By Hannah Marcus
Penn History Review, Vol. 16: Iss. 2 (2009)
Introduction: Many documents from the eighth and ninth centuries refer to events that occur in dreams and visions, a continuation of a biblical tradition as seen above. Secondary literature addressing dreaming in the Middle Ages has focused overwhelmingly on defining, and drawing distinctions between, ‘dreams’ and ‘visions’, a project which Raoul Manselli identifies as admittedly problematic due to the “relationship between dream and vision that is extremely narrow and, yet, at the same time, dangerously equivocal.” However, perhaps with respect to the Carolingian period, with relatively fewer texts than the later Middle Ages, it is less meaningful to debate the phenomenology of dreams and more fruitful to attempt to understand why references to dreams and visions appear so regularly and what purpose they serve. Dreams from the Carolingian period can represent a turning point in a story, as in the biblical tale of Jacob and the angel. They can also serve as warnings foretelling the consequences of not changing one’s behaviors. In both of these capacities, dreams and visions reinforce the symbiotic relationship between Christianity and the Carolingian dynasty.
Setting out to understand the role of dreams during the Carolingian period it is important to note that the dreams to which we have access are those that have been recorded and survived as physical documents for approximately twelve centuries. The analysis necessarily excludes all dreams that were never written down and thus the present collection of literature is certainly not representative of Carolingian dreaming culture as a whole. “We do not know if ‘average’ people dreamt differently than we do now, whether they discussed their dreams over breakfast, or how they responded to particularly portentous dream images.” We are out of touch with how dreaming as a whole was perceived in Carolingian culture and must realize the limitations of our sources. For this reason, it is useful to think about dreaming as a literary genre.