European history is rich, well-known, and well-celebrated. From the neo-Classical architecture, grandiose fashion and groundbreaking literature of the Renaissance period, to the powerful musical compositions and politically moved polemics of the 20th century; the various eras in European history have not gone unrecognized. That is, all but one era.
The medieval period is too often ignored. In discussions of world-changing works of art, music, architecture and literature, people forget the medieval period’s contributions. And when it is mentioned, it is, unfortunately, regarded with distaste. People view it as a period of budding superstition, a lack of hygiene and – naturally – the bubonic plague.
But there’s a lot more to Medieval Europeans than sickness and superstition. The literary works of their time paved the way for authors like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Jane Austen.
In particular, the popularity of dream visions makes Medieval literature an intriguing read. In the wake of the ideas of Jung and Freud, it’s astounding to see just how prevalently dreams can be found in art – from the 1300s to the present day.
Dream visions: a Genre
The dream vision was a literary form that reached its peak in the late Medieval period, though its use precedes even this era of European history. The form was used in a variety of ways throughout the period. Because of this, it captivated the interests of both contemporary and modern-day audiences.
Typically, dream visions are narrative and written in verse. They use a literary technique called “frame narrative”. This technique involves one story being told within another. Often, the narrator would navigate their dream with the aid of a guide (an angel, a saint, or a person).
Characteristics of dream visions
Each dream vision is unique, and often contains the author’s own individual spin and commentary. However, as a genre, they tend to follow a similar structure of events. First, the narrator, usually a man, falls asleep in the middle of a life crisis or activity. Second, the narrator finds himself in a beautiful natural place – known in the academic field as locus amoenus. Usually, this place is some sort of garden or forest, filled with beautiful plants and animals.
There, the narrator encounters a guide figure who then leads them to more allegorical visions. This is often done with the aim of pointing them to some larger spiritual or philosophical truths. The narrator will often ask the guide about the significance of these visions – often, to no avail, as they are intended to remain a mystery. Finally, something triggers the narrator to awaken before the dream’s full significance can be explained. The meaning of the dream remains a mystery, to both the narrator and the reader.
Popular Examples of Dream Poetry
In this section, we’ll cover some examples of dream visions that were popular both during their publication, and long afterwards.
The Romance of the Rose
The dream vision became a popular literary form in the 13th century with the publication of The Romance of the Rose. This poem, started by Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean de Maun forty years later, is an exemplar of the genre.
Guillaume’s section presents the reader with a dream allegory about the wooing of a woman. Her character is represented by a rosebud, and the events occur within the bounds of a garden (representing courtly society). The boy who charms her is the narrator himself. In the dream, the God of Love shoots him with arrows, so that he becomes smitten with the rosebud. He attempts to take the rose for himself, but the garden guardians resist him. In de Maun’s continuation, he manages to take the rose through his own wit and cunning.
Chaucer’s dream visions
Geoffrey Chaucer is among the most famous names in English literary history. His many works inspired an ineffable number of English authors to create some of the most memorable works in the literary world.
He is most famous for The Canterbury Tales, a series of tales told from the different perspectives of characters on their way to a pilgrimage site. However, Chaucer is also famous for his dream visions, likely written in imitation of the French. Examples include the Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, and the Parliament of Fowls.
Though his dream visions are considered culturally impactful, ideas surrounding dreams feature heavily in some of Chaucer’s other works. For instance, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales details the arguments of a well-read rooster, Chauntecleer, and hen, Pertelote. The two quarrel over the validity of the former’s nightmare about being captured by a fox. In this tale, they deliberate on the significance of the dream, and of dreams in general. Chauntecleer cites biblical and classical texts for authority. This points to the significance of dreams not only to Chaucer but also to his cultural context.
The Dream of Scipio
Among the most known and cited examples of a dream vision – often referenced even within other dream visions, especially Chaucer’s works – is the Roman author Cicero’s The Dream of Scipio (Somnium Scipionis). This work describes a fictional dream vision of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus.
The story follows the typical trajectory of a dream vision. The narrator, Scipio, sees his dead grandfather-by-adoption in a dream, who acts as the guide. His grandfather first foretells his future. Later, they progress onto a lengthy and deep discussion about celestial bodies, through which information about the planets and their movements is revealed to Scipio.
The legacy of the text is indescribable. It inspired innumerable works in different mediums, from a Mozart piece to paintings and poetry.
Pearl is a poem that uses the dream vision to illustrate the impact of bereavement. The narrator, a jeweler, who is searching in a garden for a lost pearl. There, he falls asleep and envisions a magical setting, containing a stream flowing over jeweled rocks. The poem ends with a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem from the Bible. There, the narrator finds himself with a new white, round symbol, the Eucharist, to replace his lost pearl. The guide, in this instance, is a young maiden. Within the poem, the narrator eventually realizes she is the daughter he lost when she was two years old.
The poem’s structure is as significant as its context. The poet has organized its 1212 lines into stanzas linked by a keyword in the last line, and its repetition in the next line. In this way, the structure mimics that of a pearl necklace.
The Dream of the Rood
Perhaps the earliest dream vision in Western European history is The Dream of the Rood. This poem was written in Old English between the 8th-10th centuries A.D.
