasing importance in the Thuringian plains. This was helped by a religious aspect, including a truly revolutionary transformation in the European color system from the 11th century onwards, with a change from red to blue as an ultimate color (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 65). With the spread of blue in the religious and political spheres, blue dye found itself in great demand. Especially the increase of Marian devotion, starting in the 11th century, played an important role in this dynamic. Mary started to be represented with an ultramarine, deep blue cloak, necessitating the use of blue pigments (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 65). In the political sphere, some royal dynasties dropped the red and adopted blue colors on their banners (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 65). Blue also became more and more important in stained glass.

Isatis tinctoria on the river Danube today. Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Religious practices helped to create a set of common visual and mental patterns, which deeply impacted the physical landscape and the complex urban economy. Erfurt took full advantage of this increased importance of blue. From the 14th century onwards, woad was produced and dried in the region close to the city and was then processed in workshops established in the urban area. Within a few decades, local farmers and workshop holders became rich merchants, providing the city with a new bourgeoisie, which fueled a successful economy (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p.76). Blue also contributed to the growth of a civic spirit and an urban council that competed with early religious authorities. But the woad market did not boom forever: After the discovery of the sea route to India, indigo came into the European market in much larger quantities than before and gradually replaced woad. The final breakdown of the woad market came in the 1630s. From then on, while woad itself might have left the town, the effects it had on the urban formation left a deep mark on the city’s identity (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 68)

The decline of woad and the rise of indigo 

The woad trade faced numerous challenges as well. There was a growing competition between different regions and traders, as they sought to emulate its success and attempted to replicate woad cultivation in different parts of Europe. Furthermore, the already mentioned rise of indigo dye, and its increased cultivation in the 16th century, posed a significant threat, as indigo provided a cheaper, easier and a more “blue” alternative. (Jaubert, 1900, p. 60) Scholars debate when the golden age of the “blue triangles” came to an end. Indigo eventually replaced woad on a large scale and by the 17th century woad cultivation had largely vanished in Europe.

During the late Middle Ages, Erfurt was a prosperous city with a dynamic trade center, and home to one of the first universities in Europe. While its success was a result of many factors, including its geographical location, few people are aware that the colour blue had a significant impact on the development of the city.Was it only indigo, though? This crisis, which began in the 1560s, did not mark the end of the woad economy. A lot of the old woad-producing regions, like the Thuringian basin and the Languedoc, survived and continued to produce and export. Erfurt was still the main center of woad trade in the Thuringia basin in the 1620s. (Paci & Palombarini, 1992, p. 21) Ultimately, what seems to have ended the woad renaissance in the Thuringian basin was the Hundred Years’ War and not competing dyes like indigo. The cultivation and trade in the plant remained locally popular and vigorous until the 1620s. While the Wars of Religion in France in the preceding century made it difficult to continue trading, that trade, diminished, remained uninterrupted. (Larguier, 1998, p. 161)

The contemporaries did not underestimate the indigo threat in the 16th century. The authorities looked for countermeasures: the introduction and the use of indigo were strictly forbidden in all European countries that were part of the “blue triangles” – regions involved in the production, trade, and use of woad. There were severe penalties for using indigo. For example, in Germany, the first bans were introduced already in 1577. In Württemberg in 1599, dyers had to swear an oath every year to never use the new blue dye. The use of indigo was also forbidden in other European countries like France and Italy. In 1610, Henry IV, King of France, prohibited the use of this dye on the pain of death, and in the Papal States similar measures were taken. In the end, woad and indigo remained side by side for more than two centuries after the new plant first appeared on the European market (Larguier, 1998, p. 162). Today the cultivation and preparation of woad continue in a residual way in the old woad-producing regions, beautifully exemplified in Erfurt itself, with Rosanna Minelli’s workshop at the Krämerbrücke.

Knowledge and prosperity 

Around three hundred Thuringian villages were engaged in woad cultivation, and Erfurt was the largest woad market in Central Europe. Such vigorous activity had to leave a mark on the city itself. Erfurt became a key trading hub for woad due to its favorable geographic location and established trade networks. The city was strategically situated on major trade routes, connecting regions in Central and Eastern Europe and soon became a vital link between the woad-producing areas and the textile centers of the time. Those main woad trading routes are called the “blue triangles” by scholars. This has left lasting ties: for example, Lille, one of these medieval and early modern textile centers, is today a twin town of Erfurt (Galian & Gilles, 1993, p.1).

Erfurt on the Via Regia and close to the Via Imperii. (Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa), CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

The processed woad dye from Erfurt was highly valued and in great demand. The trade in the dye attracted merchants, artisans, and dyers who specialized in working with woad. Erfurt soon enjoyed a big reputation as a center of excellence in the textile industry. The humble plant fostered international connections, influenced diplomatic relations and led to collaborations and alliances between regions involved in the trade. 

