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16.11.16, Keskiaho, Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages

16.11.16, Keskiaho, Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages

Dreams and visions appear relatively frequently in ancient and medieval writings, but what they were held to mean, and how they were understood to be best interpreted, varied dramatically according to context, and the times and places in which they were written and read. Jesse Keskiaho's Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages explores how dreams and visions as phenomena were interpreted and understood--rather than focusing primarily on the content of different dreams and visions--in a range of early medieval contexts. His particular aim is to examine the reception and use of patristic ideas in the early Middle Ages; the major patristic authors examined are Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great. In looking at the reception of these authors' texts, he primarily explores theological writings, in particular hagiographical and exegetical works, from the seventh century to the end of the ninth.

After the introduction there are three substantial chapters which examine different types of contexts for the reading and writing of works about dreams and visions. Chapter 2 focuses primarily on dreams in hagiographical and other narratives, especially the relationship between dreams and images, and the different kinds of people who were considered to be able to interpret dreams correctly, or to be privileged to receive meaningful dreams or visions. Keskiaho then turns in Chapter 3 to a more detailed analysis of some of the works of particular authors on dreams and visions, examining them in their own contexts before exploring how they were read and understood subsequently. He considers some of the works of Augustine, Gregory, Isidore of Seville, Taio of Saragossa, as well as the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis, to examine how earlier ideas continued to be influential and how certain themes were picked up from one of these authors by another. Finally, chapter 4 examines in detail Augustine's ideas about the three types of visions, and how they were read, understood (or not!) and used in the early Middle Ages. This chapter is the longest by quite some way and includes extensive analysis of Augustine's thought (and, occasionally, the lack of it) as used in early medieval exegetical texts and the Opus Caroli.

Keskiaho draws attention to the various ways that dreams and visions were examined and understood by different writers, noting, for example, that Merovingian writers seemed much less concerned with distinguishing visions of the afterlife from dreams, which might in other contexts have been perceived as less trustworthy; in contrast, he suggests, eighth-century Anglo-Saxon writers took great care to establish the reliability of visions, while in seventh century Spain there was a very clear distinction between dreams, which were suspect, and visions, which were not. He stresses throughout that the specific contexts of writers and readers was crucial in determining how cautionary teachings about dreams and apparitions (and also which ones) were valued. This is perhaps not a great surprise, but the contrasts he draws between, for example, the treatment of Augustine's writings by Ambrosius Autpertus and by the author of the Opus Caroli (assumed here, as is usual, to be Theodulf of Orléans) are instructive. Keskiaho argues that in the Opus Caroli we see not "what Carolingian theologians thought about dreams" (202) but what kinds of texts they used and how they could bring arguments together, using patristic theories to tackle hagiographical accounts of dreams which were presented as generalised models. In contrast, he shows how Autpertus resolved issues between his patristic sources (e.g. Augustine and Jerome) in the course of adapting Augustine's theories on vision. We see here a considered approach to early medieval theology and theological method, much more than traditional scholarship has been prepared to allow in the early Middle Ages, and this is really valuable.

One of the particularly significant aspects of Keskiaho's study is his attention to the details of the surviving early medieval manuscripts of the patristic works considered here, and especially the annotations and additions by late antique and early medieval users of those books which shed light on the way the texts were read and understood. In some cases there are specific comments, but, as he shows, even in the absence of these it is possible to see readers drawing attention to particular passages of interest, often those concerned with the interpretation of dreams and visions. In his examination of manuscripts transmitting Augustine's theory of vision, he suggests that the annotations show a growing interest in the problems of discerning dreams and visions towards the ninth century, which seems to be strongest in manuscripts originating closest to the centre of Carolingian efforts at correctio. The relatively small number of manuscripts surviving and containing annotations means that this is far from conclusive, but it is certainly an interesting hypothesis. The book includes detailed appendices setting out the relevant manuscripts for each work considered with information about date and provenance as well as short bibliography, and notes on whether the manuscript was consulted in the original/microfilm/digital reproduction. Within each section, the manuscripts are arranged in roughly chronological order; there is clearly a logic to this but it can make it difficult for the reader to find specific manuscripts quickly and a more conventional alphabetical order might, in the end, have been more useful.

