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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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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...

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