I'm listening to The Canterbury Tales, and I noticed a phrase that made no sense to me:

And certainly he has no need to dye His cheeks with any stain from Portugal

It's a translation, so I looked up the original

Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen
- He needs not paint his complexion

With brasile ne with greyn of Portyngale.
- With red dye nor with grain of Portugal.

(Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer Website, The Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue of the Nun's Priest.)

I've tried googling, but this only gave me a few copies of the Tales themselves, not clarity.

What is a "stain from Portugal"/"greyn of Portyngale"? An alcoholism reference, a cosmetic, or something else?

2 Answers 2


Portyngale refers to a colour in this case:


Portugal; grain of ~, a scarlet dye made from the insect Kermes (Coccus ilicis).

(Middle English dictionary)

During the Middle Ages kermes was gathered and prepared in Portugal, an old name for it being 'grains of Portugal'.

(Oxford Companion to Food)

enter image description here Kermes insect.


Today, Peru is the largest commercial producer of the D. coccus cochineal insect, followed by countries such as Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Spain’s Canary Islands. Many aspects of production remain the same as they were thousands of years ago. Workers start by rearing the bug on its plant of choice, the prickly pear (also known as the pear cactus or nopal) of the Opuntia genus. The insects are dried and sold to processors, who extract carminic acid, which makes up around 20 percent in dry weight of the cochineal insect’s body.


  • 1
    The OED lists Portingal (adj. portingalois) as the Middle French name of Portugal, with Portyngale/Portyngal/Portingale etc found in English so it's all related to the country, after which various things were named, including I assume the dye, although I can't find a definitive reference for the dye's name.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 3, 2023 at 10:42
  • 4
    @StuartF - yes, but the expression “a grain of …” refers to a color as you can see. It is not rare to associate colors to geographical names.
    – user 66974
    Apr 3, 2023 at 10:44
  • 3
    The country name is likely the origin of the dye/pigment name; this also explains why Portyngale was translated/modernised as Portugal.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 3, 2023 at 10:47
  • 5
    According to Wikipedia, the dried eggs of the kermes insect were widely known as 'grains'. Portugal is one of the countries where the insect's host plant, the kermes oak, grows. Apr 3, 2023 at 12:48
  • 4
    And brazile, is presumably modern brazilin -- a red dye made from Sappanwood trees, that comes from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka in Chaucer's time period. (according to Wikipedia). Just to cover all the bases in a pleasant linguistic adventure. Apr 3, 2023 at 19:38

James Wade, writes in Sir Torrent of Portingale: Introduction, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/wade-sir-torrent-of-portingale-introduction : Chaucer’s mention of “greyn of Portyngale” in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII [B2] 3459) alludes to red dye, presumably an imported luxury of rare value and splendor.

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