Emotions, epistemology and the nature of sleep
in Sleep and its spaces in Middle English literature
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Chapter 1 begins by exploring the operations and implications of sleep in medieval science, focusing on sleep’s medical and emotional benefits in particular. In the humoral theory of the body, in which health and well-being were determined by an individual’s fluctuating economy of liquids with emotional attributes, sleep had a powerful role to play in generating balance by transforming food into the four humours during digestion. Thus, while sleep was important for physical health, sleep was also significant for mental health, offering relief from the ‘unhealthful’ humours of melancholy and choler in ways that are distinctively realised in Middle English literature. This chapter shows how, as a form of sorrow-making and anger management, sleep shapes subjectivities and judgements in romances, cycle plays and dream visions. By considering medieval writers’ and readers’ knowledge of Aristotelian theories of dreams as well as the (more well-known today) Macrobian theories of dreams, this chapter concludes by suggesting that ideas about dreams caused by individuals’ waking preoccupations – dreams generated from lived experience and humoral imbalances – have more to tell us about late medieval English dream visions than has been recognised.

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