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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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Coda to Part 1: I See a Blityri!


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I See a Blityri!

Chrétien de Troyes is an author of firsts: the first writer of an Arthurian romance (Erec and Enide) and the first onymous trouvère, which is to say the northern, langue d’oïl version of the southern, langue d’oc troubadour. Part 1 of this book has entailed an exploration of whether two other firsts are attributable to this foremost poet and romancier of the twelfth century: Was Chrétien de Troyes the first writer in the Latin West to put Aristotelian visual theory into literature? And was he the first such writer to adopt Islamic theosophy and alchemy in his use of color symbolism? I think these are fascinating theses, which have ultimately survived my critiques of them in the previous two chapters; I did not disprove them. Nevertheless, I should like to think that I saved the phenomena more parsimoniously. Rather than Chrétien as an early adopter of the new, I suggested in Chapter 1 that he may instead have innovated either what was already at hand—a palette of visual theories that came with the Platonic tradition—or what was already in his head—the cognitive inheritance of any normally developed human mind. And rather than Chrétien as a symbolic colorist, I argued that his use of color is often designed to lead us into traps of symbolic interpretation, with us readers becoming the targets of his irony just as...

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