With the development of the “Erfurter Blau” the city did not only become a major trading center, but it developed to be an intellectual hub as well. Blue, seen as the color of intuition and intellect, has also left its marks in the field of knowledge production and education. Testimony to this development is the foundation of the Erfurt University in 1379, which was one of the first German-speaking universities and one of the first universities in Central Europe. Even before the founding of the university, Erfurt was  attractive to distinguished scholars like Master Eckhardt. Traces of scholars who studied in the city, like Martin Luther, are still visible in Erfurt today. The University of Erfurt had two particularly successful periods, one in the 15th century when it was one of the most prominent higher education institutions, and one in the 16th century, when Erfurt was a center of Humanism and Scholasticism (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 105). During this time, it was also visible that Erfurt was an intellectual center as there were many university buildings in the city center (e.g. the Collegium Maius in the Michaelisstraße). These successful periods of knowledge production in Erfurt correlate with the prosperous economic periods in production and trade in woad. This importance of Erfurt as an intellectual center in the German-speaking area was described by the humanist Eobanus Hessus, who claimed that “Erfurt flourishes in the light of scholarship, before all other cities in Germany” (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 105/106). In addition, manuscript material that belongs to the Old Synagogue emphasizes that Erfurt was indeed a knowledge center as it hosted Jewish scholars and theologians (Christ, Keller, Rüpke, 2020, p. 70). Economic prosperity brought by the woad was forged into a new intellectual reputation.

Erfurter Blau today 

Nowadays, the Erfurter Blau is not visible at first glance in the city of Erfurt. The local museums do not focus on the impact of the color blue when they explain the history of the city and no museum is able to provide precise information about the topic. This is surprising as one could say that Erfurt would probably not look the same without the development of the Erfurter Blau and the economic boom in the Middle Ages, as the buildings built during that time shape Erfurt until today. Nevertheless, the legacy of woad is visible if you know where to look. For example, one of Erfurt’s theaters is located in the so-called “Waidspeicher” (eng: Woad Warehouse). Perhaps the most important element of the living tradition connected with the plant and the dye wone from it is a shop on the famous Krämerbrücke in Erfurt, which is called “Erfurter Blau”. The owner of the shop, Rosanna Minelli, is selling scarves, fabrics, and other accessories that she makes herself, using traditional woad production methods. She has also established new contacts and encourages partnerships with Italy (Genoa) and France (Amiens and Lille), the old “blue triangles” of the Middle Ages. She makes the legacy and the history of the Erfurter Blau and woad accessible to citizens and tourists alike. However, it is rather surprising that the interesting story of the Erfurter Blau is not really told to the public on a grand scale, after all it has shaped deeply its current landscape.

Window shop of “Erfurter Blau” today (Image: authors)

The legacy of the woad trade in the Middle Ages bears witness to the economic importance of the textile industry and the brilliant blue colors it produced. Strong business ties were formed, and these regions’ economies benefited from the woad trade between Erfurt, France, and Italy. 

A humble plant promoted economic expansion and cross-cultural communication while facilitating the trade of goods, particularly textiles and dyes. Although the woad trade in Erfurt eventually disappeared, its historical importance remains a testament to the town’s role in the medieval textile industry and its involvement in the wider European trade networks of the time. The medieval woad trade serves as a case study for how intertwined the continent’s trading networks were at the time. It demonstrates the value of connecting cities like Erfurt in promoting trade and knowledge transfer between various regions and advancing the growth of the textile sector across Europe. And if you look closely, you will find the blue legacy all over the city today.

Literature

Andrieux, J.P. (1922). Editions Dalloz Les couleurs du droit (II/II) Notes de lectures. Juillet-Septembre, 96(3), 447-478. https://doi.org/10.2307/26593633 (accessed: 5.10.23)

Galian, M. (1933). La Renaissance du Pastel en pays de cocagne. Bulletin de l’Union des Physiciens, Vol 87(757).

Heimat Thüringen (2014): Kulturlandschaft, Umwelt, Lebensraum; 21. Jahrgang, Heft 1-2, S.44-46.

Jaubert, G.F. (1900). La Garance Et L’indigo. Masson et Cie.

Keller, S.; Christ, M. & Rüpke, J. (2020): Erfurt. The Blue City. Die blaue Stadt. Universität Erfurt: Max-Weber-Kolleg.

Larguier, G. (1998). Narbonne et la voie méditerranéenne du pastel (XVe-XVIIe siècles). Annales Du Midi : Revue Archéologique, Historique et Philologique de La France Méridionale, 110(222), 149-167. https://doi.org/10.3406/anami.1988.2588 (accessed: 5.10.23)

Peeters, A. (1975). Les plantes tinctoriales dans l’économie du Vaucluse au XIXe siècle. Etudes Rurales, N. 60 (60), p. 41-54. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20120635 (accessed: 5.10.23)


This blog post was researched and written by students participating in the 2023 lecture series “Global Exchanges – Trade, Knowledge, and Religion“. The lecture series was organised by Elisa Iori and Mateusz Fafinski of the UrbRel group.

Woad has featured in earlier publications by the UrbRel group, most notably in “Erfurt – Die blaue Stadt/ Erfurt – The blue city” by Sara Keller, Martin Christ and Jörg Rüpke. The book can be purchased at Buchhandlung Peterknecht in Erfurt or accessed online.



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, October 16). Erfurt’s Blue – Erfurter Blau. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3gq

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