Lucrecia the Dreamer
Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition
Kelly Bulkeley


Chapter 7

What She Was Not


Introduction to the Analysis

It would seem the Inquisitors had an open-and-shut case against Lucrecia. Before the trial even began, they knew her dreams included heretical images that were politically seditious and theologically offensive. Thanks to Don Alonso’s meticulous records, the Inquisitors held a document filled with dream reports that slandered the king and arrogantly cast Lucrecia as a divinely chosen oracle and savior of Spain. For years she had been openly sharing her rebellious visions with people who were bitter opponents of the king and his government. These people had formed a secret cult devoted to her and had built a fortified bunker to prepare themselves for armed conflict. She had violated direct orders from the Church to stay silent and remain in her home, and now she had begun stirring up dissent against the king in the highest levels of Madrid society.

These facts were beyond dispute, and they provided more than enough evidence to convict Lucrecia and her followers and punish them severely. Yet that did not happen. Her case dragged on for several years before the moment finally arrived for an official verdict. What accounts for such a lengthy delay? Don Alonso’s legal strategies and social connections played a part, and so did the king’s ambivalence toward her case. The officials of the Toledo tribunal slowed the proceedings even further, thanks to their lax enforcement and illicit intermingling with the prisoners. Yet the Inquisition faced a more fundamental problem with Lucrecia, a problem of definition. What kind of heretic was she? If the Inquisitors could assign her to a familiar category within the legal framework of the Holy Office and its trial system, it would help them dispose of her case more quickly. This was not a formal requirement, but the Inquisitors clearly felt uncomfortable moving ahead with her prosecution until they could state in more precise terms the nature of her criminal misbehavior.

It was a much easier task to determine what she was not in relation to these typical categories. To begin with, Lucrecia was neither a converso nor a morisco. Her father, Alonso, was an Old Christian of pure blood, unsullied by familial connections with Jews or Muslims, and her mother, Ana, was most likely an Old Christian, too. The Inquisitors had no grounds for using non-Christian categories in accusing Lucrecia of heresy. Nor could she be charged with Protestant sympathies. She had been raised a Catholic and had always remained a faithful member of the Church. She was not an alumbrado, a member of a mystical group active in some parts of Spain. The alumbrados promoted a variety of unorthodox spiritual practices and beliefs, whereas Lucrecia never told other people what they should do or think. Other than sharing her dreams, she followed fairly conventional practices in her religious behavior and worship. She was not a bruja, a witch who cast evil spells and curses on her enemies. True, her fantastic dream voyages were disturbingly similar to the legends of night flights among covens of witches. But she never engaged in the kinds of dark magical practices and malevolent shape-shifting that supposedly defined the life of a bruja.

Some of the Inquisition’s categories had more plausible relevance to her case. She might be considered a sinful fornicator because of her out-of-wedlock sexual relations with Diego de Vitores. But she and Vitores did pledge marital vows to each other, and they remained committed to each other during their imprisonment. If they conceived a child a month or two before exchanging their vows, that was hardly the kind of misbehavior that merited a full trial by the Inquisition. She did not always obey her father, and she probably took some prideful pleasure in the attention she received for her dreams, but these peccadillos did not reflect a person who was dangerously immoral or guilty of major crimes.

The Inquisition could have argued that she was a mentally unstable lunatic, in light of the bizarreness of her dreams and the intellectual frailty of her gender. Because she was a woman, her mental faculties were automatically assumed to be inferior to a man’s, highly prone to malfunctioning, and easily swayed by irrational impulses. A woman who became obsessed with dreams could be suffering a mental breakdown and losing the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. But the Inquisitors had nothing more than these points of general misogyny to use in arguing against Lucrecia’s sanity. Apart from her copious dreaming, she behaved in a normal, reasonable, and socially appropriate fashion, with none of the characteristics that might be used to diagnose her as mentally ill.1 If anything, the Inquisitors suspected Lucrecia of being more clever and intelligent than she wanted them to know. Her dreams were unquestionably strange and fantastic, but they had so much coherence, complexity, and relevance to current waking reality that they could not be dismissed as random nonsense from a deranged mind.

