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Dream Archaeology in the Early Christian West

It’s coming down to the wire for the first “working” draft of my Dream Archaeology paper.  I am due to present it to my colleagues at North Dakota State University on Friday at 3:00 pm!  I hope to have a working draft posted by the end of the week.

One area where the weakness in my research is more than apparent is in the analysis of Dream Archaeology in the Early Christian West.  To make a modest start at redressing that, I offer four observations (of no particular significance or order here):

1. Ambrose of Milan had a serious interest in Dream Archaeology.  His best known vision led to his discovery of the Saints Gervasius and Protasius in Milan (Epist. 20.1-2):

(1) “For after I had dedicated the basilica, many, as it were, with one mouth began to address me, and said: Consecrate this as you did the Roman basilica. And I answered: “Certainly I will if I find any relics of martyrs.” And at once a kind of prophetic ardour seemed to enter my heart.  (2) Why should I use many words? God favoured us, for even the clergy were afraid who were bidden to clear away the earth from the spot before the chancel screen of SS. Felix and Nabor. I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days…”

Ambrose also included the earliest known story of St. Helena and the True Cross in his Funeral Oration of Theodosius (De Ob. Theod. 40-49).  In his account, he does not state that a Dream guided St. Helena, but that she was motivated by the Holy Spirit.  Ambrose must have been partially motivated by a desire for relics to fill his newly constructed churches in Milan (and to validate his construction of a sacred landscape: cf. R. Krautheimer, Three Christian Capitals: Rome, Constantinople, Milan. (Berkeley 1983)).

2. St. Augustine, Ambrose younger contemporary, had a far more circumspect attitude toward Dream Archaeology.  It seems like that his ongoing struggles with the Donatists shaped his attitude toward Dreams.  Donatists favored dream inspired baptism and it appears that such practices were common even among Augustine’s Orthodox congregation.  Augustine also seemed concerned that dreams of martyrs would feed the irregular and sometimes subversive practices associated with the cult of the saints.  This resulted in his condemning “inventio per somnia” at the Council of Carthage in 401 (J. LeGoff, The Medieval Imagination. trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago 1988), 223).

3. It is interesting to note that Peter Brown devotes relatively little attention to Dream and inventio in his work on Augustine or in his short, but seminal work on the cult of the saints.  What makes this particularly curious is that Brown’s work (particularly his early studies) show the influence of E.R. Dodds (particularly his Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety and The Greeks and the Irrational). Brown himself admits as much in remarks made in 1997 to commemorate the 25 anniversary of The World of Late Antiquity in Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997), 19.  Dodds, of course, dedicated an entire chapter of Greeks and the Irrational to the power of dreams.

4. I need to read I. Moreira’s Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul. (Ithaca 2000).

For more on Dream Archaeology see: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Categories: Late Antiquity
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