Getting the Blues

Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages

by Brian J. Reilly (Author)
©2019 Monographs XIV, 252 Pages
Series: Medieval Interventions, Volume 12


Getting the Blues: Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages is an interdisciplinary study of medieval color. By integrating scientific and literary approaches, it revises our current understanding of how people in medieval Europe experienced color and what it meant to them. This book insists that the past perception of the world can be recovered by joining timeless universal constraints on human experience (discovered by science) to the unique cultural expressions of that experience (revealed by literature).
The Middle Ages may evoke images of the multicolored stained glass of gothic cathedrals, the motley garb of minstrels, or the brilliant illuminations of manuscripts, yet such color often goes unnoticed in scholarly accounts of medieval literature. Getting the Blues restores some of the most important literary works of the Middle Ages to their full living color. Particular consideration is given to the twelfth-century Arthurian romances by Chrétien de Troyes and the thirteenth-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle.
Getting the Blues engages debates within the humanities and the sciences over universalist and relativist approaches to how humans see and name color. Scholars in the humanities often insist that color is a strictly cultural phenomenon, eschewing as irrelevant to the Middle Ages recent developments in cognitive science that show universal constraints on how people in all cultures see and name color. This book contributes to the recent cognitive turn in the humanities and sheds new light on some of the most frequent and meaningful cultural experiences in the Middle Ages: the perception, use, and naming of color.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction: Color, Cognition, and Criticism
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part 1. Seeing Color
  • Chapter 1. Thinking About Seeing, Fast and Slow
  • The Site of Sight in Cligès
  • Festina Lente
  • The Setting Son
  • Sight at First Love
  • Alexander’s Tragic Theory of Vision
  • The Discourse of True Love
  • The Eye of the Problem
  • The Sense of Fire
  • But Does It Work in Theory?
  • Our Confused Inner Opticist
  • But Back to That Arrow
  • Autrement dire le m’estuet
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2. The Colors of Irony
  • The Blank Stag
  • An Empty Suit
  • Idealess Green Colors
  • What’s in a Name?
  • Un chevalier sans divertissement
  • Notes
  • References
  • Coda to Part 1: I See a Blityri!
  • There Was No First Scientist
  • First Ideas
  • Bonne atmosphère!
  • Variations on a Thema
  • Developmental Themata
  • Platonic Themata
  • Thematic Origins of Naturalism
  • The Cognitive Ease of Grammatical Platonism
  • Speaking Otherwise About Medieval Platonism
  • Envoi to Part 2: Socrates est blavus (Socrates Is Blue)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part 2. Naming Color
  • Chapter 3. Britain’s Missing Shade of Blue
  • A Tale of Many Marys
  • Polychromy and Color Terms
  • Medieval Mary
  • A Spectrum of Britains
  • Blue Britain
  • Green Britain
  • Yellow Britain
  • White Britain
  • Hairy Britain
  • Black Britain
  • Shiny Britain
  • Britain Gets the Blues
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Blue Mythology
  • “Our Old Romances”: The Lancelot-Grail Cycle Texts
  • Edition of the Sad Britain Passage
  • The Sad Britain Passage
  • A Confusion of Britains
  • A Metalepsis of Britains
  • From Britannia to Bretaigne
  • Arthurian Crossings
  • A Tropics of Metalepsis
  • Bloie Bretaigne in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle
  • The History of the Holy Grail: Contretemps and Salvific History
  • The Prose Merlin: Praefulget quod non visitur
  • The Merlin Vulgate Continuation: Great and Beastly Britain
  • The Merlin Vulgate Continuation, Alpha Version: Sad Britain
  • Envoi to the Coda to Part 2: Acts of Literature
  • Notes
  • References
  • Coda to Part 2: Mood Bloi
  • Metalepsis on Trial
  • Non-intentional Metalepsis
  • Agents and Others
  • Searle’s Suffering, Coloring Cogito
  • Transgressing the Boundaries
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Figure I.1: The Life of Saint Alexis, St Albans Psalter

Figure I.2: Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, Notre-Dame de Chartres

Figure C.1: A Necker Cube

Figure C.2: Based on Figure 3a in Xu and Carey, “Infants’ Metaphysics,” 125

Figure C.3: Based on Figure 1 in Xu, “The Role of Language in Acquiring Object Kind Concepts in Infancy,” 230

