This post our first in a new series, in each of which we will pick the brain of a different Fordham medievalist.

Brian J. Reilly
Brian J. Reilly

This Friday, Fordham medievalists will have a chance to hear from Dr. Brian Reilly (Associate Professor of French) about his recently published book, Getting the Blues: Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages (2019). Dr. Reilly has been teaching at Fordham for six years. He teaches courses on French language, culture, and literature as well as seminars in Medieval textual criticism and editing manuscripts. He earned his BA from Dartmouth College and went on to receive his PhD from Yale University. Along with his position at Fordham, Dr. Reilly serves as the Associate Director of the Institute for French Cultural Studies at Dartmouth. In Fall 2019, he taught the Medieval Studies graduate course: MVST 5077 Editing Medieval Texts. Late in the fall semester, I sat down with Dr. Reilly to ask him about his book, his career, and a few other things as well.

If you weren’t a Medievalist, what would you be?

A teacher of X. What X is never really mattered all that much. Growing up, most of the members of my family were educators, and I was always going to go into the family “biz”, just as my sister did (she teaches Special-Ed, like one of our uncles). I always imagined X would be philosophy, in particular logic, so I sneak that into my work as a medievalist.

What book are you reading right now?

Just finished Kevin Mitchell’s Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are. Its first chapter is titled “On Human Nature,” which is a good complement (counterweight? antidote?) to the article I gave my graduate students [in Editing Medieval Texts]  to read where “human nature” is always between scare quotes.

When did you learn French?

I had an amazing French teacher in 8th grade, Mme Rifkin. In high school I had teachers who loved France, its history and language (the line among us Irish-Americans was les ennemis de mes ennemis …). As an undergraduate, I stupidly took the minimum number of classes for my language requirement and did not study abroad. Regrets. After graduating, I taught English at a French lycée for two years. That was where I truly learned French. And then I chose a graduate department where French was still the language of instruction.

You are active on Twitter; how do you navigate Twitter as an academic? Or what do you see as the role of twitter and other social media outlets in the realm of academia?

“Active” is a very relative term! I use it primarily as a news digest. I think Twitter is great for dissemination.

What is your favorite Grail movie?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Don’t tell anyone. But do go check out the Indiana Jones Minute (@IndianaJonesMin) — love those guys! Their podcast got me back into the film and inspired my undergraduate seminar on Grail films last year.

Can you tell us about your book Getting the Blues: Vision and Cognition in the Middle Ages?

Sure! The first thing to know is its series. It was published in Medieval Interventions: New Light on Traditional Thinking edited by Stephen G. Nichols. Go check out the other books in the series before mine.

Getting the Blues
Getting the Blues

The next thing to know about my book is its cover. My partner is not only a cognitive scientist, but also an artist. The image of Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière being colored in on the cover is her creation.

OK, now for the book itself. My goal was to correct the course of color studies in the humanities. I love the books on color by Michel Pastoureau, but I find his refusal of science confounding—and sadly typical. Despite what he says, there are universals of human color perception and, more surprisingly, of color naming. Medieval color becomes, to my mind, much more interesting when we try to view it within the constraints of what we know rather than what we would like to believe.

Still, despite my interest in findings from the sciences, I remain, admittedly, de la vieille école by insisting on the literariness of medieval literature. And so I spend the first half of the book talking about Chrétien de Troyes’s poetics as productively confronting the gap between what is seen and what can be said or made seen through language. The second half of my book is an attempt to explain one expression from the Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Bretaigne la bloie. I found it very interesting that scholars of Old French literature could not agree on what bloie meant or even where Bretaigne was! While it could simply and correctly be said to mean Blue Britain (not Brittany), I think appreciating the full richness of the expression requires results from both the sciences (the monosemy and polysemy of color terms) and literary studies (the master trope of metalepsis).


What color is this and why?

La robe est bloie. (Check out David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart episode where the Dress is discussed.)

#TheDress is the perfect object for the study of color: To understand the cultural phenomenon that it was you need to understand it as a cognitive, perceptual, and linguistic phenomenon as well. There is a fact of the matter: The dress is blue and black. But we are not looking at the dress. Instead, we are looking at a particular image of it. I am team #blackandblue, but that was not skill. There is a more complex perceptual explanation to be given, but let’s just say that what you see depends on how your brain decides—automatically and without your input—the dress was illuminated. The fact that I am a night owl, for example, played a role in my perceiving the dress as black and blue. (I am also team #yanny, but you win some, you lose some.)

The dress is an instance where differences in color naming derive from differences in color perception. Differences in perception, however, are the exception, not the rule. They often require ambiguous stimuli, as in visual illusions and as in this photo. Scholars in the humanities, however, too often go in the wrong direction with color: We infer differences in perception based on differences in naming. I think it is often a much more interesting literary story—and one in line with what modern science tells us—to see how the same perceptions get named differently. The unique vision our language affords us is figurative rather than perceptual.

What are you working on next?

I have a long-standing project justifying the ways of Jacques Derrida to scientists. More recently, I’ve started to look at the Holy Grail as a site to probe the relation between perception and ethics.


Brian Reilly on Getting the Blues, Friday 1/17 @5pm
Brian Reilly on Getting the Blues, Friday 1/17 @5pm


Join us on Friday, January 17 at 5:00pm  in Campbell Multipurpose Room at the Rose Hill campus for further discussion of Dr. Reilly’s book!