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Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority


John Bickley

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.

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Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich: The Authorizing Discourses of the Medieval Visionary


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The Authorizing Discourses of the Medieval Visionary

Introduction: Authenticity and Medieval Visionaries

Authority is perhaps nowhere so crucial as it is in the visionary writing of the medieval mystics. The often marginal social position of many of the female mystics, coupled with the atmosphere of Church canonicity and control, places a particularly heavy demand upon these works for claims to the authority of both the source and mediator of these mystical dreams and visions. The need for these female visionaries—like Marguerite D’Oingt, Gertrude of Helfta, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich—to affirm and reaffirm the authority of their revelations turns upon several theological and philosophical discourses taking place during the era. Foremost among these discourses are questions of epistemology, volition, piety, and orthodoxy. All of these discourses begin and end in the overarching question of authority.1

Despite the work of the scholastics, there was of course no last word in the High and Late Middle Ages on the complex questions involved in epistemological inquiries. The debates of the day largely involved the “powers of the mind,” the ratio and the intellectus. The first was considered an active power, the logical, deductive reasoning abilities of the mind. The second is discussed by Aquinas and others in terms of passivity, the receptive capacity ← 67 | 68 → of the mind, that part that either intuitively understands or comes to understand the mysteries of God.2 Or,...

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