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Getting the Blues

Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages

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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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Introduction: Color, Cognition, and Criticism

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INTRODUCTION

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...

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