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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 3. Britain’s Missing Shade of Blue


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Before Britain was Great, it was Blue. In some of the first prose romances to be written in French, which date from the early thirteenth century and form the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or Vulgate Cycle, at least part of the island we today call Great Britain somehow got called Blue Britain. Or rather, it got called Bloie Bretaigne or Bretaigne la Bloie. In this chapter and the next, I interrogate each part of that curious expression, for neither is certain. As we saw in the Introduction with The Life of Saint Alexis (La vie de Saint Alexis), sometimes you have to remove color to restore the Middle Ages to its full polychromy. The work of this chapter and the next will be to solicit these two terms, Bloie and Bretaigne, for their uncertainties to loosen the monochromy of our translations. In this chapter, the target will be the Old French color term bloi, which is much stranger than its cognate blue would lead us to believe. In the next chapter, I turn to the polysemous toponym Bretaigne to show how it can mean either more or less than Britain before rejoining it to its qualifying bloie. Only then will we see its full meaning in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle comprises five texts tracing the story of King Arthur and the Holy Grail from its prehistory in the Holy Land to the death of King...

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