Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Dreams and Divination in Early Medieval Canonical and Narrative Sources: The Question of Clerical Control

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Dreams and Divination in Early Medieval Canonical and Narrative Sources: The Question of Clerical Control

Article excerpt

It is commonly stated, and correctly so, that the most frequently reported dreams of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages were those of saints and kings.1 However, the unprofessed laity, "ordinary" Christians of the Christian community, were also dreaming religious dreams.2 Their dreams are both under-represented and less lavishly documented than the more famous visions of the spiritual or political elite, and they are known to us almost exclusively through the writings of clerics and monks. That lay dreams were recorded in religious writings of the era, however, suggests that they held a noteworthy place in Christian religious culture and that the religious elite believed these dreams to be worthy of religious interpretation. Yet clerics of the early Middle Ages have been viewed as actively ignoring the religious dreams of the laity or as imposing their own interpretive framework on them. This article seeks to assess the degree of control that the clergy can be said to have exercised over the religious aspects of dreaming in the early Middle Ages, and the different kind of sources that reveal clerical intent.

The relationship of clerical culture to lay culture has long interested scholars, especially in discussions of the supernatural. Historians have argued for "vertical" models of supernatural exchange: imposition of clerical authority "from above," or alternatively for peasant erosion of clerical ideas "from below." The desire of clerics to control religious dreaming, if not their success in doing so, is often assumed.3 In more general discussions of clerical-lay interaction, some historians have noted the shared culture of the supernatural in which all ranks of society participated in late Antiquity.4 A number of questions arise when we ask how dream accounts concerning the laity fit with these scholarly models of interaction. Were the dreams of non-clerics regarded as a distinct category? What kinds of dream sources shed light on the interaction of clerics and lay people with respect to dreams? How did prescriptive sources advise clerics on the practical management of dreams when they were related to them by members of their community? What do the dream accounts which survive reveal about the place of dreaming in religious culture? Do our sources support the view that the clergy attempted to impose a "Christian culture of dreaming" on the laity as a whole, as has been claimed?

It is important to note that the dreams of the laity were recognized as a distinct category in early medieval sources. The life of the laity as a category distinct from that of the clergy was well expressed by Tertullian: "It is ecclesiastical authority which distinguishes clergy and laity, this and the dignity which sets a man apart by reason of membership in the hierarchy."5 In late antique ecclesiastical legislation the laity made its appearance largely in the context of interests and practices which the clergy were anxious to eschew.6 While the religious, social, and judicial distinction between lay person and cleric was an ongoing process in late Antiquity, in general the life of the laity was viewed as spiritually inferior. Later Merovingian church councils increasingly distinguished the clergy from the laity, from the place they stood in church7 to the role the laity could play in parish and diocesan affairs.8 Thus while social distinctions might be negligible, early medieval sources lay enormous stress on the differences between lay and clerical Christians in all areas of religious activity: expectations of spiritual and religious adherence and the penalties that should be exacted for religious infractions. What made clerics' interest in dreams distinct was their sense of responsibility for the religious life of their flock.

The three sections that follow examine three sorts of dream record. The first concerns lay dreams that resulted in the discovery of martyr relics in the countryside and that offered bishops an opportunity to recover cultic assets. …

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