Atlantic History Dreams and Dreaming
Ann Marie Plane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0105


Dreams had a central place in the Atlantic World that they lost later in the nineteenth century. Scholars from a variety of fields have struggled to recover period-specific understandings and practices of dreaming in the societies of the Atlantic World. While there is as yet something of a lack of coherence in the historiography of this subject, some notable themes have emerged. These include the relationship of dreaming in the Early Modern period to longstanding practices of the Medieval Church; the impact of the Protestant Reformation on theories and practices related to dreaming; the use of dreams and visions in bolstering political opposition or advocating for the interests of subordinated groups and individuals; and the religious or supernatural role of dreams and visions, including, for example, their role in witchcraft prosecutions or spiritual autobiographies, especially the way their usage reveals the fluid boundaries of the early modern self. Because of the inherently interdisciplinary nature of dream research, scholarship represents a range of approaches from history, anthropology, religious studies, and literature. This bibliography emphasizes work with actual reported dream materials, rather than analyses of obvious literary dreams—purported dreams that are actually fiction—though these have drawn considerable attention in literature. The medieval “dream allegory” which was often used to lend authenticity to otherwise fictional narratives (such as The Romance of the Rose) continued in use through the early modern period as a rhetorical device, as evidenced, for example, in such a central work of Protestant polemic as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is framed entirely as if it were a dream.

General Overviews

There have been almost no overviews of the subject of dreams and visions in the Atlantic World as scholarship on the subject as a whole is relatively scant and limited to more issue- or source-specific studies. Several general works, however, do provide an important methodological or contextual frame for the more specific investigations. The earliest attempt at a survey is Curti 1966, who offered discussion of colonial and early national dream reporting as part of his larger summary of the Anglo-American intellectual history of theorizing about dreams. A systematic cultural history that includes dream beliefs as part of popular culture can be found in Thomas 1973, in what is a magisterial study, though dreams make up a tiny portion of Thomas’s overall argument about shifts in folk culture in early modern Britain. Parman 1991 and Price 1986 each point to the ways in which the ancient and medieval traditions, especially the writings of classical dream interpreter, Artemidoris of Daldis, continued to shape interpretation in the early modern and modern periods. Ekirch 2005 and Hall 1990 each link dream beliefs and practices to larger cultural history of the early modern European tradition. Hall 1990 focuses on New England, especially the ways in which dreams are part of a “world of wonders” in which both lay and elite audiences looked for the spiritual meanings they believed were encoded in everyday “marvels,” such as particularly powerful dreams. Ekirch 2005 challenges our assumption that nighttime, sleep, and other everyday patterns are without cultural meaning and instead shows the powerful and specific cultural practices that lay in this realm which, of course, includes specific early modern beliefs about dreams and dreaming.

  • Curti, Merle. “The American Exploration of Dreams and Dreamers.” Journal of the History of Ideas 27.3 (1966): 391–416.

    DOI: 10.2307/2708593

    Classic investigation of specifically “American” approaches to the reporting and investigation of nocturnal dreams from colonial diaries to mid-20th-century sleep studies. Curti argues that [Anglo] American inquiry “reflected with a perhaps characteristically national accent the pluralistic, pragmatic, and empirical modes in the American exploration of human nature.” Available online to subscribers.

  • Ekirch, Roger A. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. New York: Norton, 2005.

    Ekirch offers a historical ethnography of ideas, practices, and experiences of nighttime in western Europe from 1500 to 1750. Both nighttime and its phenomena—including dreams and even sleep itself—were differently experienced in this period. Accessible to a wide variety of audiences and a great starting point for any study.

  • Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonders, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

    Hall explores the mentalité (worldview) of 17th-century New England religious nonconformists, concluding that there was no split between clergy and laity in their search for signs of God’s “providence” in everyday events. Dreams and dreaming are a minor part of the narrative but sometimes could be classed as “wondrous.”

  • Parman, Susan. Dream and Culture: An Anthropological Study of the Western Intellectual Tradition. New York: Praeger, 1991.

    A useful if extremely brief overview of dream beliefs and dream practices in European culture, stretching from the Homeric age to the post-Freudian period. Parman’s approach is useful for undergraduates or the general reader, and she includes a useful bibliography.

  • Price, S. R. F. “The Future of Dreams: From Freud to Artemidorus.” Past and Present 113 (1986): 3–37.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/113.1.3

    An extended discussion of Artemidorus, the 2nd-century CE dream interpreter, highly influential throughout the early modern period. Price compares the aims of his method to those of Freud. Interspersed is a critique of those historians who would import Freudian psychoanalytic theory into the past without adequate contextualization. Available online to subscribers.

  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973.

    First published in the United Kingdom in 1971. Thomas singlehandedly defined the study of popular religion and folk belief in early modern England. While dreams and dreaming form a relatively minor part of the whole, his discussion offers a useful starting point and valuable citations to primary sources.

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