This medieval manuscript, from c. 1400, is a copy of a dreambook known as the Somnia Danielis or ‘The Dreams of Daniel’. Daniel is a prophetic figure from the Bible. In the medieval period it was commonly believed that some dreams were prophetic and – despite attempts by the Church to ban divination – the decoding of such dreams by the use of dreambooks was popular. There were four main types of dreambook: chancebooks that revealed the meanings of dreams by means of letters randomly selected by the dreamer from a book (often a Bible or psalter); physiological dreambooks that interpreted dreams for what they revealed of physical ailments; dreamlunars that interpreted dreams according to the phases of the moon; and dreambooks proper (such as this one) that listed common dream imagery or topics with their meanings. This last type was the most popular, especially the Somnia Danielis, which exists today in numerous manuscripts across Europe dating from the 9th to the 15th centuries. It is a direct descendant of the dreambooks of Greek antiquity. There are some variations between dreambooks, but the majority of interpretations remain surprisingly consistent. The circulation of dreambooks increased with the advent of print.
The text of this manuscript begins, ‘Here begynnen the interpretacions of Daniel the Prophete to hym shewid in babilone be the holy gost of mennys dremys in slepyng’ (here begins the interpretations of men’s dreams by Daniel the Prophet, as revealed to him in Babylon by the Holy Ghost). Then follows an alphabetical list of dream symbols and their meanings, the headword written in red in the outer margin of the page, the explanation written in black. The main explanatory text is in Late Middle English, with the rubricated words (i.e. the words in red) in Latin. At the end is written in a scroll, ‘Explicit liber sompniorum’ (here ends the book of dreams).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The idea that dreams are predictive offers other possibilities for interpreting the dreams and dream-like happenings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Renaissance dream theory grew out of the medieval tradition, so it is likely that the predictive meanings of certain dream symbols would have been well-known to playgoers.
Hermia’s dream of being attacked by a snake in Act 2, Scene 2, could be interpreted as a prediction of the conflict of Act 4. The explanation of ‘Serpentem’ (snake) on f. 31v reads: ‘To see an addre assayle thee bytokinth that thin ennemies shuln over come the’ (to see a snake attack you means that your enemies will defeat you).