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EN395 Dreaming in the Middle Ages: Fiction, Imagination, and Knowledge


Dr Marco Nievergelt

General Presentation

The Module will focus on a set of medieval dream-vision poems, read and/or produced in England in the period 1250–1500. The poems will be placed in the intellectual and cultural context of the age. Alongside dream-vision poetry, we will thus be reading some medieval scientific literature on the nature of dreams, the workings of the human mind and imagination, and some medieval literary theory on the cognitive status of fiction and poetry, and the nature of interpretation.

Since Macrobius (5th century), medieval intellectuals and poets assumed that dreams could be classified: while some dreams were meaningless and delirious, others were thought to have symbolic and even prophetic meaning. Such dreams were often seen as transmitting spiritual or philosophical truths under the veil of symbolic visions and narratives that required interpretation. From about 1250 onwards, European poets employed such ideas to produce a series of first-person dream-vision poems. Such poems present seemingly ‘autobiographical’, first-person dream-narratives that call for interpretation.

On a deeper level, however, the poetic fiction of the dream also provides a speculative framework to explore a number of complex philosophical questions about the workings of the human mind, imagination, and reason. For instance: what kind of knowledge can we access through dreams – or indeed through the human faculty of the imagination, and through poetic fiction? If dreams – like poems – need to be interpreted correctly to enable us to access their true meaning, what are the imperatives of accurate interpretation? Are there different kinds, or degrees of knowledge? What is the relation of mental images to outward reality? How can the flawed human mind grasp some form of ultimate or absolute truth? Can truth be relative? Is human knowledge in this world always necessarily limited and imperfect? In what ways, exactly, do poetic fictions produce knowledge - and about what or whom? Is the knowledge mediated or produced by poetry reliable? What, ultimately, is the ‘value’ or ‘purpose’ of poetry?

Dream-vision poetry, therefore, can’t be categorised simply as ‘literature’. Instead, such poetry offers its readers the possibility to engage in a series of thought-experiments, exploring human cognitive processes by means of fictional and counterfactual narratives.

Principal Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

• Demonstrate familiarity with the influential medieval tradition of dream-vision poetry.

• Possess a precise and nuanced understanding of some of the most important texts in this tradition, notably Chaucer’s works as well as their sources and later influence.

• Place the tradition as a whole, as well as its individual texts, within its cultural, intellectual, and literary context.

• Have gained some understanding of medieval scientific and medical theories about the nature of dreams.

• Have gained some understanding of the most important medieval debates in the area of philosophy of mind and imagination.

• Demonstrate some understanding of the most important medieval debates in the area of philosophy of language, and specifically poetics and rhetoric.

• Engage with relevant areas of medieval literary theory, especially hermeneutics (i.e. the theory of interpretation).

• Understand the speculative possibilities and philosophical potential of medieval literary texts.

• Consider poetry itself as a distinctive form of knowledge production.


Dreaming and Desiring

w1. Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio; Roman de la Rose pt. 1

w2. Roman de la Rose pt. 2; Medieval Mirrors and Optics

Spiritual Visions

w3. Guillaume de Deguileville: The Pilgrimage of the Life of Manhode (selections)

w4. The Gawain-Poet: Pearl

Philosophical Chaucer? Dream Vision between ‘ernest’ and ‘game’

w5. Chaucer, ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, from the Canterbury Tales


w7. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy; Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess

w8. Chaucer, The House of Fame

w9. Chaucer, The Parlement of Foules; Prologue to The Legend of Good Women

Remembering Chaucer and Boethius

w10. James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair


• 1x5000 Word essay, from a given choice of topics

• Short in-class presentation (formative)