dreams and visions

“I dreamt a marvelous dream. Let me tell you about it.” That is the opening move in many of the greatest works of medieval literature; such works are called “dream visions.” Rooted ultimately in the Bible and ancient philosophy, dream vision became one of the most successful literary genres in medieval Europe, only to recede again at the end of the Middle Ages. In this course, we study the scriptural and philosophical roots of the dream vision genre, and trace the development of the genre through The Dream of the Rood, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, Dante’s Inferno, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Pearl, Chaucer’s early poems, and the writings of Christine de Pizan. These are exceptionally creative and powerful works of literature. They are united in their visionary premise, but each turns the dream/vision to its own unique and challenging ends.

We read Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s poems in the original language, called “Middle English”; learning to read this antiquated form of English takes work, but the reward is an unusually fine-grained and intimate experience of literature. Students will translate, recite, and write a critical commentary on a short passage of Middle English poetry. They will also contribute to an online forum, deliver an in-class presentation, and write two formal essays. There will be a midterm exam and a final exam.

Provided that scheduling can be worked out, we will visit the Newberry library to view medieval and early modern books relevant to our topic.


  • To explore the imaginative possibilities of literary fiction and poetic verse.
  • To gain an experience of literature written in a historical period and material context different from our own.
  • To study the historical development and particular uses of a literary genre.
  • To develop skills for understanding and appreciating a form of the English language different from the modern standard.
  • To refine skills of formal expository writing, self-expression, and literary argument.

[Course rationale for ENGL 323-082, Studies in Medieval Literature: Dreams and Visions, fall 2017 edition]

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