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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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Getting the Blues: Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages argues for a humanist approach to literature and illustrates that approach by exploring our understanding of medieval color vision. I have found that the description of my approach as humanist invites dismissal from my colleagues in the literary Humanities. This is the age of the Post-human, of Ecocriticism and Animal Studies. I don’t believe that any of these emerging fields is necessarily incompatible with the humanism put forth in these pages. Indeed, to take them in reverse order, humanism relies on: our shared evolutionary inheritance with other animals; our perception of and interaction with the external world; and our human ability to exceed, at least in imagination and with technology, the constraints our human nature puts upon us. There are many levels at which one can investigate human achievement, and I have simply limited myself to exploring the literary and cultural achievements of the Middle Ages as they reflect, derive from, or struggle with those constraints.

My humanist aim as a medievalist is to access the individual world-views expressed in the texts that survive to us from the European Middle Ages. By world-view, I do not just mean the sometimes pithy summations of a general attitude toward or understanding of the world, like Social Darwinism or Direct Realism. To be sure, such guiding principles existed in the Middle Ages, ← xiii | xiv → like Neo-Platonism. And, to be sure, medieval individuals, like their modern semblables, held such world-views...

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