Discourse of the spirit: Dream and vision in medieval literature

Benjamin M Semple, University of Pennsylvania


Dreams and visions in medieval literature are often treated as a genre. This dissertation attempts to define dream and vision as a discourse. While dreams and visions can be classified by generic categories, this approach tends to isolate classes of dream and vision literature. In "Discourse of the Spirit: Dream and Vision in Medieval Literature," I define several great medieval dream and vision poems as a discourse. I argue that these poems were recognized by both author and audience as a particular use of language, a specific kind of discourse. I call this a "Discourse of the Spirit". This notion allows us to relate what we might otherwise call a literary speech-act to an ideology and a world view: Christianity. From the Christian point of view, language imbued with the spirit is fundamentally different from literal or carnal language. The study begins with the "Vision of the Anchorite" in the Historia Ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis and the dreams of Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland. In these early dreams, it is God who "writes," the narrator simply records. But these dreams are also a discourse, the discourse of prophecy, or prophetia. Chapter two treats Macrobius, Alan of Lille's De Planctu Naturae, and the Roman de la Rose. In these works, the problem of literal, carnal language is raised. This type of language, which culminates in the Roman de la Rose, serves as a point of comparison with the "discourse of the spirit." In chapter three, I study the "Old Man of Crete" in Inferno XIV. I argue that the Old Man has to be understood in relation to Virgil, who reports on the Old Man, and to Virgil's use of language. Dante's Christian language is fundamentally different from Virgil's pagan language. In chapter four, I study Christine de Pizan's Livre de la Cite des Dames. I show how Christine represents her voice as inspired by belief, and how her speech is in turn based on her special vision, or clerveance.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|Comparative literature|Religious history

Recommended Citation

Semple, Benjamin M, "Discourse of the spirit: Dream and vision in medieval literature" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9200387.