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  • Dreams of Death in Medieval Castilian Hagiography: Martyrdom and Ideology in the Gran Flos Sanctorum
  • Andrew M. Beresford

Critical discourses dealing with the explosion of oneiric and visionary activity in the Middle Ages have offered crucial insights into questions of symbolism and representation, the systems of theory and classification that inform and underpin the development of individual narratives, and the relevance of visions and dreams to broader psychological, sociological, and theological discussions. A salient element of these discourses, however, is that, almost without exception, they have tended to deal with texts, whether verbal or pictorial, in terms of the primacy of the oneiric or the visionary within the global structure or intellectual fabric of the narrative. The pioneering work of Constance B. Hieatt and A. C. Spearing, for instance, focuses on the dream as a meta-framework, and engages with texts in which oneiric experience functions as the essential unifying device. Later contributions, such as those of Kathryn L. Lynch, Steven F. Kruger, and Isabel Moreira, have provided [End Page 159] more detailed and nuanced readings, while Barbara Newman’s timely survey has offered a series of salutary insights into the relationship between theory and methodology, particularly from an interdisciplinary perspective. Comparably informative approaches have been adopted in discussions of early Castilian production, and of particular note are the studies of Harriet Goldberg, Julian Palley, Jacques Joset, and Teresa Gómez Trueba, whose focus is predominantly literary, and that of Victor I. Stoichita, which offers an engaging assessment of the impact of the visual tradition. This work has been constructive in formulating approaches to individual texts, and has led more broadly to an informed appreciation of the chronological and intellectual shaping of dream-vision conventions per se. However, it has been less beneficial in providing a mechanism for appraising the content of the vast body of texts that are only partially conditioned by oneiric or visionary activity, or where the functional significance of dream visions is reduced to that of a convenient narrative device.

The question in part is one of the perceived reality encoded into texts of different generic types. In fully developed dream visions the rules of construction depart from those of normative reality: objects speak; abstractions are given life; the logic of the physical universe becomes subservient to the demands of allegory. The inconceivable becomes possible, and the indescribable, all but routine. Readers of body-and-soul debates, for instance, instantly accept that a purulent corpse can talk and that a soul can assume the form of a dove or a small child. In Razón de amor and the Vida de Santa Oria we are confronted by talking goblets in a pomegranate tree and celestial ladders in the sky. In fully developed dream frameworks we embrace such codes without hesitation and seldom query the broader fundamentals of construction. Only the most esoteric suggestions, such as those traced by Alan Deyermond in the enigmatic and contradictory text of the Libro de Buen Amor, initiate a search for elusive contextualizing parameters.

It is understandable that the main thrust of critical discourse should have been in this area: the departure from reality establishes a sense of wonder and awe that merits detailed inspection. Yet the corollary is that the clash between vision and normative reality in texts that deal predominantly with [End Page 160] the latter has been all but ignored. Momentary intrusions that rupture, but do not permanently alter, the temporal fabric of medieval Castilian narratives have seldom been accounted for or discussed systematically. The result, inevitably, has been an element of distortion, as the focus of criticism has fallen on the most visually evocative examples of oneiric and visionary experience rather than its broader aetiology. Specific forms such as the tripartite journey (where the dreamer is transported from a situation of waking reality to a complex symbolic locus of meaning followed by a moralizing conclusion) have been discussed at the expense of texts which are less imaginatively constituted, particularly in their use of imagery and symbolism. In hagiography, attention has been lavished on journeys to the otherworld in works devoted largely to them, but seldom to elements of the otherworld intruding into the quotidian life of the...