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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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Coda to Part 2: Mood Bloi

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CODA TO PART 2

Mood Bloi

Why the blues? The question is no longer What color? or Why blue?, but why, from among all the available meanings of the color bloi, whether chromatic, symbolic, or figurative—meanings that I tried to capture in the last two chapters—did the author of the Sad Britain passage of the Merlin Vulgate Continuation look back upon the tradition of calling Britain bloie and think of the relation of blue to sadness? We might find it remarkable that even in the medieval francophone world people got the blues. Even if as a noun the blues only has an eighteenth-century attestation as its earliest, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the association of a “depressed, low-spirited, sad, sorrowful” state of a person or their heart with the color blue all the way back to c. 1410.1 Indeed, the documentary source given by the OED is Henry Lovelich’s Middle English translation of the Sad Britain passage.2

I argued in the last chapter that this assigning of meaning to Bloie Bretaigne depended on a multifaceted metalepsis, both geographical and temporal. In terms of geography, our author resolves the toponym to just Great Britain (or even just England), whereas it might have genuinely been polysemous, meaning either Britain or Brittany as diagnosed by its modern translation, or monosemous, meaning the cross-Channel Britonnic world. The author’s metalepsis was more traditionally temporal, reaching to the far distant past, to the ← 225 | 226...

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