Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority

by John Bickley (Author)
©2018 Monographs XXVI, 130 Pages
Series: Medieval Interventions, Volume 11


In Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority, John Bickley explores the ways dreams and visions in literature function as authorizing devices, both affirming and complicating a text’s authority. After providing a framework for categorizing the diverse genres and modes of dream and vision texts, Bickley demonstrates how the theme of authority and strategies for textual self-authorization play out in four highly influential works: the Book of Daniel, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Love, and Chaucer’s Hous of Fame.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority
  • Dreams and Authority
  • Emphasis and Scope
  • Structure of the Study and Key Terms
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1: The Authority of Form: Dream and Vision Genres
  • Authenticity and Artifice
  • Authentic Dreams and Visions
  • Literary Dreams and Visions
  • Dream Sequences
  • Dream Visions
  • Macrobius’ Five Categories and Kruger’s Three-Fold Taxonomy
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2: Authorizing Strategies in the Dreams and Visions of Daniel
  • Introduction
  • The Cultural Authority of the Book of Daniel
  • The Daniel Tradition
  • Historical and Literary Appropriations
  • Intersecting Modes and Genres
  • The Struggle for Cultural Authority
  • The Dream Sequences of Daniel (Chapters 1–6)
  • The Intellectual Elite
  • Delegitimizing the Competition
  • Dreaming of Authority
  • Authorizing Humility and Humiliation
  • The Power of the Written Word
  • The Apocalyptic Visions of Daniel (Chapters 7–12)
  • The Socio-Political Power of Apocalypse
  • Universality v. Historical Moment: Apocalyptic Symbolism and Ex Eventu Prophecy
  • The Rhetoric of Numbers
  • Fear and Trembling: The Dreamer’s Authorizing Response
  • A Cryptic Climax: Daniel’s Final Assertion of Authority
  • Conclusion: Daniel’s Hierarchy of Authority
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: Macrobius: Establishing the Authoritative Philosophical Form
  • Introduction
  • Establishing the Authoritative Philosophical Form
  • The Arbiters of Authority
  • Defending the Dream Vision
  • In Defense of (Dream) Fiction (Ch. I and II)
  • Formal Authority: The Dream Vision as the Perfect Philosophical Form
  • Defining the Dream Vision
  • A Question of Authority: Macrobius’ Five Categories of Dreams
  • Illegitimate Origins: Insomnium and Visum
  • The Three Authoritative Dreams: Oraculum, Visio, and Somnium
  • Aggregate Authority: The Dream Categories Applied
  • Conclusion: Authoritative Dreamers and the Omnipresent Veil
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich: The Authorizing Discourses of the Medieval Visionary
  • Introduction: Authenticity and Medieval Visionaries
  • The Rhetoric of the Unlettyrde
  • Aligning the Will
  • Julian’s Three Desires
  • Julian’s Sanctity
  • Aligning the Intellect
  • Intellectus and Ratio
  • The Divinely Sanctioned/Sanctifying Editing Process
  • Conclusion: Authorizing Discourses
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Fractured Authority: Chaucer’s Ironic Dream Vision
  • Introduction: Fractured Authority in the Fourteenth Century
  • The Ironic Dream Vision
  • Ambiguity and the Ironic Dream Vision
  • Chaucer’s Formative Form
  • The House of Fame
  • The Proem: Deference and Dismissal
  • The First Invocation: Confusing the Heathen and the Heavenly
  • The First Dream Account: Borrowed Legitimacy and Literary Digression
  • Book II: Hybridity, Autobiographical Parody, and “Lewed” Language
  • Book III: Illusion and Allusion
  • The Conclusion(?): Indeterminate “Auctorite”
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion: The Rhetoric of Authority
  • Notes
  • References
  • Appendix: Dream and Vision Genres
  • Index
  • Series index

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Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority

Dreams and Authority

Dreams have empowered human consciousness and action for thousands of years in recorded experience. In literature, the incorporation of dreams and visions has transcended cultures, eras, and genres. Until the last century, where psychoanalytic and physiological studies have sought to trace dreams and visions solely to psychological and cognitive sources—the inner workings of the unconscious and the self-regulating operations of the brain—most texts in the history of Western literature have portrayed dreams and visions as emanating from supernatural sources and serving a higher function. The vast majority of these fictional dreams and visions act as bridges to other realms, windows into a supernatural reality, offering the dreamers/visionaries (and their readers) access to knowledge beyond human or rational or worldly limits.

