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



This is the story of a young woman who was violently persecuted because of her dreams. The fact that she dreamed frequently and vividly from an early age does not make her especially unusual since every society, from ancient times to the present day, has its share of such gifted people. What makes her story remarkable and historically significant is that she focused her dreaming abilities on gaining insights into the most pressing dangers facing her country. She was born a big dreamer and then, with the help and guidance of various supporters, she amplified her oneiric powers to new levels of visionary intensity.1

For that, she was condemned as a traitor and a heretic.

Her name was Lucrecia de León. Born in 1568 in Madrid, Spain, she was the oldest of five children raised in a family of modest economic means. Her father worked as a banking administrator in the royal court of Philip II, the “Most Catholic King.” Philip controlled the largest empire in history up to that time, covering twice as much territory as ancient Rome did at its peak. Lucrecia grew up in the capital city of this burgeoning global imperium during a time known as the Siglo del Oro, or the “Golden Age,” of Spanish history.2 As her parents and neighbors later testified, Lucrecia was an active dreamer from early childhood. In the fall of 1587, when she was not quite 19, she mentioned one of her odd dreams to a family friend visiting her house. This friend later described the dream to a nobleman, Don Alonso de Mendoza, who was known to be deeply interested in mystical theology and apocalyptic omens. Curious to hear more, Don Alonso arranged to record Lucrecia’s dreams on a daily basis. For the next three years he collected her dreams, analyzed them in relation to passages in the Bible, and showed them to other people concerned about the future of Spain. Public interest in Lucrecia’s dreams grew, and so did the disapproval of Church authorities whose job it was to guard against political dissent and unorthodox spirituality. In 1590, the king ordered the Inquisition to arrest Lucrecia. Now 21 years old and several months pregnant, she was brought to the Inquisition’s secret prison in the nearby city of Toledo and tried for heresy and treason. The carefully recorded collection of her dreams became a primary source of evidence against her.

Despite her humble origins, and in defiance of the most powerful ruler on earth, Lucrecia insisted to the end that her dreams did not violate her Catholic faith and she had done nothing wrong in sharing them with others.

During her trial, questions about Lucrecia’s dreams became the focal point of the investigation: Was she making the dreams up? Were other people making them up for her? Was she possessed by the Devil? Was she deluded by the empty nonsense of her private fancies? Or could she really be a prophet, a genuine religious visionary?

Vexing questions about the spiritual ambiguities of dreaming echo throughout the history of religions, not just in 16th century Catholicism. Every religious tradition has struggled with the bewildering multiplicity of dreams, trying to find a reliable means of distinguishing between true revelations and deceitful fantasies.3 An acute epistemological tension seems inherent in oneiric experience. Some dreams appear trivial and pointless, while others are clearly meaningful and relevant to waking life. No outside observer can verify the accuracy of another person’s report of a dream, which leaves the door open to conscious and/or unconscious fabrications. Yet every culture has stories, often embedded in its most sacred texts, of intense and transformative dreams that have given people a profound feeling of connection with the divine. This means that dangers lurk in both directions, either by mistaking a truly revelatory dream as nonsense, or by treating a mundane dream as a heaven-sent message.

The Spanish Inquisition’s trial of Lucrecia de León provides a dramatic case study of this age-old conflict between traditional religious authority and the spiritual dynamism of dreaming. The surviving court documents from her trial enable us to witness, in unusually close detail, this young woman’s efforts to navigate through the life-and-death conflict between her strict Catholic faith and the prophetic potency of her nocturnal imagination. A new study of Lucrecia’s life holds the promise of illuminating one of history’s most impressive yet unheralded expressions of visionary dreaming.