Some other puzzling choices have been made elsewhere in the course of the production of this book too. It would have been useful to have more problematisation of some of the issues at the beginning, and it is rather surprising that these are treated so briefly in the (rather repetitive) introduction. For example, throughout the book there are occasional considerations of the difference between dreams and visions but it would have been really helpful to have a clearer and more substantial discussion of this, with appropriate cross-references, somewhere near the beginning of the volume. This is not simply an issue of modern terminology: patristic and early medieval authors themselves drew these distinctions, though not consistently, and it is not always clear (particularly in the second chapter) whether "dreams" is used to mean "dreams and visions," or whether really dreams alone are meant. There is also little consideration of the practicalities of the recording of dreams: people have dreams all the time, but why and how did certain dreams become part of the historical record? This is an important question in understanding how we read those accounts and interpret the texts that survive, but it is not explored here. In places, too, this book rather shows its origins as a doctoral thesis, and sometimes there is a wealth of description and detail which is not marshalled as effectively as it might have been. The material--and in turn some of the arguments--could have been presented in a more compelling way if reorganised and restructured. Discussion of the relationship of images to dreams in hagiographical texts appears both in chapter 2 and in the discussion of the Opus Caroli in chapter 4, but these are not brought together effectively; moreover, we are presented with the discussion of dreams in early medieval hagiographical narratives (chapter 2) before the careful examination of the dreams and visions in patristic authors' works (chapters 3 and 4). Augustine's theory of visions, most clearly presented in his De Genesi 12, is in discussed in Chapter 4 while the discussion of Augustine's De cura pro mortuis gerenda and some of his other works appears in chapter 3; Keskiaho only mentions Augustine's De civitate Dei as a source for Julian of Toledo's Prognosticum and so does not draw his comments there in line with his other thinking. The chronological span outlined in the book's title--AD 400-900--is also puzzling, since the volume's stated purpose is to consider the reception of patristic ideas in the early Middle Ages. Augustine, Gregory and the other patristic authors are thus apparently brought into the chronological range as subjects of study in their own right; but where does patristic end and early medieval begin? It is not at all clear where in this divide Isidore of Seville or Julian of Toledo should be placed, for example, and this is not helped by the fact that labels such as "late antique" and "early medieval" have different meanings when applied to, for example, the British Isles or to the Italian peninsula. If this were only an issue of labelling in the title and throughout the book it would be less of a problem, but it is not always clear whether Augustine and Gregory are being examined in their own right, or whether they are discussed simply as a way of showing patristic thinking before exploration of the early medieval texts as the main focus. If Augustine and Gregory are intended as primary subjects of study it would have been helpful to see more contextualisation and examination of the ways that their works built on, or differed from, the works of earlier scholars and/or contemporaries.

Despite these oddities, this is a significant volume. Keskiaho argues that from rather unsystematised Augustinian and Gregorian discussions, early medieval readers "created" (217) the teachings of Augustine and Gregory on dreams and visions; the annotating, excerpting and editing of early medieval readers and writers made these earlier texts available to be used outside of their original contexts in a range of works. He notes too that Augustine's theory of visions seems to have been part of the curriculum of biblical study, possibly first in Anglo-Saxon or Irish contexts, and in Continental centres from the eighth century onwards. These are important conclusions for understanding early medieval theological reading and writing, and it is particularly useful here that Keskiaho has a wide-ranging study area: he considers texts from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Brittany and Italy in addition to the Carolingian heartlands. The text is cleanly produced, with few typos (though one "vultural history" in the bibliography is an unfortunate oversight!), and is carefully referenced throughout. It is to be hoped that, in future works, Keskiaho will build on what he has begun here: his sensitive bringing together of manuscript annotations with different kinds of textual evidence is methodologically important and could be refined further to even greater effect. This will be a valuable book for scholars of education and theology in early medieval Europe.