Dreams in medieval Saints’ lives: Saint Francis of Assisi
By Krijn Pansters
Dreaming, Vol. 19:1 (2009)
Abstract: Reading the earliest biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, one notices the significant part dreams play in his life. They appear during crucial stages of his life. This fact encourages us to pay special interest to Francis’ dreams, but not in the strict sense of the word: Several situations in which Francis gains clarity of his life and grows spiritually through images (dreams, visions, parables) are to be included. Francis and his biographers were men of images, and it is necessary to understand the language of these images. In this way, by analyzing the dreams of this saint, the authors come to understand the medieval interpretation of dreams, revelations, and visions in general.
Introduction: Reading late medieval biographies (vitae), one notices the significant part dreams play in the saints’ lives. They appear again and again during crucial stages in which the saint gains clarity of his life and grows spiritually. Late medieval saints and writers were men of images (dreams, visions, parables), and understanding the language of these images means understanding the dream itself and the medieval interpretation of dreams, revelations, and visions in general. In a late medieval context, therefore, the term dreams cannot be used in the strict, modern sense of the word.
I am concerned here with the importance of dream phenomena for late medieval Christian faith and the interplay between faith and imaginary language in medieval hagiography: How do medieval descriptions of dreams or visions reflect spiritual growth? What images are used as rhetorical or hagiographical means? And what can we learn from the interpretation of these spiritual images in a late medieval literary context?
The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) described four causes of dreams: “two inward ones, arising from daytime preoccupations and from physical humors, and two outward ones, arising from physical sources (temperature or astrological forces) and from God or demons”. Another late medieval theologian, Bonaventure (ca. 1221–1274), discerned five causes of dreaming: a disposition of the body, an anxiety of the mind, diabolic illusion, angelic revelation, and divine visitation. Many more classifications regarding the cause and nature of dreams can be found in late medieval thought, which inherited important classical and early medieval categories and schemes of dreams and dreamlike experiences, or created new ones in the same epistemic tradition. In general, late medieval dream theory shows the ambiguous quality of dreams and similar visionary phenomena: They are either important or unimportant, either psychological or spiritual, either legal or illegal, either malevolent or benevolent. Dreams thus can be an illusion as much as they can be a revelation.