For centuries the Inquisition had known of the potential for demonic temptation and seduction in dreams, and several of the religious officials who examined Lucrecia’s case suspected she was either a willing or an unwilling participant in a malevolent trick by the Devil. If this category of explanation were applied to Lucrecia, it would give the Inquisitors justification for applying extremely harsh measures to compel her confession and exorcise her of the satanic possession. Lucrecia, however, denied this charge at every opportunity. Supporting her was the fact that none of her followers accused her of Devil worship, even when they claimed, under pressure, that they never believed in her foolishness. Lucrecia’s life was so firmly anchored in traditional Catholic faith and practice that it was inconceivable to those who knew her that she had made a pact with the Devil. The Inquisitors had no evidence that she was consorting with demons, only their misgivings about the strange content of her dreams. Evidently this was not enough to trigger the kind of aggressive investigation that was usually deployed in cases of suspected demonic possession. Whatever was going on in her case, it did not have any of the typical markings of the Devil’s influence.

The Florentine ambassador, in his contemporaneous report on the arrest of Lucrecia and her followers, mentioned that some people in Madrid regarded her as a beata. This was a broad category for women with various kinds of spiritual gifts and religious interests. A beata was like a nun without a convent, an extremely devout woman practicing her faith outside a formal religious order.2 As a general term it could be applied to Lucrecia, but doing so gave the Inquisitors no practical guidance about how to move ahead with her case. Some beatas were good and pious Catholics whose intense faith inspired them to saint-like acts of charity, compassion, and healing. Other beatas let their ecstatic devotions to God lead them into heretical excesses; they lost themselves in a wild array of volatile emotions and uncontrolled behaviors.3 This kind of public outburst never happened with Lucrecia. She claimed no powers beyond her dreams, and she never presented herself as a saint, mystic, or spiritual role model for other people to emulate. If she was a beata, she seemed much more like a good one than a bad one. Since the king himself had given the order to arrest her, the Inquisition could not apply a category that would actually bolster her claims of innocence.

The easiest explanatory label for Lucrecia, and the one which the Inquisitors most forcefully tried to impose upon her, was that of a fraud. If she simply admitted to fabricating all the dreams, it would immediately end the case in a neat and administratively satisfying fashion. She would be exposed as a liar who was deliberately whipping up opposition to the king. Her followers could then be treated as gullible fools who succumbed to her trickery. Throughout the lengthy trial, the Inquisitors tried again and again to pressure Lucrecia to confess that she had invented the dreams. The reason they did so is that without her direct admission on this point, the available evidence actually supported her defense that she was telling the truth. The Inquisitors knew about her predictive dreams regarding the Armada and the Marquis of Santa Cruz, which meant they could not plausibly argue that her anticipations had failed to come true. Compared to the other self-proclaimed seers, diviners, and visionaries the Holy Office had prosecuted over the years, Lucrecia’s anticipatory visions were more specific, and more accurate, than anything they had dealt with before. Without a confession, there was no easy way to apply the “fraud” category to her case.

For more than a century the Inquisition had prosecuted and punished thousands upon thousands of heretics under these headings—conversos, moriscos, Protestants, alumbrados, brujas, beatas, sinners, lunatics, Devil worshippers, and frauds. None of them applied to Lucrecia. She did not fit the definition of any of these traditional types of heretical misbehavior. The difficulty in assigning her a legal and theological identity ultimately led back to the question of her dreams. The Inquisition could not prove the dreams were false, but neither did it want to accept their possible authenticity.4 Without some resolution of this issue, a clear settlement of her case remained out of reach.

The argument I will develop in the remaining chapters of this book is that current research on sleep and dreaming can provide retrospective help in answering this question and determining the nature and significance of Lucrecia’s dreams. The Inquisition’s judicial system made frequent use of outside experts who were asked to comment on difficult or unusual aspects of a case. If I could step into a time machine and go back approximately four hundred and twenty years to offer the Toledo tribunal an expert analysis of her dreams, this is how I would proceed.

