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Chaucer, medieval literature, dreams, narrative stress points


As is well known, dreams are important components of many works of medieval literature. one or more dreams can be the subject of most of a poem, as in the Roman de la Rose, Pearl, Piers Plowman, the Book of the Duchess, and the House of Fame. Or one or more dreams can be a relatively small yet important part of a work; Dante's Vita nuova and Purgatorio are familiar examples, as are Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, Knight's Tale, and Troilus and Criseyde. In many cases the transitions into or out of these dreams are narrative stress points. Narrators, whoo are often the dreamers, exhibit tension or anxiety about the dream–uncertainty about the nature of dreams, the sources of dreams, the truth (if any) of dreams, the possibility of interpretation or application of dreams, the appropriateness of writing down dreams, and so on. Their comments exhibit a special justificatory from of literary self-consciousness that appeared in England in the late fourteenth century. In some cases the difficulties are clearly and explicitly resolved. More commonly the author evades them through a rhetorical tactic: appeals to authorities and analysis by classification are among the most frequent. This essay discusses a few English examples of these dreamers' narrative difficulties, relates the coping strategies of the poets to those in nonliterary medieval sources, and proposes an additional instance of these strategies in the early fourteenth-century biblical commentary of Nicholas of Lyra.