‘Workers of the World, Awaken!’: Medieval Dreams and the Peasants’ Revolt

‘During this time of sleep surely it is not my true self, Lord my God?’ (Saint Augustine, Confessions

Dreams occupy an uneasy status in contemporary society. On the one hand, they are dismissed. Those that earnestly believe dreams can predict the future or put us into contact with otherworldly forces are labelled as superstitious. As the popular scientist and writer Richard Dawkins quipped on Twitter, ‘Last night I had two dreams about an old colleague whom I’d never dreamed of before. I awoke to find that he had not died in the night.’ On the other hand, many are quick to ascribe dreams with significance. A 2009 study conducted by Carey K. Morewedge and Michael I. Norton asked subjects to fill out a questionnaire ostensibly about ‘air traffic safety.’ It had its participants imagine that one of the four following scenarios occurred the night before they have a flight booked: (a) the United States Department of Homeland Security increases the national risk of terror to ‘orange’ (high risk); (b) they have a conscious thought about their plane crashing; (c) they dream about their plane crashing and (d) a real plane crash occurs on the route they intend to take. Participants were then required to indicate on a 0 (not at all likely) to 4 (extremely likely) scale how likely it was they would feel anxious about or even avoid flying the following day. By far, the study found that people said they would feel most unsettled by the dream. Attitudes toward dreams were equally ambivalent in Medieval Europe.

In his Dreaming in the Middle Ages (1992), Steven Kruger summarises the tensions in medieval dream theory with the use of the opening poem from Chaucer’s The House of Fame,

For it’s a marvel, by the rood,

To my mind, what causes dreaming

Either at dawn or at evening,

And why truth appears in some

And from some shall never come;

Why this one a vision,

And that one a revelation,

Why this a nightmare, that a dream,

And not to every man the same;

Why this a phantom, why these oracles

I know not

Three critical areas of concern can be discerned from this passage: the ambiguous origins of dreams (‘causes’), whether they mean anything (‘truth appears’), and whether anyone has the ability to uncover these things (‘my mind’). Later in the introductory poem, the narrator gives a possible answer to this final question, wishing ‘Good luck in this to greater clerks | Who treat of these and other works’. Who were these expert clerks? What were the special works? It is to this we now turn. 

According to Kruger there are three key influences on medieval dream theory. First and most important is Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), who discusses dreams at various points across his extensive works. Secondly, we have Macrobius (370 – 430), whose most famous work on dreams is Commentary on The Dream of Scipio. Finally, there is Gregory the Great (540 – 604), who again mentions dreams a few different times, but gives the topic his most extensive treatment in the Dialogues and Commentary on Job. Most generally, and perhaps most significantly, all three thought dreams could be distinguished into classifiable types. While the number of categories alongside their respective names and definitions varied, it is still possible to establish the very same areas of concern in Chaucer’s poem across all three writers.

Firstly, which dreams were ‘true’ and which were not. This binary was conceptualised in a number of ways, such as ‘meaningful’ as opposed to ‘meaningless’, or ‘mundane’ as opposed to ‘transcendent’. Slightly different things could indeed be meant by the varying binaries, yet the distinction often basically meant whether a dream could or could not predict the future or provide the dreamer with some (divine) knowledge. Secondly, where dreams originated. On the most general level this meant whether the dreams came from internal or external sources. These broad categories were often subdivided. If they were internally originating, then it might be asked where specifically in the body and soul, e.g. the liver or the faculty of ‘Reason’ (Macrobius). And if externally born, then it might be queried if the dream came from a divine authority or a demonic force (Augustine). However, where a dream came from always bore some relation to how ‘truthful’ it would be. This brings us to the third area of contention: how one goes about deciding whether a dream was truthful or not. Yet, on this topic, all three authors are tellingly vague or silent entirely.

Dream of Scipio commentary manuscript.
Illumination from a 15th-century Italian manuscript of Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio. Scipio is pictured sleeping at the bottom of the image, with the subject of his dream above him (Source).

These key areas of contention can be related to medieval politics from two angles. First, there is the problem of the interpretation of dreams. These medieval writers acknowledged that anyone, from kings to the urban poor, could dream. This, in combination with the belief that dreams were a possible means of communicating with the divine, opened up a problem for medieval religious authorities. One of the Church’s most fundamental roles in medieval Europe was intercessory. In other words, they were the middlemen between God and the laity. Dreams, if divine, undermined this role. It made them superfluous. It would be, as the early Christian author Tertullian (155 – 240) asserted, ‘from visions that most people know God’. The anxiety around this seemingly expressed itself in the repeated assertion that dreams, if meaningful, had to be interpreted with guidance. 

Given the difficulty in separating the Church from secular power and authority during the medieval period, this anxiety has obvious political as well as spiritual implications. Jesse Keskiaho in their Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages (2015) is aware of this. They point to the second council of Nicaea (787), where Charlemagne stated that dreams could only be discerned by spiritual guidance. More generally, they argue that dreams and visions became increasingly common from the central middle ages onwards, perhaps as expressions of the rise of popular piety and heresy. The link between drawing and heresy is clear in that if personal experience, in the form of a vision or dream, possessed power, it gave an individual the justification to contradict the Church. How this relates to politics is a point made well by Michael Dutton in his The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (1994): ‘the acceptance of private experiences as socially or politically relevant is ultimately a matter of politics, of advocacy and of power’.