In Chapter 8, the main patterns of her dream reports are discussed in relation to their continuities and discontinuities with her waking life. Chapter 9 lays out the neuroscience of sleep and dreaming, specifically the cognitive functions associated with visual imagery and creative forethought. Chapter 10 considers Lucrecia’s psychological development as a dreamer in the context of her interpersonal relations, starting with her family and radiating outward to the other important people in her life. Chapter 11 highlights the political dimensions of her dreams and explains them in reference to research showing that dreams can express collective concerns, especially during times of social crisis. Chapter 12 looks at Lucrecia’s dreams in relation to historical studies of visionary religious experience. After all this evidence has been presented, Chapter 13 will offer my conclusion about what Lucrecia most likely was—a prophetic dreamer.

Quality of the Data

Before any of these discussions can begin, a preliminary issue has to be addressed: How much trust can we put in the reports of Lucrecia’s dreams? There appear to be many reasons to doubt the quality and reliability of the evidence that has survived from her trial. Let’s consider three major points against the accuracy and usefulness of her dream reports. First, dream experiences are different from dream reports. Because they can never capture all the felt qualities of the dream as dreamt, the reports that people provide of their dreams are inherently partial, limited, and untrustworthy. Second, Lucrecia had every opportunity to fabricate or embellish her “dreams” however she wished, and she clearly enjoyed sharing them with other people. By doing so she gained attention, money, and influence—strong motivations for overdramatizing her dream life. Third, Don Alonso and her other followers were also motivated to exaggerate her dreams by highlighting the radical political messages that were emerging from, or perhaps implanted in, her dreams.

These are legitimate questions to raise, and none of them can be definitively answered. Yes, dream reports have limits. Yes, Lucrecia had reasons to exaggerate or fabricate her dreams, and so did her followers. But naming these issues is the beginning, not the end, of the methodological discussion. If these are indeed possibilities, how likely are they to be real factors in her particular case? Are there other possibilities to consider? Which ones have greater or lesser likelihood of being true? Taking all the different sources of evidence into account, with all their limits and uncertainties, what is the most probable explanation of the facts at hand? These are the questions to keep in mind when considering the quality of the data in Lucrecia’s case.

Despite their many limits, dream reports do in fact convey a number of consistent patterns in their content with clear and direct relevance to waking life concerns. These patterns of dream content are rooted in well-documented activities in the brain during sleep, suggesting that people’s reports of their dreams are at least partially accurate renderings of their minds’ nocturnal experiences. The gap between dream-as-dreamt and dream-as-reported is smaller than often assumed.5 As Chapter 8 will describe in more detail, dreams tend to have especially clear connections to people’s social relations, daily activities, physical health, emotional temperament, and cultural beliefs about things like religion and politics. The empirical evidence from contemporary dream science indicates that dream reports, though limited, can be valid sources of meaningful information about the dreamer.

It might sound strange to say so, but Don Alonso set up an impressively sophisticated design for his process of gathering Lucrecia’s dreams. Many leading dream researchers of the modern era have encouraged the use of systematic methods to gather dreams over a lengthy period of time.6 This is exactly what Don Alonso did, especially in the early phase from November 1587 to March 1588, when he and Fray Lucas followed a consistent system for recording and transcribing Lucrecia’s dreams. Some modern scientists prefer to study dreams gathered under laboratory conditions, because that allows the most controlled and direct access to the dream immediately after the person is awakened. Other researchers favor dreams gathered in “natural” or home conditions because that enables the observation of dream patterns without overly disturbing the person and disrupting his or her dreams (producing what researchers call “the lab effect”). Seen in this context, we can appreciate how Don Alonso devised an approach that effectively combined positive elements from both methods. Lucrecia slept at home in her bed as usual, so the conditions of her dreaming were natural and undisturbed, but when she woke up there was a scribe available to record her experiences before she forgot them. Indeed, Don Alonso and his helpers probably had closer access to Lucrecia and her dreams than most modern researchers ever have with the participants in their studies.

Dream researchers today generally try to gather as many reports as possible in order to improve the chances of identifying large-scale patterns that are real and solid.7 Again, Don Alonso did a good job of putting together a sizable record of Lucrecia’s dream experiences, large enough for a statistical analysis of the frequencies of various elements of dream content (presented in Chapter 8). This kind of analysis would not be possible had the 16th century nobleman not recognized the potential value of empirical methods of investigation.

