Dr Jesse Harrington

Dreaming of Angels Instead

A review of Jesse Keskiaho, Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages: The Reception and Use of Patristic Ideas, 400–900(Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Richard Sowerby, Angels in Early Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 2016)

In all its rich variety, the medieval Christian tradition held that the direct revelation of the divine will to earthly mortals had not ceased with the events of the New Testament or with the Christianisation of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. God continued to act in the world through the lives of the saints and martyrs, who in their turn continued to act in death. The continuing presence of the departed saints was made manifest on earth via the power of their relics and in portentous dreams and visions, through which the divine and saintly will was mediated to humbler mortals. Divine intentions were additionally communicated directly through appointed ‘angeli’ – literally ‘messengers’, but which more narrowly labelled the familiar image of angels in the Christian tradition who acted alongside the saints in heaven and earth. These figures appeared not only in the abstract speculations of theological writings and exegesis, but in the more normative settings of historical and hagiographical narratives, in sermons, and in prayers, and are thus as much a part of the historical landscape as the more historical figures themselves.
            These beliefs, as recent generations of scholars have recognised, and as Jesse Keskiaho and Richard Sowerby respectively argue in Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages and in Angels in Early Medieval England, were not simply a ‘quaint and esoteric corner of a superstitious Middle Ages’ (Sowerby). They represent the sum of a diverse range of traditions, which included biblical religious narratives, Judaic and Hellenic sources, and the late antique hagiographical narratives and theological commentaries by the fathers of the early Church. Moreover, the medieval reception and reformulation of those ideas – whose disparate origins and individual incompleteness demanded a continuing synthesis – present to us an image of the social ideals, religious cultures, and mental outlooks memorialised by the authors who wrote of them. Indeed, it was precisely when these men and women ‘felt compelled to deal with aspects of their beliefs which were less familiar and less well trodden’, as Sowerby contends, ‘that they more freely revealed their own preoccupations and concerns’.
            As Keskiaho elucidates, authoritative opinions on dreams and visions were versatile, and formed a language rather than a canon. Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Augustine of Hippo, Pope Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville claimed, in various combinations and with varying degrees of caution and emphasis, that dreams and visions could either come from God attempting to communicate, from demons attempting to deceive, from environmental or physical factors (e.g., indigestion), or from the moral state or introspective power of the individual soul. Determining into which category a single dream might fall required an appropriate empiric. Early Christian ascetics typically followed an introspective psychological approach, which was sceptical of the meaning of dreams and wary of the dangers of the demonic and illusory, and accordingly placed key emphasis on spiritual discernment. Early medieval writers, on the other hand, often took a more modest ‘common-sense’ approach to interpretation, judging for example whether the appearance of the saint matched the diagnostic physical or symbolic features recognisable from Christian iconography. The eighth-century Pope Hadrian I adjudicated one troubling dream, reported by a monk at the court of Charlemagne and which implied the death of Christianity, in precisely those terms. Hadrian noted, in its favour, that the monk’s vision of a human with the wings of an eagle corresponded with the traditional symbols of John the Evangelist, but ultimately concluded that, because the dream’s additional unknown celestial figure of a human with the wings of a dove could not be found in biblical imagery, the dream as a whole must be an illusion.
            Early medieval hagiographers, pressed to demonstrate the sanctity of their subjects and the truth of the visions connected with them in life or death – often to critical clerical audiences or less critical lay ones – grasped at whichever arguments were available, typically with some degree of circularity. Over time, the accumulation of the Lives of the saints, written using earlier rhetorical tropes and narrative models, established a common pattern of ‘true’ visions which itself could be taken as a sign of veracity. The vision of a saint or angelic messenger often involved a threefold repetition with escalating discomfort or violence: the messenger would appear to a doubtful dreamer on multiple nights, and the consistency and persistent urgency of the visions would lend them weight as revelation. While such narratives met with increasing scepticism toward the ninth century, when there was additional need for careful handling and interpretation by the proper ecclesiastical authorities, it was also the case that theory and reported narratives were mutually reinforcing for the ways in which contemporary clerics conceived the problem.
            A similar interlocking of theory, narrative, and practice emerges from Sowerby’s work on angels. Where Keskiaho evaluates the sources from the late antique Mediterranean, medieval Francia, and its satellites, Sowerby focuses on early medieval England, and on the kingdom of Northumbria in particular. The record of early English history was ‘studded with angels’. It began with the famous pronouncement by the sixth-century Pope Gregory that the yet-unchristian English slaves he met in Rome were ‘not Angles, but angels’, and ended with the nationwide customary offerings to the Archangel Michael at Michaelmas, mere days after the landing which brought about the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This early medieval ‘angelic’ landscape has hitherto only been given impressionistic modern scholarly attention, in contrast with the earlier patristic and later scholastic periods of thought. Following the celebrated patristic discourse on the celestial hierarchy by the Syrian monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the fifth century, the subject of angels only received systematic attention again with the theological treatises of the thirteenth century. Indeed, much of western Christian thought on angels in the intervening centuries relied on a single sermon delivered by Gregory in 591. Gregory’s digression on the nine angelic orders described in the Bible (angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim and seraphim), presented as a hierarchy with distinct functions, ‘swiftly became embedded in the intellectual fabric of early medieval Christendom’.
