Jesse Keskiaho – ”The Reception and Use of Christian Ideas about Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages 400-900” Lectio praecursoria 22.12.2012

FM Jesse Keskiahon väitöskirja  ”The Reception and Use of Christian Ideas about Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages 400-900” (Unia ja näkyjä koskevan kristillisen ajattelun vastaanotto ja käyttö varhaiskeskiajalla 400-900) tarkastettiin 22.12.2012 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä oli professori Rosamond McKitterick (University of Cambridge) ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen. Väitöskirja on luettavissa sähköisenä osoitteessa:

In the early 790’s, Charles, king of the Franks, also known as Charlemagne (reigned 768-814), charged one of his court theologians, most probably Theodulf, later bishop of Orléans (d. 821), with composing the king’s official reply to the acts of the second ecumenical council of Nicaea, which had convened roughly three years previously. The fathers of Nicaea had famously decided to uphold and commend the practice of making and venerating Christian cult images. The Frankish theologians felt that the eastern council had introduced a dangerous novelty that was tantamount to idolatry.

In the Frankish reply Theodulf sought to counter each of the original arguments of the council. This led him also to discuss dreams, since the acts included a story of the apparition of St Nicholas of Myra in a dream. In the story St Nicholas could be identified because the apparition had resembled an icon of the saint. The saint was thought to be present in the dream and thus the dream could reinforce the idea that the icon and the saint had a connection. However, in the reply Theodulf argued that since dreams are fickle and hard to make sense of, no doctrinal decisions should be based on them. This argument on the nature of dreams derives from the writings of Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). But it is not at all clear that Gregory would necessarily have agreed with how Theodulf used his teaching on dreams. I think that he certainly may have, but his writings allow other interpretations as well, and some of Theodulf’s contemporaries clearly held such interpretations. That Gregory’s teaching on dreams was available to Theodulf to use in the sense he did, is very probably the product of a process of reception, that by the time he wrote had already run for little less than two hundred years, in which the authoritative writings of the late pope were copied, studied, synthesised and applied for new ends.

The reason I suggested that Theodulf may have applied Gregory’s teaching on dreams in a way that departed from the latter’s original intention has to do with the apparitions of the dead, and especially those of the saints. Thus also the story of the apparition of St Nicholas is topical today not only because he is the original Santa Claus. It seems that the Nicaean acts discussed the case primarily as an apparition, while Theodulf insisted that it was primarily a dream.

Before Gregory, such apparitions had in a Latin Christian context been discussed by Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430). In his De cura pro mortuis gerenda, On the care to be had for the dead, he discussed also the apparitions of the dead, since stories of such apparitions were used in arguing for the propriety of commemorative practices. Augustine argued that unlike often thought, the dead do not appear knowingly or in person, but that if such apparitions should turn out to be in some sense true or meaningful, it was probably angels who appeared in the image of the dead. Augustine allowed that the martyrs seem to hear and answer prayers, but insisted that when such things happen they are miracles, exceptions to the natural order of things. He suspected that the martyrs also might not appear in person but that angels would appear in their stead as well.

Augustine may not reliably represent the Christian thought of his day about the dead and their apparitions, but by the early middle ages thought about the issue seems certainly to have been somewhat different. A central influence in this seems to have been Pope Gregory, and especially his work Dialogi, Dialogues. He wrote it at the end of the sixth century probably in response to doubts about the existence of saints and about their personal involvement in the affairs of the living. He was possibly thinking about debates in Constantinople where he had served as a papal representative before himself becoming the bishop of Rome. There, it seems, arguments rather like those of Augustine had been presented about the cult of the saints, and these views had been taken or intended as criticism. We know of them because a certain Eustratius, a priest of Hagia Sophia, was provoked to respond to them in the 580s. He forcefully argued that the saints were personally involved in their cults. Claims that angels appeared in the likeness of the saints, he remarked, would make the church into a theatre, and he clearly felt that it would threaten the foundation of the cults themselves, the idea of a personal connection between a saint and an ordinary Christian.

