The Medieval Dream Vision

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The Medieval Dream Vision

Authorities for the Significance of Dreams.

Although many people today associate the study of dreams mainly with Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung and the twentieth-century practice of psychoanalysis, these theorists were anticipated in their investigations by nearly eight centuries, for medieval people were intensely interested in dreams and their meanings. As with other medieval literary forms, the dream vision, a genre unique to the period, was securely founded upon the medieval reverence for classical and ancient authorities. First of all, the use of dreams or visions as a literary device was sanctioned by the highest textual authority, the Scriptures. The Old Testament narrates various dreams, purported visions, or apparitions experienced by Pharaoh, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar, Ezekiel, and others, while the New Testament features in Corinthians 2:12 St. Paul's vision of being caught up in Paradise, and in the Book of Revelation, the account of an apocalyptic vision on Patmos. Medieval dream poetry also was preceded and endorsed by classical texts such as Plato's allegory of the cave in The Republic, Vergil's account of Aeneas's vision of the underworld in the Aeneid, and Macrobius's Commentary on Scipio's dream. These early models authorized the creation of a coherent group of texts whose "plot," strictly speaking, consisted of the narrator recounting his or her unusual dream, experienced while literally asleep. Although medieval writers of these narratives never defined their texts by the term "dream vision"—they simply called them "books" or "poems" or "things"—literary historians have attached the term "dream vision" to this recognizable body of medieval texts. This genre, which overlaps with the categories of allegory and philosophical works, was one of the most distinctive and widely practiced literary forms of the Middle Ages.

Characteristics of the Dream Vision.

Medieval dream visions or dream allegories share certain common features. First, dream poems often employ a prologue consisting of an account of the conditions leading up to the narrator's having the dream, which sometimes is provoked by the dreamer's surroundings in a natural setting such as the locus amoenus ("pleasant place") full of spring breezes, birdsong, a flowery grove, and the lulling sound of flowing water. Examples include the May opening of the thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose and similar beginnings of later French dream visions by Machaut and Froissart, the Middle English Piers Plowman, the Prologue to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, and the fourteenth-century English alliterative poem Pearl. At other times the dream is provoked by the content of a book read by the dreamer just before going to sleep, which in turn influences the content of the dream. For example, Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls opens with the narrator reading Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which classified and interpreted dreams according to five types. Second, the main "plot" of the poem consists of a dream report or an account of the events occurring in the dream itself. The scope of this "plot" ranges from a limited, self-contained event, such as the dreamer's encounter and dialogue with the pearl maiden in the fourteenth-century alliterative Middle English poem Pearl, to a broad, encyclopedic treatment of many political, social, and spiritual issues such as is found in Langland's enormous alliterative dream vision Piers Plowman. Third, many dream poems, whether waking or sleeping visions, include the appearance to the narrator of a male or female authority figure who informs the dreamer about some aspect of his life or teaches him some spiritual or philosophical truth. For example, personified Nature appears to the narrator of Alan of Lille's Complaint of Nature, Lady Holychurch appears to Will in Piers Plowman, and Reason, Rectitude, and Justice appear to Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies. Fourth, some dream visions feature a framing epilogue consisting of the dreamer's awakening from the dream and interpretative speculations about its meaning, as occurs in the end of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. Occasionally, the dream simply ends without the closing frame of the dreamer's awakening. Such an absence of closure occurs in Chaucer's House of Fame, in which the dream breaks off abruptly with the appearance of an otherwise mysterious "man of great authority," perhaps Chaucer's playful reference to the authority figure convention of dream visions.

Continental Medieval Dream Visions.

The dream vision became a favored literary form in the thirteenth century with the appearance of the seminal exemplar of the genre, Romance of the Rose, started by Guillaume de Lorris and completed forty years later by another author, Jean de Meun. In Jean's continuation of the work, he demonstrates the potential of the dream vision to break down the rational barriers of waking life and allow for the inclusion of an encyclopedic range of subjects that would seem too random for an account of lived experience. With hundreds of manuscripts of the Romance of the Rose in circulation, often elaborately illustrated, by the fourteenth century the taste for dream narratives reached its zenith, with many examples produced by French love poets influenced by the Rose. Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), well known for his musical compositions and development of the motet, wrote the Dit dou Vergier (poem of the garden) in which the lovesick narrator swoons in an April locus amoenus and sees a vision of the God of Love, who dispenses advice about how to conduct a courtly love affair, using secrecy and loyalty to the beloved, whereupon the narrator awakens and vows to be true to his lady forever. As one of his earliest works, Jean Froissart (1337–1410) wrote the Paradys d'Amours (The Paradise of Love; 1361–1362), in which a lovesick, insomniac narrator prays for relief to the God of Sleep and, in the dream that ensues, gains the God of Love's support in wooing his lady. When, as a more mature poet, Froissart revisits the genre in Le Joli Buisson de Jonece (The Fair Bush of Youth; 1373), he demonstrates the dream vision's potential for psychological complexity as the narrator uses his dream of rejection in the garden of love to resolve his mid-life crisis, leading him to abandon love poetry and move on to more responsible authorial pursuits.

