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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 4. Blue Mythology


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The claim that Britain was Blue before it was Great, which I made at the start of the last chapter, now has at least some chromatic justification: Although Bloie Bretaigne could have meant a Britain of any number of colors, including colors not named in Modern English or French, we have seen how at least one medieval author or scribe may have understood the expression as meaning Blue Britain, even Dark Blue Britain. In what I referred to as the Sad Britain passage of the Merlin Vulgate Continuation, the color of Britain comes, we are told, from the inhabitants of Britain who called their land Bretaigne la bloie “because their hearts and thoughts were blue and black” (“pour ce que leur cuers et lor pensees estoient et pers et noir”; 2.110.n3).1 The rabbit hole is still a little deeper, since pers could mean a range of blues of different brightnesses or saturations. Nevertheless, that range is thoroughly blue, limiting bloi’s polychromy to that color and eliminating fair, blond, yellow, white, etc. The Britons’ hearts and thoughts are blue (pers) and black (noir), and by metonymy, their land is blackish blue (bloi).

In this chapter, I turn to the other parts of my claim, namely that Bloie Bretaigne refers to Great Britain and does so prior to Britain being labeled Great. On the one hand, this antecedence hardly seems historically plausible: The largest of the British Isles has...

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