Immersive reading: Dreamers and their books in late medieval England

Boyda Johnstone, Fordham University


The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England experienced an upsurge of texts that engage in some way with dreams and visionary experiences. Most studies approach the increased fascination with dreams in late-medieval England from the perspective of major literary dream visions or theological discussions of the power and origins of dreams. My project examines Geoffrey Chaucer’s dream visions, but it also undertakes an expansive and interdisciplinary approach to what I refer to as dream culture in the late Middle Ages by evaluating interpretive dream guides, illustrated and unillustrated Apocalypse manuscripts, lesser known dream visions, and contemporary material culture. My first chapter investigates the manuscript circulation of the popular dream guide Somniale Danielis in its insular translations and variations in the vernacular, arguing that dream interpretation was practiced in a range of social and religious contexts in the late Middle Ages. My second chapter shifts to lay participation in dream theories through the vehicles of historiographical chronicles, Middle English Apocalypse manuscripts, and the French dream interpretation encyclopedia Exposicion des songes. My third chapter examines the effects of poems by such writers as King James I and the anonymous author of The Isle of Ladies that blur the divide between waking and sleeping realms, depicting the narrator as only half asleep. My fourth and final chapter looks at the confluences between material and textual culture through the function of stained glass in dream poems by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate. Throughout, I contend that literary accounts of dreams challenged routine modes of thinking about and being in the world, and dream interpretation practices helped lay readers gain autonomy over their fortunes, even as the territory of dreams also helped them cross boundaries into unknown territories and thus confront the limits of their own knowledge.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Art history|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Johnstone, Boyda, "Immersive reading: Dreamers and their books in late medieval England" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10254299.