Dream Research and the Cognitive Science of Religion

A great deal of information about Lucrecia’s background already exists, thanks to the work of historians such as Richard Kagan, Roger Osborne, and María Jordán.4 They have shown that her dreams provided an outlet for expressing bold political ideas that would otherwise be forbidden from a young, uneducated woman of her modest social class. Kagan introduces his book by asserting that “the real importance of these dreams lies in their social and political criticism of Philip’s Spain.”5 Jordán has explained the importance of Lucrecia’s case by saying, “dreams were particularly effective vehicles to convey political information and to place it in a tangible narrative form accessible to an audience across a broad social spectrum.”6

This historical-political approach leads to important insights. But it leaves unexplored a central mystery of Lucrecia’s story. Since the Inquisition’s trial more than 400 years ago, no one has closely studied Lucrecia’s dreams as dreams, as authentic expressions of her nocturnal imagination.7 From a purely historical perspective it does not matter whether her dreams were real or not, because the same political themes could be effectively communicated either way. Indeed, the safest scholarly approach might be to assume they were not real dreams, to avoid the risk of being duped by made-up fantasies. I will argue, to the contrary, that it does matter, a great deal, whether or not we take Lucrecia seriously as a dreamer. If we recognize her dreams as the creative products of her mind during sleep, not fabricated fictions from the waking state, it makes an enormous difference in how we understand her dramatic rise and harrowing fall as a religious visionary.

This approach is supported by new scientific research on the functioning of the brain-mind system,8 particularly in relation to dreaming and religious experience. These findings help to highlight the meaningful patterns in the reports of Lucrecia’s dreams, patterns that are consistent in many ways with current knowledge about mental activities in sleep. If we assume from the outset that her reports are mere fictions, then modern research on dreams has no relevance. But if, instead, we begin by tentatively accepting the possibility that Lucrecia was telling the truth about her experiences, then we can benefit by using the latest findings in the science of dreaming to analyze her reports and form a reasoned assessment of their authenticity and significance.

An important resource in this study is the cognitive science of religion (CSR).9 Psychological approaches to religion have a long history reaching back more than a century to the pioneering investigations of William James, Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, and others.10 Recent developments in cognitive science and evolutionary theory have opened up new vistas in our understanding of religion’s many roles in human life. Researchers in CSR have studied the neurophysiology of fire-walking rituals in rural Greece,11 the use of mental imagery in prayer among American Evangelical Christians,12 and the memory systems that facilitate the spread of spirit possession beliefs among Afro-Brazilian healing cults.13 Cognitive approaches have been applied to everything from meditation and trance states to beliefs about the soul, God, and other supernatural beings.14 The researchers pursuing these projects all share the central conviction that scientific psychology has important implications for the study of religion. This was certainly the approach of James, Freud, and Jung, each of whom was deeply versed in the best neuroscience of his day. Thanks to 21st century advances in research technology, we now have a wealth of detailed evidence about how the mind works, which allows us to expand and improve on the pioneering efforts of those earlier psychologists of religion.

New scientific knowledge about human cognition can be enormously helpful in the study of religious phenomena, and not just in present-day contexts. Some researchers have begun to apply CSR methods to individuals, texts, and traditions from earlier times in history.15 The working hypothesis is that scientifically verified facts about the evolutionary development of the human brain enable us to make reasoned inferences about the experiences of people who lived long ago. As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides put it in “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”16 The basic psychological architecture of our species took shape several hundred thousand years ago, and it has remained largely the same ever since. This means that modern knowledge about the workings of the mind can give insights into the lives of people from other historical eras by referring to the innate mental predispositions shared by all members of our species.

Turning the method around, this also means that historical studies can reveal aspects of mental functioning that have relevance for present-day scientific theories about the nature of the human psyche.17 Along these lines, I will argue that the dreams of a person who lived more than four hundred years ago can tell us something important about the cognitive potentials of the dreaming imagination in people’s lives today, despite the vast gulf of time, language, and religious sensibility separating her world from our own.

Of course, a CSR approach to history can easily be abused if one yields to the temptation to project modern beliefs and expectations onto the lives of people from the distant past. Many scholars have criticized Freud, Jung, and their immediate followers on exactly this point. For Freudians the problem came in trying to apply psychoanalytic ideas about sexuality to past cultures where family relations and childrearing practices differed from those of 20th century Europe. For Jungians the difficulties arose in trying to map Jung’s theory of universal archetypes onto the complex and widely varying myths of non-Western traditions. Both Freudian and Jungian practices of interpretation tended to exaggerate the psychological similarities across cultures while ignoring or downplaying the crucial differences. They imposed modern concepts of explanation onto the lives of people from non-modern settings, without taking into account how those people explained their own experiences, using their own ideas and concepts.18

Can a CSR approach do any better? If properly deployed, yes. The models generated by CSR have more scientific evidence to support them than Freudian or Jungian theories originally had, with more precise ways of distinguishing between mental qualities that are culturally contingent and those that seem to be universal features of the way our brains have evolved.19 To be clear, this does not give CSR researchers an interpretive carte blanche. Each case requires a careful study of the unique combination of influences and forces at play. It is easy to do this kind of research badly, and hard to do it well.