Currents in Medieval England.

The earliest dream vision written in England, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon religious lyric "The Dream of the Rood," is not a part of the tradition initiated by the Romance of the Rose but rather is a more direct descendant of the apocryphal New Testament stories—very like the canonical Book of Revelation—elaborating events in the life, death, and afterlife of Jesus which are reported by a narrator transported outside himself in a vision. In this remarkable poem, the dreamer-narrator recounts a vision of the crucified Christ on the cross in which the anthropomorphized cross or "Rood" speaks of its anguished feelings when made to serve as the implement of Christ's torture at the Passion. The Rood describes its relation to Christ—who is not the suffering victim depicted in late medieval art, but rather a heroic warrior like Beowulf—as that of a thane to his lord in the comitatus. As English society changed with the arrival of the Norman French in 1066, there was no continuity of tradition from this early example. After a hiatus of several centuries, however, dream visions reappeared, in imitation of the French, particularly in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, who produced several examples: Book of the Duchess, which is much indebted to the love poetry of Froissart and Machaut; House of Fame, which combines French elements with a motif of ascent reminiscent of Dante's Divine Comedy; and Parliament of Fowls, which owes its conception of Lady Nature to Alan of Lille's allegorical female authority figure in Complaint of Nature. Chaucer and his works had English and Scottish imitators as late as the sixteenth century.

The English Philosophical Dream Vision.

While Chaucer's dream poems dealt with love, personal bereavement, the common profit, and fame, his English contemporaries combined dream vision with allegory to treat more serious, philosophical subjects. During the fourteenth century, the high mortality rate from the Black Death had accelerated economic changes that led to abandonment of the countryside by agricultural workers, periods of famine, sudden growth of urban centers, and the appearance of a new, socially unsettling, mercantile class that blurred old boundaries between noble and commoner. Camouflaging social critique under cover of a narrative that was "only a dream," such works as Winner and Waster, the Parliament of Three Ages, and Piers Plowman responded to the enormous social, religious, and economic changes that occurred in England from about 1350 onwards. The anonymous poet of the unfinished Winner and Waster (1350), for example, addressed the pressing economic issues of the proper getting and spending of money, posing the question of how to use national wealth with social responsibility. As the allegorical armies of Winner and Waster prepare for battle before King Edward III, the king deems that Winner should ally itself with the Church while Waster joins the merchants of London's Cheapside market district. Similar economic concerns dominate the Parliament [Debate] of Three Ages (1350), in which the dreamer is visited by three men, representing allegorized Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age. Youth is carefree and thinks little about anything except the immediate moment and his pleasures; Middle Age worries only about keeping what he has earned; Old Age rails against the vices of the previous two ages and reminds Youth and Middle Age about the evanescence of earthly life. Using illustrative exempla (parable-like stories of moral instruction), Old Age reminds them that all is vanity and only death is certain. When the dreamer awakens, he is so traumatized by the vision that he remains lodged in a tree house, unable to return to civilized life.

Classification of Dreams

Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius (399–422 c.e.), a late Roman author, wrote the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (circa 400 c.e.), a long treatise interpreting the Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio), the closing section of Marcus Tullius Cicero's De re publica (54–51 b.c.e.). Macrobius was an important source for the transmission of Plato's thought for the twelfth century. His Commentary, sixteen times longer than Cicero's original text, treats number symbolism, astronomy, cosmography, geography, the classification of the virtues, the division between body and soul, and other subjects, but the section he was best known for was his classification of dreams, which was cited frequently by medieval writers of dream visions, including Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, and Chaucer. According to Macrobius, there are five types of dreams: 1) the insomnium (nightmare), caused by anxiety or physical or mental distress, which had no special meaning and was not considered prophetic; 2) the visum (apparition), which occurs in the half sleep state just before one falls in deep sleep, and which also was not considered prophetic; 3) the oraculum (oracular dream), in which an authority figure or parent appears in the dream and advises or prophesies to the dreamer; 4) the visio (prophetic vision), a prophecy that comes true; 5) the somnium (enigmatic dream), whose meaning is veiled and must be interpreted. Macrobius considered only the last three types of dreams significant. Chaucer mentions Macrobius's commentary in his Book of the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the Nun's Priest's Tale, in which his well-read rooster, Chauntecleer, quotes Macrobius on dreams.

