restricted access Shared Oneiric Experiences in Medieval Castilian Hagiography
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Shared Oneiric Experiences in Medieval Castilian Hagiography

Dreams and visions form an important mode of communication in hagiography. Falling outside the normal realms of a waking and shared reality, they often offer a glimpse of the privileged link the saint enjoys with God. They both make explicit the divine will on earth by reducing the distance between it and heaven, and complicate it by encoding it in cryptic symbolism. As such, they become a crucial intelligible domain that chosen protagonists may interpret successfully, but can leave the unenlightened or faithless confused.

Speaking of the Christian dreamer in twelfth-century Europe, Steven F. Kruger argues that “we see uncertainty and disorientation: individuals – caught between the different categories elaborated by theory, suspended between equally plausible interpretations of their experience– remain finally unsure of how to pin down the nature of any given dream” (Dreaming 65). [End Page 185] Some saints’ lives reflect this observation, offering a complex model whereby the dream vision is problematized either by its incomprehensibility or the impossibility of communicating it to others. The situation is only resolved when the experience is shared with a fellow dreamer, often a spouse. This article traces some of the presentations of this pattern through the medieval Castilian prose legends of Sts. Eustace, Thomas the Apostle, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth of Hungary.1 Where the first three display variations on the theme of shared oneiric experience, Elizabeth acts as a later counterpoint, questioning the limitations of this model. When she becomes a widow, the meaning of shared visions is completely transformed, with a new dynamic rewriting the previous partnerships of husband and wife.

The formulation “dream vision” reflects the difficulty of separating the two terms in hagiography, as they are often understood to be interchangeable. The basic criterion that a dream may only take place in a state of sleep is soon questioned by the similar content and presentation of visionary experiences that may occur during a protagonist’s waking time, as well as the lack of a clear distinction between the two states of consciousness. To discount either would lead to an artificial picture of the narrative and spiritual processes at work. For the purpose of this article, any form of dream or vision that brings a divine message is included as part of the fabric of hagiography, despite variations in consciousness or location. This broad and flexible working definition has previously been adopted by other scholars examining the field, such as Peter Brown and Kruger (“Dialogue”). While some, such as Kathryn L. Lynch, go as far as to suppose that the dream vision constitutes [End Page 186] its own literary genre (4–11), in hagiography it is more useful to consider it on a more adaptable scale. The dream vision can indeed be an overarching structure or framework, as Berceo uses it in his Vida de Santa Oria, or it can operate as a motif or setting for smaller episodes, as this article demonstrates.

Thinking on the interpretation of dreams traces a need for caution even in the earliest works on the topic. Pagan writers influential in the Middle Ages, such as Calcidius and Macrobius (writing in the fourth and early fifth centuries respectively), structured dreams in hierarchies according to the level of clarity with which they relayed messages from divine sources. Early Christian thinkers such as Augustine (354–430) employed similar paradigms but also emphasized the spiritual origin of the dream or vision, arising from the interference of angelic or demonic forces. Dreaming was thus a process fraught with the possibility of misinterpretation, leaving the dreamer open both to the error of ignoring a divinely-inspired dream, and to the danger of being deceived by one of demonic origins. Tertullian (c. 160–ca. 225), Augustine, Prudentius (fl. late fourth century), and Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604) all suggest that dreaming is both a privileged and a perilous experience, and that the opening of the soul to such a state of consciousness is an activity that should be safeguarded by vigilance and prayer.2

In line with this element of danger, Kruger (“Dialogue” 78) argues that dream frameworks in Middle English debate poems allow authors to create...