In the poem, the narrator sees a jewel-studded tree. The tree then begins to speak – much like the guide that commonly features in dream visions. It informs the narrator that it was the same tree that was cut down to make the cross on which Christ was crucified. The narrator then experiences a vision of Christ on the cross. Afterwards, he listens to the Rood’s anguished and miserable feelings over Christ’s torture.
The Book of the City of Ladies
The history of Western literature is, more often than not, populated by male writers – especially in its earlier stages. However, the French writer Christine de Pizan breaks that mold. De Pizan was a writer at the court of Charles VI of France, and contributed greatly to Medieval literature. Frustrated by the misogynistic nature of most court literature – especially the Romance of the Rose – she decided to write a book in response to her cultural context.
Through this, she created The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she aimed to treat women in a more positive light. In her text, de Pizan – who doubles as the narrator – envisions herself falling asleep. During this time, three personified virtues (Reason, Rectitude and Justice) visit her. They tell her that God has chosen her to improve the woman’s name and reputation. In order to do so, they propose that she builds a metaphorical city to house many heroines and noblewomen, and protect women against attack by outsiders.
Dream Theory: Medieval Culture and its Influences
Medieval culture’s interest in dreams and dream visions didn’t come from nowhere. It’s part of a larger cultural framework, the legacy of preceding literary texts like The Dream of Scipio, and ideas about dreams inherited from the Christian tradition, which was prevalent at the time.
Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, Aeneas’s vision of the underworld in the Aeneid, and Macrobius’s Commentary on Scipio’s Dream – as well as the dream itself – all set a literary and cultural precedent for the conversations and stories about dreams. These early examples introduced what would become the conventional structure of a dream vision, with a narrator recounting a dreamt-up experience and pondering its significance.
The role of Christianity
Christianity and the Bible were central to Medieval culture. Therefore, it is imperative to consider them when examining the overall context surrounding the production and reception of dream visions.
The Bible contains several descriptions of dreams, including those in the Book of Job and the Book of Numbers. Both passages suggest that God can appear to people in dreams or visions. The Old Testament, too, narrates a wide variety of dreams, visions, or apparitions experienced by Pharaoh, Joseph, and Ezekiel; while the New Testament features St. Paul’s vision of being caught up in Paradise.
Because of this, it is likely that authors felt not only empowered to include elements of dreams in their works, but also felt it necessary, too. In their eyes, dreams were more than just hypothetical fantasies to explore – they provided a direct experience of God, or contained a deeper, pious message.
The legacy of The Dream of Scipio
As mentioned earlier, Cicero’s Dream of Scipio was a seminal text in the history of dream visions. It paved the way for the genre’s future popularity and impacted a wide variety of authors in Western European history. However, in the Middle Ages, it was a commentary on the text that gained wide popularity and credibility within the literary context. Known as Macrobius’s Commentary, and named after the Roman grammarian and philosopher himself, Macrobius contributed to the dream theory of both his age and the Medieval period.
In particular, he detailed five categories of dreams. The enigmatic dream (somnium in Latin) is the first. According to Macrobius, it was one of the most difficult to interpret, as it “conceals strange shapes and veils”. The second type, the oracular vision (known as oraculum), entails an authority figure (a parent, a revered man, a priest or even a god) revealing future events, alongside the necessary actions to avoid them.
Thirdly, the prophetic dream (visio), according to Macrobius, displayed events which would come true, with or without one’s input. Nightmares (insomnium) likely don’t require much explanation – Macrobius believed that they were caused by mental or physical distress, or else anxiety about future events. The final category, the apparition (visum), would be experienced some time between sleeping and wakefulness. Macrobius didn’t say much about it, dismissing it as unimportant.
With this in mind, it’s clear Medieval Europeans viewed dreams so significantly. A dream, to a person living in medieval times, could be an encounter with the divine, or even a prophecy.
Social and political disdain
Aside from Chaucer, whose dream poems typically dealt with love, fame, fantasy, and sometimes personal bereavement, other English and European poets used the dream vision to address more grave topics.
The high mortality rate from the Black Plague led to the sudden growth of urban centers as rural workers migrated. This resulted in the appearance of a new, mercantile class, causing social and structural discomfort as it blurred the once rigid and clearly defined boundaries between noble and commoner. It was to this shifting society that dream visions would often direct their messages and critiques – disguised under the illusion of fiction.
Cultural Significance of Dream Poetry
Dreams have always been important. They give us an insight into a world we don’t know, a world that is both entirely of our own creation and beyond our conscious comprehension.
The mysterious, unpredictable world of dreams – like that of imagination – provides us with tools we can use to further understand both ourselves and the world around us. And that is something that Medieval writers understood, despite not getting the credit they deserved.
If we take away anything from diving into the history of Medieval dream poetry, it should be that Medieval Europe was a lot more refined than we believe it to be. It was a time characterized by various issues – from social and political unrest, to widespread sickness, and severely limited scientific comprehension.
But we shouldn’t let those issues define the medieval period. Instead, we should take initiative. We must explore the various pieces of art, literature, architecture and music it has to offer. We must understand the context that produced, shaped, and received them. Then – and only then – can we come to a fair and justifiable conclusion.