Chardonnens (2015 Congress)

László Sándor Chardonnens
(Radboud University Nijmegen)
“Seeing is Believing:  Dream Symbols and their Perception in Medieval Alphabetical Dream Books”

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]

This paper discusses trends in the catalogue and sensory perception of dream symbols in medieval alphabetical dream books from the earliest ninth-century attestations to the incunables of the Somniale Danielis printed at the end of the fifteenth century.  Alphabetical dream books may be regarded as convenient guides to the interpretation of dreams, but the text witnesses surviving in over 250 medieval manuscripts and printed books present a severely fragmented catalogue of dream symbols.  There is no dream book among these many text witnesses that completely captures the cultures of medieval societies, and a compilation of all extant sources does not provide a coherent overview either.

There are, in fact, unexplainable omissions that make one query the internal logic of dream books, making it impossible to reconstruct a medieval worldview that is even remotely consistent with daily reality.  While many dream books feature at least one dream about dogs, for instance, those that feature cats are in short supply.  It would be a mistake to assume that people can only dream of symbols that appear in dream books, but it is striking that the absence of such everyday animals as cats is countered by the presence of such exotic animals as lions and elephants.  To give another example, well-known literary dreams that are thought to build upon the symbology of medieval dream books, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, sometimes include interpretations of symbols that were never included in the inventory of dream symbols.

The problem of a haphazard inventory of dream symbols is compounded by a bias towards dream symbols that can be seen.  This seems to make sense in view of the primarily visual nature of dreams, yet what about the other four senses?  How is it possible to see a musical instrument playing without also hearing it, for instance?  This paper follows the trail of dream symbols and their perception in the alphabetical dream books transmitted in the medieval period.


Website Editor’s Note:

The other Abstracts of Papers presented by Dr. Chardonnens for our sponsored and co-sponsored Sessions at the Congress are posted here:
Chardonnens (2016 Congress)
Chardonnens (2013 Congress)
Chardonnens (2012 Congress).

We thank him for his expert and enthusiastic contributions to our sponsored or co-sponsored Sessions.