Figure C.4: Based on Figure 2 in Dewar and Xu, “Do 9-Month-Old Infants Expect Distinct Words to Refer to Kinds?,” 1231b

Figure C.5: Example of the Simple Object Test, Based on Figure 2 in Imai and Gentner, “A Cross-Linguistic Study of Early Word Meaning,” 180

Figure 3.1: The Munsell-Chip Color Space of the World Color Survey

Figure 3.2: The Lexical Color Space of a Language (Culina) With 4 Basic Color Terms

Table 4.1: Manuscripts of the Alpha Merlin Vulgate Continuation

Table 4.2: Bloie Bretaigne in The History of the Holy Grail

Table 4.3: Bloie Bretaigne in the Merlin Vulgate Continuation

| xi →


Let me acknowledge from the start that this book would not exist were it not for my partner Moira R. Dillon. These pages are the direct result of her personal support and intellectual drive. Lawrence D. Kritzman, who was my teacher and has since been my close friend, got me into French Studies in the first place, and his passion for the field renews my spirits with every chat. He and Janie Kritzman have been so open in their welcome and care that I feel like mishpocheh. The editor of this series, Stephen G. Nichols, has also been a sustaining role model as I explore medieval literature. He is a mensch, and I always look forward to our next conversation, all the more so when Edie Nichols is there. This book began when my dissertation advisor, R. Howard Bloch, handed me an article by Steve on optics and the Roman de la rose. I am grateful for such mentorial insight and for the infectious curiosity he has for medieval literature. Elizabeth S. Spelke has shown me personal and pedagogical generosity, and her seminar on cognitive development changed the very course of my thinking about “the medieval mind.” A Faculty Research Grant from Fordham University allowed me to begin looking into the manuscripts studied in these pages, and then a Faculty Fellowship gave me the time to put my thoughts together and on paper.

I dedicate this book to my teachers; I wish I could name them all. They inspire me daily to be like them. Finally, my family is full of educators, and those in other professions too have been my teachers. My dedication of this book is to them as well.

| xiii →


Getting the Blues: Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages argues for a humanist approach to literature and illustrates that approach by exploring our understanding of medieval color vision. I have found that the description of my approach as humanist invites dismissal from my colleagues in the literary Humanities. This is the age of the Post-human, of Ecocriticism and Animal Studies. I don’t believe that any of these emerging fields is necessarily incompatible with the humanism put forth in these pages. Indeed, to take them in reverse order, humanism relies on: our shared evolutionary inheritance with other animals; our perception of and interaction with the external world; and our human ability to exceed, at least in imagination and with technology, the constraints our human nature puts upon us. There are many levels at which one can investigate human achievement, and I have simply limited myself to exploring the literary and cultural achievements of the Middle Ages as they reflect, derive from, or struggle with those constraints.

My humanist aim as a medievalist is to access the individual world-views expressed in the texts that survive to us from the European Middle Ages. By world-view, I do not just mean the sometimes pithy summations of a general attitude toward or understanding of the world, like Social Darwinism or Direct Realism. To be sure, such guiding principles existed in the Middle Ages, ← xiii | xiv → like Neo-Platonism. And, to be sure, medieval individuals, like their modern semblables, held such world-views with relative consistency and unique inflections—no two Neo-Platonisms ever being identical. But in addition to these Weltanschauungen, I shall also take world-view more literally to mean how people see (and think they see) the world.

Separated from us by a millennium, medieval minds may seem inaccessible to us or utterly other. But we have better access to medieval world-views than we often think, and this is thanks to the exciting and startling findings of contemporary cognitive science about how the mind works. The mind, the human mind, in any age. Where individual minds differ uniquely or by culture, they do so against a background of shared, evolutionarily inherited capacities. To see those individual differences we need that background.

