Medieval Dreams: A Sample of Historical and Psychological Criticism
Psychoanalytische Perspectieven, 20, 2, (2002)
Accounts of the contents of dreams in medieval texts can be the result of a process that occurred in stages: first the dreaming, then the narrating and finally the recording. First, someone dreams a dream. He remembers it and tells it to himself as it were; then he tells someone else what he dreamt. The other person writes it down. Occasionally other oral links occur in this chain between the dreamer and the transcriber of the dream. Each stage of this process contains elements that can affect whether the dream is preserved or not and can also have a distorting effect on the original contents of the dream. The mechanisms involved in this process are the subject of this study.
Medieval texts also frequently contain passages that appear to describe dreams but do not really do so; rather they are pure literary creations or clichés. In this article a number of criteria for analyzing texts containing dreams are developed using insights and techniques from historical philology, cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis. The standpoint I am defending is that although ideas about dreams change in the course of time and from culture to culture, the mental activity of dreaming is part of man’s biological baggage and is thus a historical constant.
Introduction: Dreams serve as sources of very special material for historical research. In his article on the dreams of people in the Third Reich, Reinhard Koselleck notes that dreams can come from layers of the world of human experience that even diaries do not get to. Dreams can provide information about the preoccupations, obsessions and desires of individuals and groups and indeed of entire cultures. Despite the fine pioneering efforts of Dodds and Besançon in this field, very little attention has traditionally been devoted to the dream in historical research. Thanks to Le Goff, Schmitt, Burke and Wittmer-Butsch, this is changing.
The research conducted on dreams in the past inevitably came upon two phenomena, the ideas about dreams and the dreams themselves. A sharp distinction needs to be drawn between the two. Ideas about dreams, or so cultural anthropology research has taught us, differ from one culture to the next. Dreams can be conceived of as actual interventions of supernatural powers in the experiential worlds of individuals (“a divinity appears to someone in his sleep”), as active communication between the dreamers and another world, as autobiographical documents and thus as information from the dreamers about themselves, or as pointless nocturnal cerebral activity . In some cultures, dreams are a common topic of conversation; in others they are not spoken of at all. There is a vast diversity in the attitudes people have to dreams. It does not however warrant the conclusion that dreams themselves differ from one culture to another. This is something that can only be determined by way of research.