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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 723-724
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Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul
Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul. By Isabel Moreira. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 262. $49.95.)
"Your old men will dream dreams," according to the prophet Joel. But he had not said anything about bishops and clerics. As a result, in the Christian tradition dreams and visions were both liberating and dangerous. They promised healings and offered advice about the construction of shrines. They also bestowed prestige and influence, which might challenge the standing of bishops. Isabel Moreira's book is an excellent survey of the functions of visions in early medieval Gaul, and of their capacity to resolve the very tensions they created. One of her primary arguments is that Gallic clerics found a way "to permit a Christian culture of dreaming to develop and flourish, while maintaining episcopal authority" (p. 80).
The core of Moreira's book is early Merovingian society, as described especially in the writings of Gregory of Tours during the later sixth century. The introductory chapters discuss the different interpretations proposed by earlier Christian writers. Some had promoted fully open access to dreams for all believers, while others, like Augustine, preferred to restrict access. In Gregory's Gaul visions and dreams had become integral components of the religious rhetoric that shaped communities. Moreira's central chapters discuss bishops, pilgrims, and travelers to the imaginary otherworld. Gregory himself relied upon visions to resolve family crises and enhance his own episcopal standing. Dreaming was especially common at saints' shrines. If ill people could imagine themselves to be healthy, then often they were in fact healed. One crippled man [End Page 723] dreamed that he had stretched out his foot, and awoke to find he could walk again. Some monks and clerics were privileged to receive visions of the afterlife. Sometimes that other world was terrifying, with rivers of fire, sometimes comforting, with a mansion of gold. The concluding chapters discuss the visions of Radegund of Poitiers and Aldegund of Maubeuge. Joel had also announced that "your daughters will prophesy," and Merovingian clerics were prepared to admit that women too could become visionaries. "A flexible approach just made sense" (p. 226).
Such a fine survey as Moreira's book is wonderfully suggestive for future projects about dreams and visions. One is the linkage with art, and especially the decoration of churches and shrines. At Tours Gregory recorded many of the visions of St. Martin that ill people received in their sleep. Since there is a recurring sameness about these descriptions, perhaps people dreamed a St. Martin whom they had already seen depicted on the walls of the saint's church. The similarities among the various visions of particular saints, particular episodes, or particular places, including heaven and hell, might suggest a background of portraits, frescoes, and mosaics in churches. Visions and dreams are important for art history, as well as for discussions of authority and identity and rhetoric.
Another future project would consider the ineffectiveness of dreams and visions. Moreira discusses how visions might resolve conflicts among bishops, kings, heretics, and Jews. But visions too faced competition as a means of channeling authority. Books became one important rival. Gregory of Tours was once healed after he remembered a story he had already recorded, rather than after a fresh vision. Visions of the future increasingly had to compete with accounts of the past. Even when people did receive visions, they did not always act. Gregory had at least three visions that instructed him to start recording miracle stories. But he did not actually become a historian until his mother pointedly told him to start writing.
Raymond Van Dam
University of Michigan