During the medieval age, dreaming held a wide range of significance and varying interpretations. For some individuals, it held very little importance, while for others, it was an avenue to discovering the will of God. In literature of the time, the dream vision provided a way for writers to explore fantastical and allegorical themes with greater freedom and creativity.
Depending on the dreamer, individual dreams would have differing significance. Carolyn M. Carty comments, “Medieval man, like modern man, responded to these nocturnal phenomena with both belief and skepticism, but perhaps with not the same proportional emphasis, for the perceived source of the dream is conditioned by the beliefs of a society and by the sophistication of the various classes within that society” (Carty). In some cases, dreams were dismissed as an imbalance of the humors or a bad case of indigestion. Chaucer, via his character Pertelote, states, “Dreams are, God knows, a matter for derision. Visions are generated by repletions and vapours and the body’s bad secretions of humours overabundant in a wight” (Chaucer).
With the growing influence of Christianity, it was no surprise that the Church began to address the matter of dreaming with its own interpretations. Dreams were recorded and studied from all classes, as Isabel Moriera says: “That lay dreams were recorded in religious writings of the era, however, suggests that they held a noteworthy place in Christian religious culture and that the religious elite believed these dreams to be worthy of religious interpretation” (Moriera). The Bible itself acknowledges the ways that God can communicate with human beings through dreams, as illustrated in numerous stories and stated explicitly in the text: “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in dreams by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). With this biblical basis, dreams took on special religious significance:
“Although in the Middle Ages the possible sources of dreams, including the devil himself, gave church-men cause for some concern, the dream had a special appeal in Christian contexts, for it was one vehicle which God or his emissaries had used in the past and could still use in the present for communicating with man” (Carty).
However, the divine nature of dreams is a risky territory. The Bible also cautions against false dreams sent by the Devil, saying, “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1). With a dream’s origin and authority being questionable, it was sometimes difficult to determine whether a person’s dream was the product of good or evil. Then, a person ran the risk of seeing divine messages where none were meant:
In that very rare interim moment when a dream’s meaning was not yet fully formed, we can observe the process by which dreams were given a Christian interpretation. By this I refer to that moment when a dream account whose meaning was “neutral” at the outset, or else understood by its dreamer as a purely personal oracle, was pulled into a new orbit of meaning: a dream whose symbols were now interpreted as Christian and thus open to a new, Christian interpretation (Moriera).
These questions of origin and authority created a rich landscape for artists of the time to create thought-provoking works. Dreams allowed authors to explore elements of the supernatural within the story and to comment on the communications that occur between Man and the divine, and the wisdom that can been acquired therein:
If medieval poetry attempted to achieve any one thing more than another, it was Christian wisdom. The poet’s aim, therefore, was more often than not moral and directed specifically at improving the reader by moral instruction. This he found he could best achieve through allegory since figurative expression served the double function of exercising the mind and preventing the vulgarization of truth (Whitman).
This using of written works to convey moral truth was described in great detail by Macrobius. F. H. Whitman summarizes and comments on some of his statements:
Macrobius is very explicit about the function of a dream vision. For him it is moral. It is the best means of instilling in the reader the desire to lead a virtuous life, by revealing to him rewards beyond death. Fables, which include the dream visions of fiction, serve two purposes and therefore, he says, comprise two classes: those which merely please the ear, and those which encourage the reader to good works (Whitman).
The dream vision provided a unique creative avenue for authors to utilize in the explication of the underlying themes in their work. The reason this was such an effective narrative tool was because of the mystery and shifting significance surrounding dreams within medieval culture. The questions surrounding a dream’s significance afforded an author a great deal of play in their narratives, adding new layers to the allegorical setup and attempting to encapsulate the religious and cultural traditions that shaped their world.
Carty, Carolyn. “The Role of Medieval Dream Images in Authenticating Ecclesiastical Construction.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 62.1 (1999). Web. 16 Sep 2010.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canturbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987
Moriera, Isabel. “Dreams and Divination in Early Medieval Canonical and Narrative Sources: The Question of Clerical Control.” Catholic Historical Review 89.4 (2003). 16 Sep 2010.
The Holy Bible. New International Standard Edition. Nashville, TN: Horton Christian Publishers, 2002.
Whitman, F. H. “Exegesis and Chaucer’s Dream Visions.” Chaucer Review 3.4 (1969). Web. 16 Sep 2010.