How can historians take account of dreams, or should they take account of them at all?
If dreams might say something about the individual having the dream himself, the historian must pay attention to them. They can become a potential source which must be approached, like any other, with caution.
The historian must remember that he does not have access to the dream itself, but only to its written relationship, modified by preconscious or conscious thought during the recollection and its transcription. This “secondary elaboration” probably reveals the character and the problems of the dreamer as much as the dream itself.
The historian must also remember, that unlike the psychoanalyst, he does not have associations of the dreamer concerning the circumstances of the dream, associations which are of great value to avoid a mechanical deciphering and to discover what the symbols of the dream mean for the dreamer himself.
The best he can do is work on a series of dreams, and interpret one from the others, so as to get a general theme corresponding to the specific person having the dream.
Such dream series don’t seem to be very common. However Gerolamo Cardano recorded a set of his own dreams and Emmanuel Swedenborg transcribed more than 150 for the year 1744 alone. In favorable cases like these, dreams can provide data that the biographer cannot obtain by other means.
If dreams have a social layer of meaning as well as a personal layer and a universal layer, this opens up an even more exciting possibility, that of a social history of dreams. It should be interesting on two different levels.
Studying changes in the manifest content of dreams in a given society and time should reveal changes in myths and images that were psychologically effective or relevant at the time. Secondly, dreams, like jokes, indirectly use what is inhibited and suppressed.
What is repressed varies from time to time. Repressed hopes, anxieties and conflicts are likely to be expressed in the latent content of dreams. The latent content of dreams should therefore have a history, and this history would be that of repression.
Rare is the historian who is ready to take dreams really seriously. A biographer of Laud, WH Hutton, commenting on the baroque spirit which led Laud to report the curious visions which came to him in his sleep, added that one cannot read them seriously.
Likewise in the 1930s, С V Wedgwood, even more expeditious, wrote that Laud wrote down the stupidest dreams in his journal as if they had some deep meaning.
The pioneer historian in this field is E. R. Dodds who wrote on the dreams of the ancient Greeks. He was more interested in the Greek interpretation of dreams than in dreams themselves, but he nevertheless dealt with dreams and visions corresponding to cultural stereotypes.
He also covered the practice of incubation, consisting of sleeping in a sacred place in order to obtain dream from the oracles, a practice which is not very different from the fasting of the dream of the Ojibwa. Alain Besançon suggested that we could and should analyze the dreams of a culture like those of an individual.
He made some interesting analyzes of the dreams of Russian literature, Grinev’s dream in the Daughter of the Pushkin Captain, that of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, although he did not continue up to the analysis of contemporary Russian dreams.
Alan Macfarlane includes in a recent study of a seventeenth-century pastor, Ralph Josselin, an analysis of dreams. The start has been given, but much remains to be done.
Recent advances in modern neuroscience have helped us better understand the mechanism of dreams at the brain level. Now is the time for the historian to include the dreams in their understanding of societies as they evolve over time.