Johnstone (2015 Congress)

Boyda Johnstone
(Fordham University)
“Possessed by Dreams: Dream Interpretation Manuals in Late Medieval England””

Abstract of Paper at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2015)

Session on Predicting the Past: Dream Symbology in the Middle Ages
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organizer: Valerio Cappozzo (University of Mississippi)

2015 Congress Events Announced and 2015 Congress Events Accomplished

[Published on 6 April 2015]

In this paper, I evaluate the manuscript contexts for a popular and relatively unknown group of late-medieval dream books, or, as I call them, dream guides:  the Middle English Dreams of Daniel, translated from Latin in the fourteenth century.  These alphabetized lists of dream contents and their significations may strike modern readers, accustomed to psychologized Freudian interpretation, as bizarre and simplistic, but my analysis of the manuscript contexts in which they survive reveals that they were put to use in a multitude of ways, from the devotional to the scientific, and from the serious to the ludic.  Contrary to their common associations with lower classes, they were consulted by a diverse set of readers, even reaching to the topmost echelons of medieval culture.

With reference to particular manuscript presentations and contexts, such as London, British Library, Sloane MS 1609 (which situates the Dreams of Daniel within astrological contexts) and Cambridge, Trinity College, MS 0.9.37 (which presents the Dreams of Daniel alongside medical prognostication texts), I report that, even though they reflect a collective system of shared interpretive meaning, the Dreams of Daniel dream guides are designed to empower individual readers, by serving as indices that could, in addition to being used after-the-fact, be consulted in anticipation of future dreams.  During a time when sleepers were vulnerable to spirits and unseen forces, these popular, enigmatic, and instructive guides offered readers programs for understanding and seizing partial control over their nocturnal journeys.