In his comprehensive study of the conception of dreams and dreaming in the Middle Ages, Steven F. Kruger succinctly summarizes this traditional conception of dreams:

For most of its long history, the dream has been treated not merely as an internally-motivated phenomenon (although as we shall see, such explanations of dreaming have their own ancient roots), but as an experience strongly linked to ← xi | xii → the realm of divinity: dreams were often thought to foretell the future because they allowed the human soul access to a transcendent, spiritual reality.1

These supernatural experiences outside/beyond the mundane—whether in relation to the world of the readers or the diegetic world of the characters—enable authors to break away from the linear narrative, achieve important insight into characters’ motivations, leap into fantastic landscapes, and face complex challenges. However, the most important benefit of incorporating dreams and visions in literature rises above narrative advantage: Dreams and visions heighten a text’s sense of authority. The transcendent authority a culture associates with authentic dreams—popular, religious, philosophical, superstitious—transfers directly to its manifestations in fiction. Those fictional works that incorporate dreams and visions thus have a greater cultural import, a greater cultural authority, that elevates the text to a higher plane of discourse.

Gilgamesh dreams of a meteor plummeting from the Heavenly Dome, the divine realm of An, marking the turning point of his reign from a tyrannical king to a mythic hero—who now holds in his hand, if only for a moment, the key to eternity. Jacob dreams of a stairway stretching to the heavens; from the heights, the Lord speaks to Jacob of his divine plan for his chosen people and Jacob’s pivotal role in their ascension. Joseph dreams of his brothers’ bundles of grain bowing to his own, followed by a dream of the stars and moon submitting to him. These dreams prove to be the catalyst for his betrayal to the Egyptian slave trade—and subsequent rise to power. Nebuchadnezzar dreams of an awful statue, a towering yet fragile colossus; only Daniel, through a vision of the Lord, can discern its divine portent. Scipio Aemilianus dreams of his revered grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who reveals to him the humbling hierarchy of the Neoplatonic universe. Julian is granted visions of God’s overwhelming sufferings, love, and power. Joseph of Galilee dreams that an angel of the Lord tells him his wife will bear a son—and the son will be the divine salvation of his people and the king of an everlasting kingdom. John dreams of the final days, when the leaders of the nations will meet the true authority of the heavens.

Dreams as markers of divine impartation of worldly authority. Dreams foretelling the rise of individuals to power, of nations to authoritative positions in history. Dreams denouncing figures of authority—and dreams announcing the messiah. Dreams imparted to grant authority, deny authority, proclaim the restoration of true authority. …

From the earliest within-the-story dream sequences of Mesopotamia to twenty-first century psychoanalytic filmic dream visions, the essential purpose ← xii | xiii → of incorporating a dream or vision in a text often centers around authority—namely the author’s desire to imbue the text with a sense of greater authority. This “authorizing strategy” requires the impression of the text’s/author’s access to the transcendent, authoritative knowledge associated with authentic divinely imparted dreams and visions.

The major early literary threads at work in the fabric of Western Civilization, though diverse and often divergent in conventional elements, similarly value and employ dreams in their narratives. While most of these traditions find similar narrative opportunities in dream elements—such as plausible breaks from the constraints of linear plots, imaginative jaunts into more fantastic settings and modes, and convenient means of revealing, in a dramatic and imagistic form, the motives and psychological struggles of the characters—dreams have maintained a measurably “higher” significance in the narrative legacy of the Western traditions. Dreams are, first and foremost, authorizing devices.2

Whether a brief dream sequence within a larger narrative, a narrative framed by a dream, or an apocalyptic vision, authors’ incorporations of dreams and visions in literature inherently involve questions about the text’s access to (or distance from) higher (or lower) authorities.3 From the earliest literature to the Early Middle Ages, in both the polytheistic and monotheistic Western traditions, dreams in literature have almost invariably been ascribed to supernatural sources.4 Whether heavenly or infernal, the ultimate sources of literary dreams are often depicted as standing outside the bodily or worldly or rational mind of man. Unless intended for ironic effect, as in many of Chaucer’s satiric projects, dreams are portrayed as incorporeal, otherworldly, revelatory—transcending the thoughts of the day and providing (usually transformative) insight not only into the past and present, but, most prevalently, the future.

