The Prophetic Dreamer

The Prophetic Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyOn May 25, 1590, by direct order of King Philip II, the Spanish Inquisition arrested a young, uneducated woman from Madrid named Lucrecia de Leon on charges of heresy and treason.  She was brought to a secret prison in Toledo, interrogated, and tortured to make her confess her guilt.  The evidence against her was overwhelming.  She had been caught conspiring with known rebels, publicly slandering the king, defying direct orders from the church, and stirring up dissent against the imperial government.

Most damning was the collection of Lucrecia’s dreams, carefully recorded by a group of priests interested in apocalyptic omens who came to her house each morning to transcribe what she had seen the previous night.  The dreams were filled with scandalous political and religious imagery, and Lucrecia had been openly sharing them with people at the highest levels of Spanish society.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case.  The Inquisition had dispatched thousands of heretics to their eternal fate based on far less evidence than this.  And yet, Lucrecia’s trial did not end quickly.  It dragged on for five years, one of the longest trials in Inquisition history, and the final verdict against her deviated in several ways from the normal process of punishment.

Why did the Spanish Inquisition, at the height of its brutally oppressive power, struggle for so long to resolve Lucrecia’s case?

Because her dreams had come true.

The hand-written journal compiled by the priests proved it.  The Inquisition judges in Toledo had before them a document showing that Lucrecia’s dreams accurately predicted the fate of the Spanish Armada.  The Armada was Spain’s invincible navy, the most powerful military force in the world, which King Philip planned to use in launching an invasion of England in 1588.  Lucrecia’s dreams in 1587 and early 1588 repeatedly warned of impending disaster for the Armada, and that was indeed the unfortunate result of the attack.

This put the Inquisitors in an excruciating bind.  The evidence of her treasonous and heretical behavior was undeniable, and should have been sufficient to put her to death immediately.  And yet the predictive accuracy of her dreams forced them to pause.  Given the intensity of their Catholic faith, the Inquisitors could not help but wonder if Lucrecia might actually have some kind of prophetic gift.  If this were true, then perhaps it might contrary to God’s will to persecute her.  Indeed, in that case they would be the heretics, not she.

But how could a divine gift like prophecy be granted to a foolish girl from a lower-class family who could barely read and write?  This question seemed to vex the Inquisitors more than anything else. They looked for every possible way to discredit Lucrecia, and they relentlessly pressured her to admit she was a fraud and had made up all the dreams.  For five long years, she refused to do so.

At its core, the trial of Lucrecia de Leon is a story of a young woman defiantly dreaming truth to power.  She could have avoided all of this.  She had many off-ramps along the way, many opportunities to veer off, stay out of trouble, resume her normal life, and escape the Inquisition’s wrath.  She was violently threatened numerous times by church officials, and also by her own father, who ordered her in the clearest possible terms to stop.  “Dreams are only dreams,” he told her, “and if you believe in them I will give the order to have you killed.”

Despite all of this opposition, Lucrecia continued dreaming and sharing her dreams, literally putting her life at risk in the process.

The question of why she did so is the reason I wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer.  What was it that gave her the courage to defy the religious, political, and parental authorities for so long?

Even though she lived more than four hundred years ago, Lucrecia’s story can teach us important lessons about the extraordinary powers and potentials of the dreaming imagination. Using research from religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science, I take a naturalistic approach to the prophetic features of Lucrecia’s dreams.  Her experiences reflect the sleeping mind’s ability to simulate highly realistic visions of future possibility.  Lucrecia evidently possessed an unusually intensified capacity for these kinds of dreams. 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.

 

Note: this post first appeared on the Stanford University Press Author’s Blog, 2/23/18.

 

Lucrecia the Dreamer

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly Bulkeley

 

 

I’ve just finished writing a new book about a young woman in 16th century Spain whose uncannily accurate prophetic dreams led to her arrest and torture by the Inquisition.  The book is titled Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition, to be published by Stanford University Press in early 2018. Lucrecia’s case is by far the most dramatic and compelling historical example of prophetic dreaming I have ever encountered.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Below is an excerpt from the first page of the Introduction.

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.

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

Her name was Lucrecia de Leon.  Born in 1568 in Madrid, Spain, she was the oldest of five children raised in a family of modest economic means… 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 King Phillip 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.

The first part of the book tells the story of Lucrecia’s life and dreaming and her upbringing as an illiterate but very pious Catholic young woman in the capital city of the most powerful empire in the world at that time.  The second part of the book focuses on her dream reports, which the Inquisition tried for five years to compel her to admit were fraudulent fabrications.  I make the case that the findings of modern cognitive science indicate Lucrecia was not lying but was telling the truth–she was honestly describing genuine dreams that accurately anticipated dangers to her country, specifically the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  If I could use a time machine to travel back four centuries to the Inquisition’s court in Toledo, this is the expert testimony I would offer based on my analysis of the evidence of her dream reports.

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly Bulkeley

I only wish the book were coming out sooner!  Actually, for a university press, the manuscript is racing through the production process, and I’m grateful for the care and attention of the editorial staff.  The text will be the first entry in a new series, “Spiritual Phenomena,” aimed primarily at academic audiences but also appealing to general readers interested in the creative interplay of mind, body, spirit, and culture.  I certainly wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer with the goal of making her story accessible to readers from all backgrounds.  The historical evidence of her extraordinary capacities for future-oriented dreaming has implications far beyond the relatively narrow concerns of academics. Her story highlights the existence of latent powers of the human imagination that have tremendous relevance today, during another era of unstable leadership and looming dangers for the reigning global empire.

 

Notes:

The first image is a funnel used by the Inquisition to torture prisoners by means of the “toca,” essentially a form of waterboarding.  I took the picture at the Museum of Torture (yes there is such a place) in Toledo.

The second image will be the basis of the book’s cover.  It’s a painting my wife and I bought in Amsterdam many years ago, and I’ve always felt it echoes something of Lucrecia’s story (no direct image of her remains).

Re the word “oneiric,” a friend who read a draft of the manuscript questioned whether I really need to use this term  in the first paragraph.  Here’s the hopefully clarifying endnote I added to the text at the end of the offending sentence: “The English word dream comes from a 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.”