This week we returned to the medieval poem, Piers Plowman. In this work, which has been attributed to one William Langland, readers follow Will Langland as he walks along the Malvern Hills stopping for a nap along the way.
It’s not difficult to imagine a peaceful walk here. Furthermore, the opening, soporific lines of the poem encourage readers to take a respite from their cares and join Will in his wee break:
In a summer season, when soft was the sun, I shaped me into shrouds as I a sheep were, In habit as an hermit, unholy of works,
Went wide in this world wonders to hear. As on a May morning on Malvern Hills
Me befell a ferly, of Fairy me thought.
I was weary of wandering and went me to rest Under a broad bank by a bourne side.
And as I lay and leaned and looked on the waters, I slumbered into a sleeping, it sweyed so merry. Piers Plowman, Prologue, lines 1-10
The allegorical Vision of Piers Plowman is made possible through the act of dreaming. And, while dream narratives can be found in ancient sources (the Bible, the Dream of Scipio, and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses), the medieval period saw the genre reach peak popularity.
What was it about the dream vision that appealed so much to both medieval writers and audiences? And, why is the dream vision something that still speaks to contemporary readers?
Modern Psychoanalysis and the Dream
I have long been fascinated by the work of Carl Jung (who I came to through Joseph Campbell, but that’s another post). I know that many of his theories, like those of Freud, have been cast aside—often derided for not being scientific. Yet, for me, there is something about the lack of scientific foregrounding that I find appealing. Jung’s pseudo-gnostic beliefs regarding the origins of dreams mirror my own agnostic questioning. He wrote,
We know that something unknown, alien, does come our way, just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord. What does happen to us in this manner can be said to emanate from mana, from a daimon, a god, or the unconscious.Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 336
How are we to understand the origins for the poetic dream vision? Piers Plowman is presented as Will’s dream, yet it is a dream that comes to us through the literary efforts of its (presumed) author, William Langland. Are either Will or William able to control the workings of the unconscious psyche?
If the answer to the last question is yes, at least in regards to William Langland, we can see how the role of the author began to evolve during the medieval period. French philosopher Michel Foucault addressed the concept of the author in his theory of the author-function:
The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing–all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence. The author also serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be–at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious–a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction.Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ reprinted in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage Books, 2010, p.119
Thus, it is William Langland and his unconscious vision that provides the unity for the dreams of Will Langland. Or, is it? Will’s dreams come from William’s ymaginatif — but what is the source for the author’s dreams?
The medieval scholar would most likely say, ”Well, God, of course.” It is God to whom we turn to resolve the mysteries of existence and its inherent contradictions. We can see then that the author, by extension, operates in the guise of a god in respect to his own creations.
For contemporary readers, I doubt there would be much concern about the creative, God-like presence of an omniscient author. But, what of the medieval author? Did Langland risk ecclesiastical heresy by giving his creation dreams? Langland actually seems to function as an intermediary for God. Readers are dependent on the author for not only the dream, but for the dreamer’s interpretation of the dreams.
This last point is ironic. Much of what Will the dreamer encounters on his journey is a condemnation of church practices, which, in large part, depended on the intercession and mediating role of the church and its clergy.
I think Jung (and Freud) could have a great deal of fun unpacking Will(iam)’s multiple dreams.