Gregory wrote the Dialogi for a monastic community he had founded in Rome. He argued that saints existed, many had also lived in Italy, and that they were personally involved with the living. He also included a few comments on dreams, which he had already presented in his earlier Moralia in Iob. It is these comments that Theodulf echoes in his reply to the second Nicaea. In the middle of stories of dreams and visions about the eternal fates of individuals and about the apparitions of the dead, Gregory has his dialogue partner Peter ask, how, generally speaking, should one regard dreams and nocturnal visions? Gregory answers by listing different origins of dreams and providing for each a Biblical verse as proof. He says that some dreams originate in digestive problems or daytime cares and some are demonic illusions, or illusions mixed with our own thoughts. Some dreams, nevertheless, are divine revelations, or the product of revelation and our thoughts. His central argument is that because dreams have such a diversity of different origins, one should not believe in them lightly. In the Dialogi he continues that holy men (sancti viri) are able to distinguish between the voices and images of dreams so that they know what comes from illusion, what from revelation. In this he agrees with Augustine, who had also argued that dreams should be interpreted using divinely inspired intellect. And it is a version of this argument when Theodulf argues that one should not base doctrine on dreams but judge dreams by doctrine.

In Gregory’s text the teaching on dreams does not contradict his stories of true dreams, as it also promotes the existence of true dreams. But his exhortation to care with dreams, and its implication that it is difficult to judge dreams by their voices and images, is in tension with what some of his stories imply about how dreams should be handled. Gregory’s stories are in fact much like many found in earlier and later hagiography, and the story included in the acts of Nicaea II also resembles them. Such stories aim to prove the sanctity of the saint they focus on, and often imply that the saint is personally present in his apparitions and that one should thus readily trust them. Indeed, in some stories the dreamer is beaten into believing in the dream he clearly should have accepted from the beginning.

While I argue that Gregory probably intended his teaching, not the stories he told, to be his main advice on how to handle dreams, it was not necessarily easy to notice this, especially when approaching Gregory in the context of the cult of the saints. Already in the Dialogi and in much of early medieval hagiography the apparitions of saints tend to form a special phenomenon, a special kind of dream or a vision. In other words, although it was to my knowledge never, discounting modern scholars, formulated as an explicit principle, the apparition of a saint in a dream seems to have been a strong argument for its veracity.

As a part of my investigation into how Gregory’s teaching on dreams was received I examined most of the pre-tenth-century manuscripts where it survives, and looked at how his texts were excerpted. It seems that the teaching in the Dialogi was indeed hard to find, and the book was for the main part taken in its main sense, as an argument for the cult of the saints. But the teaching was picked out of its immediate contexts and placed into collections on Christian morality and theology by two seventh-century Spanish authors, first by Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and slightly later by Taio of Saragossa (fl. ca. 650). And the manuscripts that I have studied of these works suggest that the teaching was noticed in them. These texts abstracted the teaching, separating it from its potentially distracting contexts, and thus created Gregory’s teaching on dreams.

It is probable that such abstracting made the teaching easier to notice, and easier to apply to all kinds of dreams, also the apparitions of saints. One early example of this is found in the Hibernensis, an early collection of canon law and Christian teachings compiled probably in Ireland, which included also sentences on dreams. It survives as two early eighth-century editions. It seems that the original version of the collection contained a selection of sentences on the care for the dead, most of which originated ultimately in Augustine’s De cura. That work had already long been interpreted through what Gregory had said about the dead and their apparitions. Augustine’s reservations and his hedging was bypassed and his cautious acceptance that some apparitions of the dead may be in some sense true was taken as yet another patristic affirmation of the presence of the dead in their apparitions. It is largely in this sense that the compilers of the Hibernensis used Augustine. It seems, however, that these largely positive views about apparitions were felt to be in need of balancing, and for this purpose Gregory’s teaching on dreams was appended to the collection. The sentences on the apparitions of the dead were separated from those generally on the care for the dead, and collected with Gregory’s teaching in a separate section on dreams. Thus the compilers clearly felt that Gregory’s teaching, exhorting to care, was relevant to a discussion of the apparitions of the dead.

