- Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages: The Reception and Use of Patristic Ideas, 400–900 by Jesse Keskiaho
Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages: The Reception and Use of Patristic Ideas, 400–900 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015
Pp. x + 329. $102.80.
Against the backdrop of an already solid scholarship of dreams and visions, Keskiaho’s work produces a pleasant surprise. The book of interest addresses the reception of patristic views on dreams and visions in western Christianity up until the tenth century. In particular, it examines the contexts within which have been established authoritative Christian teachings on dreams, and how the processes involved were part of a broader phenomenon, namely, the emerging medieval culture. The analyzed sources include writings by Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, hagiographies, and works by Carolingian theologians. Methodologically interesting is that these sources are considered both from the viewpoint of their content and rapport, and in regard to their manuscript tradition, which illustrates their circulation and thus contribution to the formation of a new culture. The argument is therefore well-rounded and ingeniously substantiated. The brief epilogue completes the picture by showing how these early medieval developments impacted the continental and insular culture of later centuries.
Of equal importance is that, alongside the manuscript tradition of the relevant writings, the book addresses hagiography as a recontextualization of earlier patristic views within new historical and cultural contexts. Thus, it presents hagiography as a process of reception and popularization of patristic ideas. Compared with the compartmentalized approaches to date, which draw a sharp line between good solid patristic thought and the fabulous realms of hagiography, this is a significant contribution. It is true that in recent years hagiography has become a field in its own right and that the bias against it increasingly dissipates, but to my knowledge the bridges erected between patristics and hagiography are [End Page 145] still few and weak. In illustrating an interdisciplinary approach, Keskiaho’s book pushes forward the scholarly reappraisal of hagiography, providing insights into the complex worldview of medieval Christians. Of particular interest is its central point—that the relevant patristic teachings have been popularized through the narrative or hagiographical sources analyzed. In so doing, the book reiterates a largely forgotten aspect of the early Christian and medieval experience, namely, that patristic wisdom was not about academic exercises, and that it permeated the ecclesial body. As much as the grassroots Christian experience was the object of many educated writers, as proven by the practical matters considered by the main witnesses discussed, Augustine and Gregory, the latter’s input was recirculated via hagiography and so influenced the broader public.
As to how the patristic advice on dreaming was handled in later centuries, Keskiaho’s book shows that there were two main discernible approaches. There was a rigorous and speculative treatment in theological writing, and a narrative, pragmatically oriented approach in hagiography. The difference between them was that hagiography and related literature favored Gregory’s pastoral and practical dealing with dreams, whereas the theologians favored Augustine’s Neoplatonic convictions and theoretical handling of matters. The common denominator to both approaches was that because dreams and visions were being given increasing attention, they treated the older sources discretionarily, according to the practical interests of the time—more as ways of speaking about dreams than as absolute authorities on such (219). “Authoritative opinions on dreams were versatile” (12).
Regarding the appraisal of dreams and visions in medieval literature, noteworthy is the observation that “early medieval discussions about dreams were never simply about dreams. A discussion of dreams involved ideas about saints, angels, the ordinary dead, afterlife, the biblical tradition, religious images, the soul, orthopraxy and sanctity, among other things” (221). This observation is consistent with the overall approach of the book, which collects witnesses from across the spectrum, such as patristic thought, hagiography, manuscript tradition, and medieval theology. Correspondingly, dreams and visions are not treated as exotic phenomena, in separation from the lives, aspirations, and worldviews of medieval Christians. This holistic appraisal is perhaps the most important contribution of the book, which provides significant insights into the perceptions of medieval Christians...