The emphasis on future-oriented dreams is almost ubiquitous, spanning diverse periods and traditions.5 From a purely literary perspective, intra-narrative visions of the future—dreams that predict events that will be fulfilled within the story itself, like the dream of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in Daniel6—produce a pleasure similar to that offered by narrative flash-forwards popular in modern storytelling, through which the audience or reader might enjoy the twists and turns that seem, often impossibly, to lead to the predicted (or “pre-visioned”) outcome. As in the Oedipal intra-narrative prophecies, the audience delights in the ironic circumstances, attempted circumventions, and ultimate circularity of the plot.7 The implied “argument” of an intra-narrative dream prediction is an ordered, divinely orchestrated universe ← xiii | xiv → where all events build to predetermined outcomes, thus confirming the ultimate temporal authority of God/the gods.

Though this sense of inevitability is one of the great joys of intra-narrative prophetic dream sequences, it is not the only, or even dominant, reason for the popularity of prophetic literary dream elements. The most notable effect of employing dream sequences or framing devices is the link these elements provide to a “non-literary” or non-fictional tradition: “authentic” prophetic and visionary texts and utterances. While the labels “authentic” and “non-literary” are imprecise,8 the degree of seriousness with which the culture takes the prophetic-dream tradition is the most consistent point of distinction: the authentic prognostications, prophecies, and visions of the shaman/oracle/soothsayer/visionary generally carry a greater weight within the culture than more clearly artificial, narrative-focused, “literary” dreams and visions.9 Questions of the authority of “authentic” texts are further complicated of course as one moves from one culture, religion, or period to another. Regardless, the general distinction remains between those works that purport to be true visions/dreams and those that promote themselves as overtly literary.

Despite the gap between these two broad categories of texts, the “authentic” traditions serve as important cultural referents to their more overtly artificial, literary cousins. The access to divine sources required to step outside of the temporal (present and past) strictures of knowledge in the authentic mode carries over to some degree in the literary. The audience or reader inevitably connects (whether consciously or unconsciously) the literary predictive dream to the generally more authoritative tradition of the prophetic and visionary writing. This “borrowed” sense of authority elevates the overtly literary fiction, lifting it, even if only subtly, heavenward.

While many scholars have noted the importance of authority in dream literature—Kruger, Collins, Spearing, Barr, Lynch, Russell, among many others10—the present study takes this broad concept of authority and applies it in a more specific and comprehensive manner than previous scholarship to several key texts in the history of Western dream literature, namely the Book of Daniel, Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Love, and Chaucer’s House of Fame. These texts are not only highly influential in their respective traditions, they serve as paradigms of diverse dream and vision genres: the dream sequence (Daniel); the apocalypse (Daniel); Neoplatonic dream theory and the classical dream vision (Macrobius’ Commentary); the divine vision (Julian’s Revelations); and the ironic dream vision (Chaucer’s House of Fame). These diverse works and ← xiv | xv → traditions feature several conventional “authorizing devices” that characterize the dream and vision genres they represent. As I will attempt to highlight throughout, while some of these strategies remain particular to one genre and/or era, others clearly cross periods, cultures, and traditions.

Emphasis and Scope


XXVI, 130
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXVI, 130 pp.

Biographical notes

John Bickley (Author)

John Bickley received his Ph.D. in humanities from Florida State University, where he was the recipient of a doctoral presidential fellowship and focused on medieval literature, medievalism, and adaptation theory. He earned his M.A. in English literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among his scholarly works, Bickley has published entries for Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary, co-authored an introduction and bibliographical material for the Penguin Classics edition of Joel Chandler Harris’s Nights with Uncle Remus (2003), and contributed to a casebook on Woody Allen.


Title: Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority
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158 pages