Explaining in full even one medieval world-view is far-fetched, beyond the reach of any single study. This book has its limits: I focus mainly on the phenomenal and intentional aspects of medieval world-views as they concern color vision and as they are expressed in literature. Getting the Blues is not a cognitive approach to medieval literature, but a literary study of human cognition as it can be seen in that unique literature from the twelfth- and thirteenth-century francophone world.

| 1 →


Color, Cognition, and Criticism

Nothing should be easier than to talk about color in the Middle Ages. This period is perhaps the first moment in our collectively imagined Western history that seems colorful. From the yellow sands of Egypt to the white marble of Greece to the ocher stone of Rome, prior history seems at best monochromatic. Whereas when we think of medieval France, for example, we see the luminous polychromatic stained glass of its great cathedrals, the shining illuminations of medieval manuscripts, the chromatic designs of heraldic shields, the motley garb of the jongleur. Not bad for an age otherwise darkened by our prejudice towards it!

We have reason, of course, to be wary of such views of the past: Egypt, Greece, and Rome were colored well beyond our imagination—indeed at times somewhat garishly, shocking our sense of classical beauty. Historians of the art and architecture of these earlier ages must spend their time coloring in what we have left out of our imagined past. In the case of the Greeks, this work of coloring in the past began at least as far back as the early nineteenth century, when the idea of and first evidence for ancient polychromy sparked a great deal of debate. And yet, as the French art historian of the medieval Gothic cathedral, Roland Recht, has noted, the “question of medieval polychromy did not cause a comparable controversy […].”1 The reason for this is clear: What is medieval is, to our collective imaginations, already quite colorful. ← 1 | 2 →

Nevertheless, our image of the Middle Ages is not quite colorful enough, for the study of its polychromy has been made difficult by centuries of neglect or even whitewashing, not to mention the necessity of making inferences from meager samples. As the historian of color Michel Pastoureau points out, our documentation until recently has been in black and white, perhaps leaving our ideas about the Middle Ages desaturated as well.2 For literary study, such colorless documentation might not have seemed much of a problem. If the text was the object of study, then could it not be found in black and white on the printed page of some critical edition? Such an approach caused us to miss what Stephen G. Nichols has called the medieval text’s “multi-disciplinary elements”3—not just the color of the text as in rubrication, but also the images, the layout, the glosses, etc.

The irony in the case of color is that even a study of the black and white text of one of the earliest monuments of medieval French literature should have warned us that its color was missing. Consider the edition in black ink of The Life of Saint Alexis (La vie de Saint Alexis) in a 2014 critical edition by Maurizio Perugi.4 There we read that text’s famous opening, which looks more or less as follows:

Bons fut li secles al tens ancïenur,

Quer feit i ert e justise ed amur,

S’i ert creance, dunt ore n’i at nul prut :

Tut est müez, perdut ad sa colur,

ja mais n’iert tel cum fut as anceisurs. (3:1–5)

[Good was the world in the time of our ancestors,

For in it there was faith and justice and love,

And in it there was belief, of which today there is little:

All is changed, has lost its color,

Never will it be as it was for our ancestors.]

The decline of the world is not an uncommon motif in medieval literature, and the loss of color seems like an apt metaphor to describe that decline. It is not uniquely medieval, but ancient, as in Lamentations 4:1 “How gold has become tarnished, the finest color is changed!” (“Quomodo obscuratum est aurum, mutatus est color optimus”).5 Yet the situation for the medieval poet is more dismal: The color has not just been changed, but lost.

Color can be lost in several ways. Remove the hue and color goes to white; remove the brightness and color turns to black. This latter sense of a dark decoloring is the one chosen by the online translation into English of the St Albans Psalter, which contains perhaps the most famous version of The ← 2 | 3 → Life of Saint Alexis. At line 4, it reads: “The world is all changed, it has lost its brightness.” Here we seem to have testimony from the Middle Ages that they were indeed Dark Ages.

Nevertheless the author of the closely related Romance of Saint Alexis (Li roumans de Saint Alessin), a twelfth-century text preserved in a thirteenth-century manuscript (BnF fr 12471), made a slight change, a flick of the quill that changes everything about that text’s medieval color:


XIV, 252
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 252 pp., 5 b/w ill., 4 colored ill., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Brian J. Reilly (Author)

Brian J. Reilly is Assistant Professor of French at Fordham University and Associate Director of the Institute of French Cultural Studies at Dartmouth College. He holds a PhD in French from Yale University. He has taught at Yale, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins University.


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