As mentioned at the outset, all dream reports are limited in how much of the original dreaming experience they can convey into a waking format. However, by using systematic methods of dream collection, researchers today are able to identify meaningful patterns that are so strong and consistent they can be observed despite the limits and noisiness of the data. In Lucrecia’s case the method Don Alonso used more than four hundred years ago to gather her dreams could hardly be improved upon by modern techniques. The material generated by his efforts provides a treasure trove of information about a particular individual’s dream life. Setting aside his political and theological interests for a moment, we should honor Don Alonso’s observational dedication as he initiated one of history’s earliest studies of a long-term dream series.

But of course Don Alonso did have political and theological interests that motivated his study of Lucrecia’s dreams, and Lucrecia herself had a variety of personal interests that motivated her willingness to participate in his project. These external incentives cast doubt on the content of the dreams Lucrecia reported and Don Alonso transcribed. Indeed, this was precisely what the Inquisition wanted to conclude, and what they tried for several years to force Lucrecia to admit: that she had fabricated the dreams so she could revel in popular attention and enjoy her deceitful influence over other people.

Modern psychologists would hardly deny that humans have natural tendencies to seek attention and positive regard from others. In the “self psychology” tradition of Heinz Kohut these are referred to as narcissistic desires, and in moderation they contribute to mental health and emotional balance.8 Lucrecia did seem to take pride and pleasure in sharing her dreams. But the question is, did it give her so much pride and pleasure that she made up the dreams and lied about them for years on end? This is the most skeptical charge against her, and the one that seems most difficult to disprove: the fame and adulation Lucrecia received for her dreams gave her an incentive to secretly manufacture reports that pleased her followers and promoted her celebrity status.

This is indeed one possible explanation. But how likely is it to be true? We should be clear that such a claim no longer relies on the assumption that Lucrecia was endowed with a normal desire for attention, but rather that she was consumed by an extreme, self-destructive, and virtually suicidal intensity of this desire. Consider the years of persecution, imprisonment, and torture she suffered—did she go through all that just so people would notice and praise her? Surely she could have found an easier and less dangerous way to gain attention than by making up dreams that openly insulted the king and defied the Church. If Lucrecia persisted in lying about her dreams for all that time simply because she enjoyed the attention, then she must have been afflicted with a pathological degree of social neediness. Yet nothing else in her character or behavior suggested she was mentally ill or emotionally unbalanced, and in many instances she displayed a keen instinct for survival and a strong will to live. It remains a possibility that an extreme desire for fame drove her to fabricate the dreams, but it fits poorly with the other known facts of the case.

The alms and gifts of financial assistance Don Alonso gave to her family were explicitly intended to encourage Lucrecia’s participation in the dream-recording project. The money went to her parents, not to her, as a gesture of goodwill to overcome their objections to the project. The Leóns had their share of financial troubles, so every little bit must have helped. The total amount of money Don Alonso gave them, however, was not enough to drastically change their circumstances, and certainly not enough for Lucrecia to risk life and limb with the Holy Office. Unless we assume she was possessed by a blinding desire for financial gain, Lucrecia would be unlikely to endanger herself with the Inquisition for the sake of minor charity from Don Alonso to her parents.

When surveying Lucrecia’s motivations, we should also consider the incentives she had for giving accurate and truthful accounts of her dreams. The reports she provided to Don Alonso were shared in the context of the holy sacrament of confession. For a pious Catholic, confession creates a setting for maximal honesty and truthfulness; it is a place for sharing with a priest and God the unvarnished reality of one’s experiences. Lucrecia was, by all accounts, a pious Catholic, which means she very likely felt pressure not to fabricate or make anything up, but to describe her dreams as accurately and completely as possible. For someone who had been taught from birth to believe in an omniscient and judgmental God, there could be no hiding from any falsehoods she might add to the dreams. She could fool other people, but God would know the truth.

Perhaps the strongest motivation Lucrecia had for honesty came from a realistic fear of the Inquisition itself. From the very start of the process she worried about Inquisitors using the dream reports to accuse her of heresy. Don Alonso and Fray Lucas told her she would be safe if she simply described her dreams to them, and let them do the rest. They promised she had nothing to worry about as long as she continued being honest with them. Lucrecia may have been unwise to accept their reassurances, but she does seem to have followed their advice to continue giving them accurate and truthful reports of her dreams, nothing more or less.

