People have long been interested in dreams and what dreams mean. Countless books have been published related to how to interpret a dream, and one can find numerous theories on the importance and meaning of the images and sensations one experiences while they sleep.
Medieval people were also interested in dreams, and they attempted to figure out what they meant. Often a dream would be interpret as a sign of future events, or a divine warning that someone needed to change their ways.
One fascinating example of a medieval dream comes from the writings of Arnold Fitz Thedmar (1201-1275), a London alderman. He composed a chronicle focusing on events in London, and included it with a history of his family, starting with how his grandparents emigrated from Germany to England. Arnold devotes some of his account to retell a dream his mother had while she was pregnant with him:
In a vision, she thought that the Prior and Brethren of the Hospital of Jerusalem (St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell), without London, sent for a log of wood which was lying upon the fire in her house, as the custom is in the houses of the citizens, and that accordingly the porters carried it out of the house. After this, about the ninth hour of the day (3:00 pm) the same porters brought a slab of marble, which had been sent to the woman’s husband by the Prior and Brethren aforesaid, and then departed. Immediately after which, as it appeared to her, the porters before-mentioned brought back the log of wood, and told her that the log must be laid upon the fire as long as it would last, and that after it was wholly consumed, the marble slab must be substituted in its place.
The lady then sought to have her dream interpreted:
A certain skilful man thus expounded this dream, and said to the woman as follows: “The log of wood signifies your husband, and the slab of marble the son who shall be born of you. The circumstance that the log of wood was not in the house when the slab of marble was sent thither about the ninth hour, signifies that your husband will not be at home, when your son is born; whose birth will take place at the ninth hour of the day. The log of wood being afterwards brought back to be placed upon the fire, signifies that immediately after your son is born, your husband will return home, and will continue to be master of this house all the days of his life, and after him your son will succeed by right of inheritance to the house aforesaid.”
Apparently, the dream did foretell events, for Arnold goes on to write:
And so it happened. For the woman’s husband was not in the City, when she was seized with the pains of labour; but had occasion to be staying away from the City until after his wife had been delivered. But immediately after the child’s birth, which took place about the ninth hour, he came home; and afterwards remained there as master of the house all the days of his life. After his death, his son Arnold, before-mentioned, came into possession of the house by right of inheritance.
Clearly the dream was considered both important to the mother and the son – important enough that 70 years later the son would include it in the story of his family’s history.
You can learn more about Arnold in Arnold Fitz Thedmar: an Early London chronicler and read a translation of his work Liber de Antiquis Legibus from British History Online. See also:
Medieval Dreams: A Sample of Historical and Psychological Criticism
Manuel II Palaiologos: Interpreter of dreams?
Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present