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Interpreting Medieval Dreams

By Danièle Cybulskie

As creatures who spend much of our time on this planet in dreams, it seems natural that we’d spend a fair amount of our time trying to decode them. Dreams have a powerful way of stirring emotions, so it would be awfully nice to know if they contain important messages for us, or hints about the future. A Book of Dreaming, found in British Library MS Harley 2253, endeavours to manage this by interpreting the meanings of popular dream symbols for its fourteenth-century readers.

A Book of Dreaming can tell us some interesting things about what medieval people were likely to dream about, and what they wanted to know about their futures. Unsurprisingly, the dream symbols the poet addresses are ones which applied to daily medieval life: animals, marriages, children, sickness, and conflict. It also contains information about dreaming of the moon, sun, stars, snow, water, and clear skies. Finally, it covers very human actions, such as shaving, washing, dressing, and wearing shoes. Lucky for us, all of these things are still very much a part of our existence, so perhaps we can still find the answers we’re looking for in A Book of Dreaming.

The poem begins by attributing its content to David, mistaking one famous biblical figure for another (it was Daniel who was the dream interpreter), and giving credit for these revelations to the Holy Spirit. Then, it dives in, making its mysterious predictions in Middle English rhyming couplets.

Some of the interpretations of symbols seem pretty self-evident: dreaming of building a house is a sign of good things to come, while dreaming about your house flooding is bad. Some symbols are more complex, though. For example, if you dream about a horse, make sure it’s the right colour:

If you ride on a white horse: That means joy and delight.

To see or ride a red horse: Good news that will come about.

To ride or see a black horse: That will mean peril and destruction.

Some things which might be expected to be positive symbols, are actually negative:

To bear or have children: That means harm, without lie.

Whoever sees joy in dreaming: That signifies and means mourning.

Likewise, travelling, hearing a musical instrument, and having guests enter your house are also bad signs for what’s to come. But dreaming of the dead is good, even if it’s you:

One who thinks he is dead: A new house and comfort shall be his.

If you speak with a dead man: Much joy is near you.

Although if you dream of being drowned, you’ll be in trouble for being a public nuisance.

As in the real medieval world, it’s important to be well groomed, too. Dreaming of new shoes will bring you “joy”, but old shoes will bring you “anguish”. Going barefoot is also a bad sign. Long, luscious hair and beards mean strength, and if you dream that someone has shaved your head, “it clearly indicates [you’ll] be saved from harm”. If someone shaves your beard, however, “that signifies a harm [you’ll] have”. Losing teeth is never a good thing for dreamers: it means the death of friends (regular teeth) or family (molars).

It won’t be a surprise that several of the dreams involving women are not very flattering to them:

If one thinks that he is married: He will be a long time sick in bed…

Whoever may see himself restrained,
Or in the act of swimming,
Or bewitching, or marrying: That means effort or other hard hindrance.

If you dream of a great bed, though, your wife will be faithful. If you dream of becoming a nun, even better: “it betokens joy, virtue, and health”.

Here are a few of my other favourites:

Whoever believes himself painted on a board: That means long life, to speak briefly…

Reading books or hearing them read: That means hearing of good deeds…

Whoever sees his face in water: Long life will that one have.

And perhaps my favourite in its perfect medieval, straight-faced obviousness:

Throwing away drink or food: That [means] one has previously eaten.

Sometimes, as in this case, a dream is just a dream, and doesn’t have a deep, cosmic meaning. Still, our curiosity about the interpretation of dreams is something that connects us across time and culture, and brings the medieval world closer to us.

You can read A Book of Dreaming on the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series website, with the handy Middle English text facing Susanna Greer Fein’s modern English translation (which I’ve quoted here). When it comes to taking a peek into the medieval psyche, this poem is a dream come true.

Danièle Cybulskie is the Lead Columnist on Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: British Library MS Egerton 809 fol. 27v

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