         Despite the limited extended treatment of angels between the years 600 and 1200, Sowerby convincingly argues that the subject still actively gripped the imagination of the early Middle Ages and even sharpened contemporary thought about Christians’ place in the world. Contemplation of the angelic condition and of the angels’ alternating contemplation and ministry of God offered a model of the heaven toward which Christians strived. It presented, too, a reminder of the pastoral duty of those who served God on earth (such as monks) to share that experience and service with others beyond their churches’ walls, rather than to simply cut themselves off from the world. Tentative, non-biblical narratives, such as the expulsion of Lucifer and his angels from heaven and the suggested role of mankind as a ‘replacement’ second creation to take their place in heaven, were solidified as doctrines and explicitly deployed to justify religious change and reform: as when the reportedly lax clerics of Winchester were expelled from their minster in favour of Benedictine monks in the year 964. Thus, even ‘many of the seemingly commonplace beliefs about angels in the Christian tradition’ experienced a slow but fundamental transformation during the period.
            Taken together, however, the early medieval beliefs regarding angels were as varied and versatile as those that Keskiaho shows for dreams and visions. The consensus was that angels were immaterial spirits which adopted visible forms to appear to humans. This broad definition could permit anything from robed beings to brightly-coloured songbirds; from figures immediately recognisable by unnatural shining light, to forms concealed in human guise so one could not be sure of their identity. Contemporary writers also differed widely on how best the angels’ example was principally to be followed, if at all. For the eighth-century Northumbrian monk Bede, the key angelic virtue was chastity; for the scholar and royal advisor Alcuin of York, sincere love and praise offered to the Creator were the central virtues; still later writers, in the tenth century, attuned to the fallibility of Lucifer, increasingly wondered whether angels were as truly exemplary at all. In revealing this diversity of opinion, Sowerby notably deals within a narrower geographical and cultural area than even the ‘micro-Christendoms’ of Keskiaho. Here, the debates and differences among individual writers and monastic communities regarding angels reflected ‘a landscape made up of somewhat unconnected communities of thought, each holding beliefs which they took to be universal, and yet which were often quite distinct from those of their neighbours’. These beliefs only began to achieve unity and homogenisation in the tenth century, with the tightening contacts between ecclesiastical communities and the unification of the kingdom of England: one small indication of wider change within wider, early English society.
            These are important studies, and a laudable strength of focus is the careful expository attention to the manuscript transmission and availability of specific foundational texts. Keskiaho notably shows how the classical neo-Platonist texts on dreams and visions often seen as important later in the Middle Ages – such as the works of Cicero, Macrobius, and Chalcidius – were rare in use in the early Middle Ages, where instead it was Augustine and Gregory whose work dominated. It is, indeed, the underlying influences of Augustine and Gregory which most visibly straddle both modern scholars’ subjects. Keskiaho also recognises the cumulative significance of non-theological and non-philosophical texts and genres, such as Gregory’s influential Dialogues: a collection of anecdotes and miracle stories about Italian saints. This collection circulated widely and is fundamental to unlocking much of the medieval literary understanding of miracles and of sanctity more generally, but remains underappreciated by scholars, perhaps in part due to its perceived ‘folkloric’ and disconnected nature, in contrast with Gregory’s more ‘serious’, unified theological works.
            At the same time, medieval writers frequently showed understandings which were different or more malleable than those displayed in these inherited texts – not because those texts were not read, but rather because they were part of a disparate and discontinuous tradition that was ‘read with new concerns and through the more compelling works of others’ (Keskiaho). Readings of Augustine, which had originally shown ambivalence or uncertainty on the precise meaning of dreams or the place of the angels in Creation, collapsed into certainty in the later period out of deference to his authority, but not without creative reinterpretation and reapplication while appealing to that same authority. The most striking contention, however, is that the major shifts in the early medieval views of angels had ‘little to do with the major events in Anglo-Saxon England’s ecclesiastical history’ (Sowerby) – whether the social pressures from below or the political pressures from above, often seen as integral to cultural and intellectual history. Instead, the greatest intellectual innovation came through the transplantation of angelic narratives from one genre (e.g., saints’ Lives) to another (e.g., sermons): a more literary process in which the conventions of genre and audience moulded the concepts being conveyed, and traditions in turn accumulated over multiple generations and transmissions. This process led to an unintended but inevitable reshaping of opinion – a quieter process of redefinition and resynthesis of religious outlook than change forced from above or below. These ripples were produced by the process of writing itself and were sometimes alone sufficient to transform longstanding ideas without specific external impetus.
            This impression of an ‘accidental accumulation’ of tradition and belief presents a wider challenge to the examination of medieval religious culture, one which requires close attention to text and transmission, and which certainly holds true in other areas. Such unguided accumulation can, for example, be seen in the wider hagiographical genres that Keskiaho and Sowerby describe if one tracks their texts and transmissions past the respective years 900 and 1066 and later into the high Middle Ages. The key underlying creative driver in this period was neither individual dominating genius (as in the scholastic period) nor extra-literary pressure, but the organic growth and evolution of a self-nourishing inheritance and tradition. Its driver and potential, ultimately, was the unfolding vitality of the seed and the soil of tradition itself.