The question of ‘private experience’ relates to the second angle. As we have seen, one of the key debates about dreams is whether they were internally or externally originating. Before the twelfth century it had mostly been assumed that dreams which came from within were automatically less truthful than those from without. However, new psychological notions of the twelfth century, expounded by the likes of Bernardus Silvestris (d. 1178), muddied this distinction. In his Cosmographia he argued that ‘Physis [nature] knew that she would not go astray in creating the lesser universe of man if she took as her example the pattern of the greater universe’. In other words, the individual was a reflection – to some degree or another – of the ‘greater universe’, encompassing everything, up to and including God Himself. This meant that some dreams were increasingly understood as a form of meditative introspection – looking inwards to the God present in all of us. Once again, this was deeply threatening to the powers that be. God no longer resided exclusively in the king or the parish Church, but rather in everyone. All that has been said thus far might seem vague, up in the air, even dreamlike. To put a stop to this, let us now relate these theories to a specific instance.

The fourteenth century, by all accounts, is a tumultuous period of English history. Years of population growth, urbanisation, and the expansion of commercialisation had made the England of 1300 sharply different from that of 900. However, this new world was to be shaken by a series of demographic catastrophes. Beginning with the Great Famine (1315-17) followed by the Black Death (1347-51), both in the backdrop of almost continual warfare. This instability was reflected in the century’s politics. It saw the unprecedented deposition of an English king, Edward II (r. 1307 – 1327). This in turn offered impetus to the expansion of parliamentary authority that was to be seen in the Good Parliament of 1376, as well as in the removal of Richard II (r. 1377 – 1399) and the usurpation of Henry IV (r. 1399 – 1413). But perhaps one of the most remembered moments of this packed century is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

It is a topic that has accumulated a vast historiography, from which a few things are worth mentioning here. The revolt is increasingly seen as no-longer entirely ‘peasant’ in its complexion. For one, various towns across the south-east of England partook in the revolt. Furthermore, a considerable number of revolters, including its rank-and-file as well as several of its ‘leaders’, were from the more prosperous urban or landowning classes. Both points have undermined more traditional narratives that argue the revolt was the expression of conflict between the worse-off rural workers and their lords. Rather, it was the response by a newly rich, literate, yet politically disenfranchised class to excessive taxation.

Medieval painting illustrating relevance of dreams to the Peasants' Revolt.
15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt (Source).

Where do dreams fit into this? Several years before the revolt, the middle English allegorical dream/vision poem Piers Plowman,  often credited to William Langland (d. c. 1386), emerged. While little is known about Langland, the historian Anne Hudson has used rebels’ letters and patterns of manuscript survival to indicate Piers Plowman’s influence on the revolters. Certainly, the biting social and political commentary in Piers Plowman, the jaws of which clamp especially hard on indulgent clerics, mean-spirited nobles, and corrupt government officials, likely appealed to this nouveau riche who were yet to be enfranchised amongst the traditional elites. However, all this has been discussed extensively. What, at least in its political implications, has perhaps been overlooked is the use of dreams in the poem. This is somewhat surprising, given their crucial role in the poem’s structure. There are in total, not including a dream-within-a-dream, eight of them across twenty passages. So how important is this to the political coding of Piers Plowman? As we have seen, from the twelfth century the process of dreaming became understood as a type of introspection that could bring an individual closer to God. It is exactly this sort of soul searching that the poem’s narrator, Will, is involved in. His dreams are presented as attempts to uncover how he, as an individual, can ‘Do-Well’ and attain salvation. The dreams appear to facilitate Will’s access to himself, emphasised by the personification of internal features like ‘Kind Wit’ (innate intelligence), ‘Reasoun’, and ‘Patience’. Langland’s notion of self-reflection is emphasised especially when Will enters the dream-within-a-dream:

Fortune caused me to gaze in a mirror that was named Middle Earth, and then she said to me: ‘Here you can see things that will make you marvel. Here you can discover what it is you desire; why, you may even (who can tell?) attain it.’

Such introspection, as mentioned, was deeply threatening to ostensibly intercessory bodies. Indeed, when Will consults these authorities at the end of passus VII he finds that they ‘questioned its validity with a couple of well-turned phrases.’ After a brief spurt of doubt, he continues to brood over it himself and repeatedly comes up with his ‘own verdict’. Thus, Will rejects a traditional authority in favour of a devolved notion of power that stresses the individual’s relationship with God. Indeed, it seems no coincidence that this new idea that stressed the individual and knowledge of the self as critical to politics would appeal to rebels from a new class of urban rich challenging  the older power structure and corresponding caste system. In other words, Langland’s criticism of power runs a little deeper than superficial corruption and excessive indulgence, even if not to go as far to call for the more extreme actions of the revolt.

I hope by exploring the importance of dreams in Piers Plowman our understanding of the ideology of the Peasants Revolt has become somewhat clearer. More broadly, I have attempted to show how dreams in the medieval period had quite a radical potential to question authority and to assert the interpretive right of an emerging ‘individual’. Perhaps this strain of thought continues into today. It is possibly this, the right of individuals to assert the importance of their own experiences, that lies behind the unease some feel about the modern dream.