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Green knights, green men and green children: colour symbolism and the supernatural in the Middle Ages

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From the fairies of English folklore to the ‘little green men’ popularly believed to inhabit Mars and even Slimer from Ghostbusters, why are supernatural and otherworldly beings so often green?

Some clues to this may be found in medieval colour theory, where green had a particularly wide spectrum of meanings. Many medieval tales tell of green figures from other worlds – such as the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, wild ‘green men’ and even green children.

Over the centuries, thinkers as diverse as Newton, Goethe and Wittgenstein have proposed various colour theories. In the Middle Ages, literary discussions of colour were often backed up by scientific reasoning and theories of optics, as medieval writers, artists and scholars attempted to make sense of colour. But can any of this explain why the green knight was green?

Bio: Elizabeth Dearnley is a Ph.D. candidate at Pembroke College. A graduate of University College, London, she worked as a freelance arts journalist in Shanghai before returning to graduate study in Cambridge. Her thesis is on French-English translation in the fourteenth century, but she has a long-standing interest in colour theory and synaesthesia.

This talk is part of the Pembroke Papers, Pembroke College series.

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