Context and current concerns clearly steered how authoritative opinion was received and in what sense. Interest in the fates of the dead and in the cults of the saints, only nascent when Augustine was writing, focused emphasis on the reality of dreams and apparitions. It cannot be concluded that doubts or the need to be careful with dreams would have been completely forgotten. But since most of our narrative source texts focus on the cult of the saints, such a need is rarely visible, but for some exceptions. Some of these exceptions are first seen in early eighth-century Northumbrian texts. I have suggested that this is because the authorial contexts and immediate audiences of these texts were, in comparison with those of most Continental texts, more narrowly ecclesiastical, and focused on reform.

One of these exceptions occurs in a vita, the first of its kind, of Gregory the Great, written in early eighth-century Northumbria. Here the old motif, already found in Greek literature of the Archaic period, of a repeating dream, in which an apparition forces the dreamer to believe in a dream, has been modified to accommodate learned scepticism. In this text the dreamer, after the first dream, decides to disregard it, and the author of the text cites a verse from Ecclesiasticus, the book of Jesus Sirach, warning of the illusions of dreams. The verse, almost certainly not coincidentally, is the same cited by Gregory himself in his teaching on dreams. Thus in this story, unlike in most other occurrences of the same motif, although the dreamer is literally beaten into taking the dream seriously, his initial doubt is not branded as simple foolishness or incredulity, but acknowledged as a legitimate learned opinion, if not necessarily the ultimate truth on the matter. The story suggests that in the author’s community attitudes that focused on care with dreams, quite probably learned from Gregory, had a place that could not be bypassed when arguing that a certain dream, even an apparition, was true.

Gregory, at least in his Dialogi, focused on arguing for the reality of the apparitions of the saints. And much of early medieval hagiography shared this aim. Pope Hadrian (d. 795), who had advised the Greeks in preparation to Nicea II, wrote to Charlemagne when he understood that the king’s theologians were unhappy about the council’s resolutions. He argued, among other things, that there was nothing wrong with accounts of apparitions, for had not Gregory himself narrated those in his Dialogi, and how are we to suppose that the appearing figures had there been recognised, if not from images? Now if we take Gregory’s teaching on dreams, warning about the instability of the images of dreams, as his intended opinion, Hadrian was surely not right. But he is hardly to be blamed for reading the Dialogi through its overarching argument on the presence of the saints in their apparitions. And although the matter debated, the veneration of holy images, would in all likelihood have been alien to Gregory, it is not clear that he would have sided with Theodulf.

Theodulf, on the other hand, quite faithfully applied the import of Gregory’s teaching on dreams, especially as it can be read when separated from its original contexts. Theodulf had been born and apparently educated in Spain, and he quite probably knew the manuals of Isidore and Taio, although it is not necessary to suppose he thought about them when composing his reply. By the time he wrote the process of reception had already made it possible to think about Gregory’s teaching divorced from his other teachings and thought, and to consider it a general theory of dreams.

I have studied this, and other processes like it, in my dissertation. The history of learning and ideas in the early middle ages is largely the history of the re-appropriation and re-application of the learning of late antiquity. Although many of the authors read in that period were highly venerated, their views were not always received as those authors may have originally intended. In spite of all its continuities with antiquity, the world of early medieval Europe was in many ways completely different from that of the Church Fathers. And our world is, also in spite of its undeniable continuities with the antiquity and the middle ages, yet completely different from either.


Jesse Keskiaho, The Reception and Use of Christian Ideas about Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages (400-900). PhD Thesis, University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2012.

Malcolm R. Godden, ”Were It Not that I Have Bad Dreams: Gregory the Great and the Anglo-Saxons on the Dangers of Dreaming.” In Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Kees Dekker, & David F. Johnson (eds.), Rome and the North. The Early Reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic Europe. Medievalia Groningana 4. Peeters, Paris-Leuven-Sterling VA 2001, 93-113.

Matthew Dal Santo, ”Gregory the Great and Eustratius of Constantinople: The Dialogues on the Miracles of Italian Fathers as An Apology for the Cult of the Saints.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17 (2009), 421-457.

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