If Lucrecia was a pathological attention-seeker and inveterate liar, she might have made up the dreams. If she was a faithful Catholic who believed in God, trusted her priests, and feared the wrath of the Inquisition, she might have been giving honest reports of her dreams. Both are possible; the latter is more likely.

As for Don Alonso, his motivations may seem questionable because of the political relevance of Lucrecia’s dreams. Don Alonso was a longtime critic of the king, and the dream reports gave him fresh ammunition to use in his complaints about the injustices of Philip’s rule. The nobleman had obvious reasons to alter the dreams as he edited them, adding or deleting material to make the reports more effective as political propaganda. However, like Lucrecia, Don Alonso also had strong incentives not to alter the dreams but to record them as accurately and faithfully as possible. Not only was he also a strong Catholic who believed in God and the sacraments, but he specifically believed that Lucrecia’s dreams might have a divine source of causation. This would make the unfiltered content of her dreams much more interesting and valuable than anything he could fabricate on his own. Of all Lucrecia’s followers, Don Alonso put the most trust in the uncanny power of her dreams. He knew what she had accurately foreseen, and he was deeply curious to learn more about her oneiric capacities. He used Lucrecia for political purposes, of course, but those purposes were best served by enhancing people’s awareness of her actual dreams, not replacing them with his own anti-Philip diatribes.

In contrast to Lucrecia, Don Alonso does seem to have suffered from some kind of mental illness, which may have been responsible for his reckless behavior. But his mental problems do not seem to have affected his ability to oversee the accurate transcription of her dreams. Indeed, Don Alonso went to great lengths to establish the most consistent and effective method for recording her dreams as soon as she woke up each morning. He, like Lucrecia, depended on the honesty of her dreams as his best defense against any charges from the Inquisition. It remains possible that Don Alonso secretly edited the reports to enhance their political content. But considering all his incentives and interests in Lucrecia’s case, it seems more likely that Don Alonso made a scrupulous effort to record her dreams exactly as she described them.

A review of these questions about the quality of the data does not lead to final, absolute answers. It does, however, suggest that we should refrain from excessive skepticism in studying Lucrecia’s dreams. The most serious doubts about her dream reports turn out, on closer inspection, to require additional assumptions that do not fit well with other known facts about the case. A more probable explanation, one that fits better with the beliefs, behaviors, and motivations of the people involved, is that Lucrecia and Don Alonso worked together to create a record of her dreams that was as accurate and complete as they could manage. They put tremendous effort into the process, at great personal risk, because they believed in the importance of faithfully conveying the dreams from her nocturnal imagination into a publicly accessible form.


1. For more on the Inquisition’s principles for determining a person’s sanity or lack thereof, see Shuger, Don Quixote in the Archives.

2. For more about the beatas of early modern Spain, see Perry, Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville, 97–117.

3. Ibid., 101.

4. In terms of the dream typology of Macrobius, which the Inquisitors may not have explicitly referenced but which formed the conceptual background to their analysis, Lucrecia’s dreams were certainly more significant than an insomnium or a visium. But to acknowledge her dreams as belonging to any one of the higher three categories—somnium, visio, or oraculum—would grant Lucrecia’s experiences more spiritual authenticity than the Inquisitors were apparently willing to concede.

5. See Windt’s detailed arguments for the validity of subjective dream reports as a source of scientific research, in Dreaming, ch. 2–4. Domhoff addresses many of the same issues in The Scientific Study of Dreams.

6. Hall and Nordby, The Individual and His Dreams; Domhoff, Finding Meaning in Dreams, and The Scientific Study of Dreams; Foulkes, Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness.

7. See, for example, Domhoff’s study of more than 3,000 dream reports from “Barb Sanders,” reported in The Scientific Study of Dreams.

8. See Kohut, In Search of the Self, for his theory of “healthy narcissism.” See also Sedikides et al., “Are Normal Narcissists Psychologically Healthy?”; and Mann et al., “Self-Esteem in a Broad Spectrum Approach for Mental Health Promotion.”