A Spiritual Dream Vision.

One of the most exquisitely constructed poems in Middle English is the late fourteenth-century alliterative dream vision Pearl, composed by the same unknown writer who created Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Patience (a retelling of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale). As in his Arthurian romance about Sir Gawain, this poet employs striking number and color symbolism in a technically brilliant and emotionally moving poem comprised of 1,212 lines complexly organized into a structure reminiscent of a pearl necklace, with stanzas that are linked by the appearance of a key word in the last line of a stanza and its repetition in the first line of the next. The first stanza group depicts the narrator, a "joyless jeweler," lamenting the loss of some literal object, person, or state of being identified as a "pearl." The poem begins in a garden-like setting that may be the grave of the narrator's deceased young daughter or the literal "spot" where he lost a valuable pearl. After swooning from emotional loss, the narrator has a vision of a landscape suggestive of the terrestrial paradise in which a young woman, the pearl maiden, appears to him as a female authority figure like Boethius's Lady Philosophy. The pearl maiden instructs the literal-minded dreamer how to cope with his loss, using two New Testament parables as exempla. When the stubborn dreamer refuses to accept the promotion of such a young girl to one of the "queens" of heaven, she uses the "Parable of the Vineyard," whose moral is that the last shall go first, to explain the democracy of heavenly reward. To console him for his bereavement, she uses another parable from the Gospels, the "Pearl of Great Price," in which a jeweler exchanges a valuable gem for the greater prize of salvation. In an instance of translatio studii, John's vision of Revelation about the procession of the Lamb (representing Christ) into the jeweled city of the New Jerusalem is incorporated almost verbatim into the dream vision. The white-attired maiden, adorned with a huge pearl, joins the procession of 144,000 virgins honoring the Lamb. Against her warnings that it was not his choice to make, the dreamer, who cannot resist trying to cross the river separating him from this scene, is abruptly awakened from his vision. In the final stanza group, he finds himself once again on the mound where he fainted, consoled by a new white, round symbol to replace the lost pearl, the Eucharist. The highly suggestive image of the pearl can be read according to the four levels of allegorical interpretation: literally as a lost gem or the dead daughter; allegorically as primal innocence before the fall or the state of a baptized infant; tropologically as innocence, with emphasis on one's duty to regain innocence; and anagogically as possession of the beatific vision in the heavenly paradise.

The Importance of Dreams to Medieval Sensibility.

Other medieval literary works that are not, strictly speaking, dream visions also allude to the importance of dreams and attest both their veracity and the possibility of accurately interpreting them. Chaucer's delightful animal fable, the Nun's Priest's Tale in the Canterbury Tales, features a well-read rooster and hen, Chauntecleer and Pertelote, who argue over the validity and possible significance of the cock's nightmare about capture by a fox, with the cock citing many of the abovementioned biblical and classical dreams for authority, as well as referring directly to Macrobius. This tale combines dream vision and the animal epic, specifically the story of Reynard the Fox, the most famous example of which is the French Roman de Renart cycle, composed between 1174 and 1250 by a number of different authors. By using this important popular genre, where animals take on the roles of people (with the fox representing the voracious, aggressive, and overly clever part of man), Chaucer is able to reinforce a traditional theme about the similarities between animals and humans while at the same time exploring the issue of dreams satirically, drawing on the audience's familiarity with the cock's self-important attitude. Medieval dream visions are often, like this tale, self-referential, with many of them alluding to Macrobius's authoritative typology of dreams, as well as other early dream visions such as Alan of Lille's Complaint of Nature, and the Romance of the Rose.


Robert J. Blanch and Julian N. Wasserman, From Pearl to Gawain: Forme to Fynisment (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1995). Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds., A Companion to the Gawain-Poet (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1997).

John Conley, ed., The Middle English Pearl: Critical Essays (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970).

Steven Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Kathryn L. Lynch, The High Medieval Dream Vision: Poetry, Philosophy, and Literary Form (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988).

J. Stephen Russell, The English Dream Vision: Anatomy of a Form (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1988).

Kenneth Varty, Reynard the Fox: A Study of the Fox in Medieval English Art (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1967).

James I. Wimsatt, Chaucer and the French Love Poets (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

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The Medieval Dream Vision

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