One of the early practitioners of the psychological study of history was Erik Erikson, a 20th century psychoanalyst who wrote biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther, and others.20 Erikson described his approach as a kind of “triple bookkeeping” in which he examined the life of his subject from three angles: physiological, psychological, and sociological.21 By taking all of these influences into account—the functioning of the body, the development of the mind, and the social framework of the community—Erikson was able to sort through the multiple strands of biographical information and formulate an insightful picture of the person’s life and impact on the world.22 Following Erikson, I will explore these three dimensions of Lucrecia’s life and try to integrate them into an accurate portrait of her life and experiences as a dreamer.

A fourth dimension of biographical bookkeeping will also be considered in Lucrecia’s case—the religious dimension, in recognition of the powerful role the Roman Catholic Church and its theological teachings played in the development of her dreaming imagination. In late 16th century Madrid, Roman Catholicism was the supreme and unquestioned faith of all loyal subjects.23 Lucrecia’s world was steeped in religious imagery, language, and behavior to a degree scarcely conceivable for people in modern Western societies. The largest buildings in her neighborhood were churches and monasteries. The biggest gatherings she attended were religious processions and services. The most beautiful art she saw was religious art. The rhythms of her daily life and the daily lives of everyone in her local community revolved around religious rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations. A careful reckoning of these influences should be included in any attempt to understand her dreams and how they impacted the people around her.

Lucrecia’s story is more than an obscure curiosity of Spanish history. Her powers of dreaming were unusual, but not unique. Other people in various places and times, including people today, have experienced similar phenomena. Perhaps everyone has the potential for such dreams, given the right circumstances. Lucrecia’s dreams highlight latent abilities within the human psyche that are real, powerful, and potentially valuable, although they may appear threatening to traditional religious and political authorities. I will speak of her in the pages to come as a prophetic dreamer, in a way that does not rely on supernatural causes or magical explanations. Prophetic dreaming, as the term will be developed here, is a natural process in which the cognitive capacities of the sleeping mind work to simulate highly realistic visions of future possibility. Recent findings in scientific psychology can shed new light on Lucrecia’s cultivation of an extraordinarily powerful capacity for future-oriented dreaming—so powerful that it shook the throne of the mightiest king in the world.


1. The English word dream comes from the Proto-Germanic word draugmaz, which meant dream, deception, delusion, hallucination, festivity, and ghost. The Greek word oneiros comes from oner in Proto-Indo-European (the oldest known human language), meaning both dreams and the figures who appear in them. The Spanish word sueño derives, like somnium in Latin and songe in French, from another Proto-Indo-European word, swepno, meaning sleep.

2. The Siglo del Oro is generally considered to extend from the end of the 15th century to the latter part of the 17th century.

3. Many cultures distinguish between dreams in sleep and visions from the waking state, while other cultures do not make such a distinction and speak of dreams and visions interchangeably (e.g., see Levin, Dreaming the English Renaissance, 3; Gerona, Night Journeys, 6; Plane and Tuttle, Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions, 5). The focus of my research is on dreams in sleep, and in Lucrecia’s case the evidence indicates that she was reporting dreams in sleep, not visions from the waking state.

4. Kagan, Lucrecia’s Dreams; Osborne, The Dreamer of the Calle de San Salvador; Jordán Arroyo, Soñar la historia.

5. Kagan, Lucrecia’s Dreams, 2.

6. Jordán, “Competition and Confirmation in the Iberian Prophetic Community,” 72.

7. The partial exceptions are Osborne, who delved into some of the psychological and theological symbolism of the dreams, in The Dreamer of the Calle de San Salvador, and Moss, who wrote a brief but vivid chapter about the sexual dynamics of Lucrecia’s case in his book The Secret History of Dreaming.

