‘Life, what is it but a dream’ - The Stories and Histories of Dreaming


Sleep and dreams have always been among the most mysterious, yet essential, aspects of the human condition, so it’s little wonder that a rich legacy of sleep-related myth and folklore has sprung from every culture across the world in every period in time. From the gates of ivory and horn to modern psychoanalysis, they have always occupied a liminal space in our society. An uneasy relationship exists with whether what they reveal might be truer than what we see in our waking lives, or if they entail lies, deceptions, or even madness and superstition. We have given forms and anthropomorphic shapes to the struggle between such ideas, and believed we dispelled them through science. But as these “legends” still shape pop culture today, linking, some of our most famous tales, and continue to shape our understanding of what dreams do – the story is far less black-and-white than we might think. This course will explore how we have imagined dreaming in human culture across the ages, looking at folklore and mythology, philosophy, literature and science, film, video games and even Virtual Reality, and how it is harnessed in dream therapy.

This course is part of the Inspiring Oxford summer school.

Programme details

Seminars meet each weekday morning, with afternoons free for course-related field trips, individual study, or exploring the many places of interest in and around the city.

Dreams of the Past: Mythologies are among our earliest forms of storytelling – and it is no coincidence sleep and dreaming played a central role in nearly every one of them. These ancient tales still shape the way we make sense of our unconscious. This section will explore the dreamscapes of ancient mythologies and folklore from around the world, and how they imagined what sleep was - and what dreams might reveal, and what ways of knowing they might make possible. 

The philosophy of dreams: Shifting from folklore and mythology, we will look at how early philosophers conceptualised sleep. We will discover competing theories, in science, medicine, religion, and literature, and how they shapeshifted through the Middle Ages, into the Enlightenment. We will look at Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas More’s Utopia or Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. How they shaped our understanding of dreams for much longer than we might think, and their direct influence on more modern ideas of dreaming, such as those of Brasenose men Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater), Robert Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy) and Walter Pater.  

The stories of dreams – the “classics”: rediscovering the literary dreams well-known to us – from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the Christmas Carol; we will explore the tensions between superstitions, myth, and the rise of natural philosophy, and eventually “science” that shaped them, and explore themes like mesmerism at their intersections. We will also discover how this period not only changed our understanding of the unconscious forever, but the important role literature played in shaping how we understand them.  

In-between worlds: Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, alongside dream-scientists and clinical neurologists, transitioned dreaming from superstition to scientific practice during a tumultuous century marked by war and trauma. Examining this era, we uncover how historical circumstances reshaped our understanding of the unconscious and dreaming, altering our self-perception and imposing new responsibilities. Delving into modern incarnations of utopian and dystopian dream narratives, from Slaughterhouse-Five to A Clockwork Orange, The Doors of Perception, and William Golding’s less-known novel The Spire, we also explore the influence on surrealist and other artistic expressions. 

The future: In the modern world, dreams and the unconscious remain integral, impacting dream therapy and the treatment of psychological disorders. As technology and multimedia reshape our lives, we examine the evolving imagination and influence of dreams throughout this period. Delving into artistic and fictional realms, including graphic novels and video games attempting to grasp the essence of dreams, we unravel how these creative expressions aid scientists and medical practitioners in envisioning and reimagining dreams' role in modern societies. Despite being little understood, contested, and mythologized, dreams persist as a enduring phenomenon. 

Field Trip
Destination: Walk to Treacle Well, St Margaret’s Church, Binsey

Excursion Rating: Moderate - up to two hours' walk on even ground or up to an hour's walk on rough and/or steep ground or up lots of stairs and steps.


Description Costs
Fee option 1 (single en suite accom and meals per person) £2285.00
Fee option 2 (single standard accom and meals per person) £1955.00
Fee option 3 (twin en suite accom and meals per person) £2135.00
Fee option 4 (no accom; incl lunch and dinner per person) £1600.00


Please note there are no sources of funding (scholarships, bursaries, etc) available for applicants.


All fees are charged on a per week, per person basis.

Please be aware that all payments made via non-UK credit/debit cards and bank accounts are subject to the exchange rate on the day they are processed.

Payment terms

If enrolling online: full payment by credit/debit card at the time of booking.

If submitting an enrolment form: full payment online by credit/debit card or via bank transfer within 30 days of invoice date.

Extended stay fee

Participants staying multiple, consecutive weeks will be charged an additional bed and breakfast fee for the cost of the Saturday night between courses.

Cancellations and refunds

1. Cancellation by you

Participants who wish to cancel must inform the Programme Administrator in writing: by email to inspiringoxford@conted.ox.ac.uk, or by post to Inspiring Oxford, OUDCE, 1 Wellington Square, OXFORD, OX1 2JA, UK.

