Images and the Images of Dreams in the Early Middle Ages

Written by: Jesse Keskiaho

Dreams and Visions

In Francia, probably in the late 780’s, a monk called John had a troubling vision about the death of Christianity. Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768–814), concerned with reforms of the church and of Christian learning in his realms, was understandably troubled by the vision, and solicited Pope Hadrian I’s (d. 795) opinion. In his response Hadrian evaluated John’s vision, specifically its imagery: a human figure with the wings of an eagle signified John the Evangelist, but another figure, with the wings of a dove, lacked a traditional key. He concluded that since the imagery of the vision did not correspond to biblical imagery, the vision was illusionary.

Hadrian’s method is one of the possible ways of approaching the interpretation of dreams and visions in the early middle ages. He took the images of the vision as they were reported and compared them with an authoritative repertory, in this case the Bible. This way of interpreting dreams is probably something that comes to mind when we think of dream-interpretation, and it certainly is an old practice. Keys to the meaning of dream images are known already from the Ancient world.

But there were other ideas about the interpretation of dreams. Through the works of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) the Latin middle ages knew a Neoplatonic theory of knowledge, which privileged non-visual intellect over visual forms of thought such as dreams. Both Augustine himself and Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) formulated ideas about the interpretation of dreams based on this kind of a theory of knowledge. Gregory taught that while some dreams and visions were true (after all, the Bible told of such things), by no means all dreams were, and the difference could not be determined by their apparent contents but was a matter of spiritual judgement.

When Charlemagne learned of the resolutions of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787), he tasked Theodulf (later bishop of Orléans) with composing a rebuttal. At issue was the veneration of religious images, which the fathers of Nicaea II had commended and which struck the Franks as idolatry. But dreams were a part of the argumentation: Theodore, archbishop of Myra, had told the council of a dream a member of his clergy had seen of an ecclesiastical figure. The apparition had been recognised as St Nicholas of Myra because it had looked like the icon of the saint. But in his rebuttal Theodulf attacked the story. Dreams, he argued, are fickle, inadmissible as evidence when doctrine is determined; instead, they are to be interpreted through doctrine. Theodulf’s critique of religious images was informed by the Augustinian theory of knowledge, which privileged intellect over images. And in the specific case of dreams, he also appealed to Gregory’s teaching: the origins of dreams varied, so they needed to be interpreted with spiritual judgement.

While the latter attitude to the proper interpretation of dreams was in the Latin middle ages inspired by Augustine’s thought, the former approach, while clearly also a universal, intuitive one, may correlate with the veneration of images. We know that Pope Hadrian was a supporter of the aims and resolutions of Nicaea II. In addition to his interpretation of John’s vision there is another indication that he believed that some dream-images were reliable rather than fickle. In correspondence with Charlemagne and his theologians he defended the connection between apparitions and icons by appealing to Pope Gregory: his Dialogues tell of the apparitions of the saints, and surely such apparitions had been recognised because they conformed to depictions! Although Latin stories of dreams interpreted using icons mostly postdate the late eighth century they seem to correlate with areas where icons were venerated.

Dreams and visions were not a subject of theological controversy in themselves, but they did intersect with several concerns in early medieval intellectual history, such as images. Understanding traditions of thought about dreams and visions enhances our understanding of such concerns.

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About the Author: Jesse Keskiaho


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