8. I regard the brain and the mind as two elements of an integrated system. They are mutually interdependent, with neither being entirely reducible to the other. At various points ahead I will emphasize the physiological activities of the brain, the psychological processes of the mind, and the integrated functioning of the brain-mind system. See Thompson, The Brain; Kandel et al., Principles of Neural Science; and Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind.

9. Cognitive science refers to an alliance of six disciplines—psychology, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, neurology, and anthropology—that began in the 1970s for the purpose of developing new interdisciplinary models of how the human mind works. The cognitive science of religion (CSR) emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s as an effort to apply aspects of cognitive scientific research to the study of various topics in religion.

10. See Wulff, Psychology of Religion, and Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion.

11. Xygalatas, The Burning Saints.

12. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back.

13. Cohen, The Mind Possessed.

14. Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered; Graves, Mind, Brain, and the Elusive Soul; Pyysiäinen, How Religion Works; Hogue, Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past; Bingaman, The Power of Neuroplasticity for Pastoral and Spiritual Care; Slingerland and Collard, Creating Consilience; Carrette, “Religion Out of Mind.”

15. See Czachesz and Biró, Changing Minds; Chilcott, “Directly Perceiving Ka”; Payne, “Buddhism and Cognitive Science”; Hays, “Possible Selves, Body Schemas, and Sadhana.”

16. Tooby and Cosmides, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.”

17. The reversibility of this method gives historians an active and constructive voice in cognitive science discussions. I emphasize this point in anticipation of concerns about using psychology to study history in a myopic, one-directional fashion.

18. In Night Journeys: The Power of Dreams in Transatlantic Quaker Culture, Carla Gerona describes her methodological goal as the development of “a historically specific interpretation that would not have seemed alien to the people I studied” (5). It should be noted that a kindred principle animates the ethics statement of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD): “IASD celebrates the many benefits of dreamwork, yet recognizes that there are potential risks. IASD supports an approach to dreamwork and dream sharing that respects the dreamer’s dignity and integrity, and which recognizes the dreamer as the decision-maker regarding the significance of the dream. Systems of dreamwork that assign authority or knowledge of the dream’s meanings to someone other than the dreamer can be misleading, incorrect, and harmful. Ethical dreamwork helps the dreamer work with his/her own dream images, feelings, and associations, and guides the dreamer to more fully experience, appreciate, and understand the dream.”

19. The approach taken here does not rule out a Freudian or Jungian interpretation of Lucrecia’s life and dreams using more sophisticated versions of Freud’s and Jung’s psychological theories. In fact, this book will, I hope, provide a solid foundation for future efforts along those lines. In later chapters I do mention some Freudian and Jungian concepts in relation to Lucrecia’s dreams, but I do not attempt a detailed analysis using these concepts, for two reasons. First, many scholars in other academic fields, particularly history, reject Freudian and Jungian approaches. These scholars are quite suspicious of attempts to apply modern psychological ideas to people from other places and times. As a result, attempting a Freudian or Jungian analysis in this book would have required a detailed account of Freud’s and Jung’s theories, along with extensive responses to many critics. That was more of a task than could be managed in this text. Second, even if these psychological theories were accepted as legitimate, it is unclear whether there is enough relevant material in the trial records to apply them in a valid way to Lucrecia’s life. My focus in this book is on the intersection of Lucrecia’s personal dreaming and the collective concerns of her time (which, it should be emphasized, was her focus, too), and for that purpose the existing trial records are a sufficient source of data. But if one wanted to study her dreams as a window into the dynamics of her psychological development (as conceived by modern theorists), then the currently available evidence is much patchier and open to competing interpretations. A deeper dive into the archival materials in Madrid would be necessary, and even that might not yield the kind of personal information about her life required for a truly satisfying interpretation from either a Freudian or Jungian perspective.

20. Erikson, Childhood and Society; Young Man Luther; Gandhi’s Truth.

21. Erikson, Childhood and Society, 45.

22. Ibid., 46: “[B]eing unable to arrive at any simple sequence and causal chain with a clear location and a circumscribed beginning, only triple bookkeeping (or, if you wish, a systematic going around in circles) can gradually clarify the relevances and the relativities of all the known data.”

23. Payne, Spanish Catholicism.