The following cancellation and refund policy applies in all cases:

  • Cancellation within 14 days of online enrolment / payment of fees – full refund of all fees paid. 

  • Cancellations received up to and including 30 April 2024 – OUDCE will retain an administration fee of £100 per week booked; all other fees paid will be refunded.
  • Cancellations received between 1-31 May 2024 – OUDCE will retain 60% of the fees paid; the remaining 40% of fees paid will be refunded.
  • Cancellations received on and after 1 June 2024 - no refunds will be made under any circumstances.

Where course fees have been paid in currencies other than pounds sterling, refunds will be subject to the exchange rate on the day they are processed.

2. Cancellation by us

Where there is good reason, OUDCE reserves the right to cancel a course by giving you notice in writing at any time before the course is due to start. In these cases, we will endeavour to offer a transfer to another available course if practical and acceptable to you, subject to payment or refund of any difference in course fees. Alternatively, we will refund the course fees that you have already paid. If we cancel a course, our liability is limited to the fees that we have received from you; this means that we will not compensate you for any pre-booked travel costs or any other expenses incurred. The status of this course will be reviewed on 1 May 2024. If it is likely that the course may be cancelled, anyone affected will be notified by email within 7 days; if you have not heard from OUDCE by 8 May 2024, you should assume that your course will be running. You may wish to delay finalising your travel arrangements until after this date.

OUDCE reserves the right to cancel a course at short notice in exceptional circumstances that would prevent the course from being delivered e.g. tutor illness. In these rare instances, and if we are unable to find a replacement tutor, we will notify you as soon as possible and arrange a transfer to another available Inspiring Oxford course. If we cancel a course, our liability is limited to the fees that we have received from you; this means that we will not compensate you for any pre-booked travel costs or any other expenses incurred.

Where course fees have been paid in currencies other than pounds sterling, refunds will be subject to the exchange rate on the day they are processed.

3. Travel insurance

All participants must purchase travel insurance to cover the programme fee, travel costs, and any other expenses incurred. OUDCE cannot be held responsible for any costs you may incur in relation to travel or accommodation bookings as a result of a course cancellation, or if you are unable to attend the course for any other reason. 


Dr Franziska Kohlt


Dr Franziska Kohlt is an interdisciplinary scholar, writer and communicator in history of science, literature, and science communication, currently Leverhulme Research Fellow in History of Science at the University of Leeds. Her doctorate at Brasenose College, Oxford, investigated the emergence of Victorian Fantastic Literature and Psychology as sister phenomena. Fran regularly appears on international radio and television, and has curated award-winning exhibitions (on Insects, and Automata). She is the Editor of the Lewis Carroll Review and inaugural Carrollian Fellow at USC. When she isn’t engaged in academic work, she sings Gilbert& Sullivan operettas, practices historical fencing, and is an avid gardener. 

Teaching methods

Participants will be taught in seminar groups of up to 16 people, teaching methods used during this course may include:

  • Short lectures/Presentations
  • Physical handouts
  • Seminars/group discussions
  • Video recordings
  • Audio recordings
  • Field Trip

Assessment methods

There are no assessments for this course.


Registration closes on 1 May 2024. Courses can fill up fast so early registration is recommended.

Single accommodation may be booked online by clicking on the “Book now” button in the “Course details” box at the top right-hand side of the course page. 

If you would like a twin en suite room, please send us a completed enrolment form that names the other course participant you will be sharing with. Please note these rooms have limited availability.

If you experience any difficulties enrolling online please contact the Programme Administrator at inspiringoxford@conted.ox.ac.uk.

Level and demands

Inspiring Oxford is aimed at non-specialists: no prior knowledge is required, and classes are pitched at an introductory level. The courses are designed for an international audience aged 18 and over.


During your course you will stay in typical Oxford student accommodation at Brasenose College, in the heart of the city in buildings overlooked by the iconic Radcliffe Camera. Please note that bedrooms are modestly-furnished and do not have air-conditioning. 

You can find out more about Brasenose by visiting their website.

The following types of accommodation are available:

  • Single en suite
  • Twin en suite: shared between participants that apply to the programme together
  • Standard single: bathrooms are shared between, on average, four participants
  • a non-residential basis whereby participants can take classes and have lunch and dinner at Brasenose, having arranged their own accommodation elsewhere.

    Non-residential participants are encouraged to attend all aspects of the academic and social programme, and they have equal access to Brasenose as residential participants.

En suite rooms include private bathroom facilities (shower, washbasin and toilet).