- Willing to Know God: Dreamers and Visionaries in the Later Middle Ages
In Willing to Know God: Dreamers and Visionaries in the Later Middle Ages, Jessica Barr fruitfully compares two genres that are not often put together: mystical or, as it is sometimes called, visionary literature and the more literary genre of dream vision. Barr is interested in what this comparison can tell us about “a shared set of presuppositions about the visionary experience” in the later Middle Ages (8), and one of the great strengths of the book is the functional similarity it identifies among vision, dream, and dream vision. In its broader treatment of dreams and visions, Barr’s book contributes to our understanding of these medieval phenomena, alongside other important analyses, such as Steven Kruger’s Dreaming in the Middle Ages and Barbara Newman’s God and the Goddesses. The book will be of interest to scholars working on Middle English literature, as well as to those who study later medieval religion, visionary literature, and women’s religious practices.
The introduction and first chapter helpfully lay out Barr’s central claims regarding the comparison between the two genres while also providing an excellent overview of the categories and terms that she will use. These opening sections will prove useful to those studying visionary literature or dream vision, as Barr’s efforts to categorize and define will be easy to extrapolate and apply elsewhere. Barr identifies “visionary knowing” as the [End Page 233] key component of both the dreamer’s and the visionary’s experiences. This particular kind of knowledge, she argues, can potentially be imparted in revelatory texts, but whether this knowledge is successfully communicated depends on the mental state of the dreamer or visionary. The success or failure of this visionary knowing constitutes a key difference between mystical visions and dream visions in Barr’s classification: whereas “Mystical visionary texts typically describe visionaries who successfully grasp the meanings of their experiences, dream vision poems can feature dreamers who do not learn from their visions” (8). Dreams or visions “work” if certain preconditions have been met—the visionary is properly motivated by love for God, his or her will is aligned with God’s will, and, as a result, the dreamer’s own mental faculties are able to receive and understand the vision (9).
In chapter 1, Barr examines three pairs of seemingly opposed categories that govern the function and outcome of a dream or vision: activity and passivity, ratio and intellectus, and education and revelation. The visionary experience takes place at God’s initiative, not the visionary’s, and the ideal visionary is often assumed to be in a position of extreme passivity. But, as Barr points out, visions must be accompanied and completed by the visionary’s active engagement, in bringing his or her will into alignment with God’s and properly meditating on and interpreting the contents of the vision (18). “Successful” visions, those that result in visionary knowing, thus involve both activity and passivity. Similarly, Barr emphasizes the importance of the medieval understanding of two mental faculties, ratio and intellectus. Ratio was understood to be the active power of the mind operating through rational investigation, while intellectus is “responsible for granting us knowledge of the ‘first principles’ upon which the deductive efforts of the ratio depend” (19). Like activity and passivity, the intellectus is required for the receipt of a dream or vision, but the ratio must be employed to grasp the full meaning. The final dialectic that Barr examines is between education and revelation. Following on the work of other scholars of dream vision, Barr points out that one of the key themes of the dream vision is the education of the narrator. But Barr also argues that in some dream visions, visionary knowing is precipitated not by comprehensive instruction but by revelation. Educative dream visions are usually limited to “the normal purview of human comprehension” (25), and they typically succeed; the dreamer has acquired the knowledge he or...