Middle English literature registers intimate concerns with sleep and the spaces in which it takes place. These concerns about sleep, and the intersecting medical and moral discourses with which they engage, have been overlooked by studies more concerned with what sleep sometimes enables (dreams and dream poetry), or with what sleep sometimes stands in for or supersedes (sex). In the medieval English imagination, sleep is an embodied and culturally determined act, both performed and interpreted by characters and contemporaries; both subject to a particular habitus, and understood through particular, and pervasive, hermeneutic lenses. This book argues that sleep mediates thematic concerns and questions in ways that carry specific ethical, affective and oneiric implications in the medieval English cultural imagination, and that also offer defining contributions to different Middle English genres: romance, dream vision, drama and fabliau. Concentrating particularly on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this book also attends to a longue durée in the literature and ideas about sleep circulating from the twelfth century to the early seventeenth. It focuses on continuities in the construction of sleep across this span – scientific, social, spiritual and spatial continuities – and explores the cultural specificity of premodern English literature’s widespread interest in sleep. Analysing the ways in which representations of sleep in a range of genres animate ethical codes and emotive scripts, this book’s contributions include establishing the significance of sleep-related motifs to Middle English romance, and offering a more embodied understanding of dream visions by Chaucer, Langland and the Pearl-poet.
The Introduction explores what it means for literary characters such as Malory’s Launcelot and Chaucer’s narrator, among many others, to have a ‘lust’ for sleep. As an object of desire in Middle English literature, sleep is also a generative subject. Representations of figures who long for or are overcome by sleep abound in a range of Middle English genres, from popular romances to Ricardian dream visions, from fabliaux to saints’ lives and biblical drama. As the Introduction shows, one of the most remarkable things about sleep in Middle English textual culture is the extent to which it is remarked upon, in a wide variety of genres, and in ways that bespeak attentiveness to both its performance and its interpretation. The performance of literary sleep animates ethical codes and emotive scripts, and in the ways that it provokes interpretation (both diegetic and exegetic), it is inherently epistemological: it contributes to what and how characters and readers know, and desire to know.
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.
Chapter 2 focuses on the dangers of sleep, exploring how the prescriptions and proscriptions regarding sleeping practices in conduct manuals – especially the strenuous injunctions against daytime sleep – illuminate literary representations of sleep. In Middle English romances, fabliaux, dream visions and drama, untimely sleep is dangerous, with risks to reputation and/or well-being. These genres share their interest in untimely sleep as a mode of admonition, but generic expectations also shape the consequences in distinctive ways. Across these genres, an appetite for sleep, especially when linked to other appetites – for food, for drinking to excess, for sex or sloth – marks a neglect of duties (ranging from chivalric endeavour to Christian labour and prayer), a lack of perception (of right conduct or religious truths) or a lack of vigilance (against attacks or abduction). Moments where characters sink into untimely sleep shape their identities and reputations, offering readers reminders of what not to do, and exempla of the dangers of transgressing expectations.
Chapter 3, in particular, examines the literary implications of how, in a society in which beds and bedchambers were relatively scarce and protected, sleeping either in such specialised sleeping spaces, or elsewhere, entailed navigating various pleasures and dangers such as desire, detection, abduction and disease – as well as dreams. As with sleep itself, my interest in the spaces of sleep particularly concerns the ways in which they become the focus of narrative commentary and diegetic conversation. Intriguingly, when negotiating the possibility of sex in Middle English romances, it is often the spaces of sleep, rather than bodies themselves, that receive textual attention. Beds and other sleeping spaces sometimes serve as contested liminal environments in which gendered roles can become destabilised, and the spaces of sleep (like sleep itself) also stimulate diegetic interpretations of character and conduct, as when bloody bedsheets lead to accusations of adultery in Arthurian literature.
While dream visions are addressed in each of the main chapters of this book, Chapter 4 scrutinises the sleep in Chaucer’s dream visions in light of this study’s broader analysis of sleep. How Chaucer writes about sleep in the Book of the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls and the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women participates in Middle English literary culture’s pronounced interest in thematising the ethics and affect of sleep’s causation and consequences, and in deploying the connotations of its spaces; rarely, however, has it been observed that Chaucer navigates debts to English literary traditions, alongside French and Italian ones, in his dream visions. Focusing on the Book of the Duchess in particular, Chapter 4 rediscovers Chaucer’s interest in the mind–body connections that sleep foregrounds through sleep’s role in digestion, in the balancing of the humours and passions, and in the generation of dreams in the inward wits. It argues that Chaucer’s dream poetry medicalises sleep in ways that invite analysis in relation to Galenic science, and that in turn illuminate the embodied endeavour of the medieval poet, especially through Chaucer’s consideration of Aristotelian (alongside the more commonly invoked Macrobian) theories of dreams.
‘All good letters were layde a slepe’: medieval sleep and early modern heirs
Megan G. Leitch
As the Coda explores, Shakespeare inherits this medieval cultural understanding of sleep, and it in turn shapes his representations of the fates of, and guilty consciences inspired by, heirs in Macbeth and Richard III. Shakespeare’s Macbeth may ‘murder sleep’, but he does so as the spawn of medieval conventions for signifying through sleep. And two hundred years after Chaucer’s Symkin the Miller is cuckolded while ‘as an hors he fnorteth in his sleep’ in the bawdy ‘Reeve’s Tale’, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a figure not incommensurate with the medieval genre of fabliau, is found onstage ‘Fast asleep / [...] and snorting like a horse’. The coda argues for a greater recognition of similarities between the likes of the works of the Gawain-poet and Shakespeare’s plays, not to claim that Shakespeare must have read a text such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – though he is rather more likely to have come across Chaucer’s dream visions, and was certainly familiar with both Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ and other medieval romances – but rather to foreground continuities within a shared habit of signifying through sleep.