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Getting the Blues

Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages


Brian J. Reilly

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.

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Chapter 1. Thinking About Seeing, Fast and Slow


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Chrétien de Troyes’s second Arthurian romance, Cligès (c. 1176),1 is a romance of the eyes: Most of its action, whether in lovers’ minds, on the battlefield, or in a duped husband’s bed, originates in its characters’ eyes. How they see the world—and, in particular, how they fail to see the world correctly—plays a determining role in the progress of the narrative. Of the some 120 occurrences of the Old French word for eye (ueil) in Chrétien’s five extant romances, Cligès contains 39, almost a third of the total number and double that for any of the others.2 Not surprisingly, then, this author’s most explicit engagement with vision occurs in this text.

Or at least it seems to. As much as vision is key to the narrative of Cligès, it is also the site of Chrétien’s most incisive irony. A half century ago, Peter Haidu forcefully argued in a doctoral thesis turned seminal monograph that this irony was defined by “aesthetic distance”:

[I]rony was the basic method of composition used in Cligès. […] Much of the time, this irony had the effect of placing the reader in a privileged position vis-à-vis the story. It revealed aspects of character or situation unknown to one or more characters in the situation—as in dramatic irony. […] It frequently seemed to range the reader with the...

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