False prophets in XVI century Spain, Lucrecia de Leon. By Yoel Benhabib

Book review: “Lucrecia’s dreams” by Richard Kagan.

By: Yoel Benhabib


In the book, Lucrecia’s Dreams, Richard Kagan examines the accounts surrounding the Inquisitorial trial of Lucrecia de Leon, a young Christian girl from Madrid, and her prophetic career as a recipient of mystical dreams. Since a young age, she started having such dreams that at the beginning were kept only within the family realm and strongly opposed by Lucrecia’s father, Alonso Franco. With time relatives and friends started getting attracted by the apocalyptic content of the dreams such as the destruction of the Spanish Armada, the fall of Phillip II’s kingdom, the conquest of Spain by the Muslims and her liberation by Lucrecia and the prophet Miguel leading to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth with the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Christians. Two very important ecclesiastical people heard about these dreams, Alonso de Mendoza and Fray Lucas de Allende, and started to transcribe them and circulate its content among the royal court and the city of Madrid.

The dreams included harsh criticism to the monarchy, specially the king, Philip II, but also against churchmen, royal officials, and the political and social situation at the time in Spain. Such kind of message resulted in Lucrecia being arrested and tried by the Inquisition ending with her prophetic career later on. Though not stated, the book’s argument is how the political, economic, and social turmoil of 16th century Spain aroused the phenomenon of street prophets, male and female, denouncing the ills of the kingdom and how women took advantage of this as a way to achieve political power, influence, and prestige at a time when they usually couldn’t do so. The author uses Lucrecia’s example to exemplify for us such phenomenon. Although the argument is persuasive it fails to clarify if these were real dreams or were suggested to Lucrecia by Mendoza, Allende, and others or simply the invention of Mendoza as the main editor and how could this have impacted the credibility of the whole story.

For example, Mendoza admitted that though the language of Lucrecia’s dreams was different from her ordinary speech, “in this regard he was provably correct when he attributed some of Lucrecia’s diction and expressions to those she had heard at mass, in sermons, and at other church services.” (Kagan, page 60). Although Mendoza knew this, the book tells us that he believed firmly these dreams came from God and trusted Lucrecia as a true prophet. At the same time, it seems that he was manipulating the situation because “in masterminding Lucrecia’s prophetic career, he contributed to her knowledge of the arts of dream interpretation and divination and other aspects of the occult.” (Kagan, page 28). This implies that he was responsible for attributing meaning to dreams that though strange, could have passed unnoticed had not he poisoned Lucrecia’s mind making her conscious of this opportunity to reveal herself as God’s instrument and channel of divine revelation.

We also know that she took images from prophetic books such as 2 Esdras, the Book of Revelation, Daniel, and from conversations with people. “At the trial Guillen de Casaos described a conversation he had with Lucrecia comparing the eagles in Esdras and the eagles on the Habsburg armorial shield. After that talk, he said, “she began to dream about (eagles) without stopping.” (Kagan, page 61). It is very suspicious that after this conversation she dreamed about this specific topic as if it was so convenient and in fact dreaming about what her followers or little community of believers wanted to hear. Many of her dreams had to do with the flaws of the monarchy and the political and social situation in Spain something appealing to the people at the time who wanted a voice but were afraid to denounce such illnesses. Immediately she became a prophet of the poor and rich equally.

In conclusion, all of these implies that it is not clear if all the more than four hundred recorded dreams were real, suggested to Lucrecia, or simply edited by Mendoza adding many fantastic scenes and meaning to its content. Perhaps some of the dreams were real but most of them worked more on Mendoza’s agenda, as a way to boast his career and popularity, than to Lucrecia’s ultimate benefit. At the end she was the one that got arrested and tried by the Inquisition, accused of treason to the king, rejected by her family, and after being banished from Madrid, ultimately disappeared from history. It is clear that she was just manipulated, an instrument in the hands of Allende and Mendoza.





Book review: False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, by Nora E. Jaffary.

Book review: False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, by Nora E. Jaffary.
Author: Yoel Benhabib


In her book, False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, Nora Jaffary examines the cases of a significant number of popular mystics who were accused and tried by the Inquisition in New Spain, Mexico, of having feigned their revelations and prophetical abilities. The book offers a significant study on the relations between gender, status, and mysticism in a society that was more and more mixed and developing its own local identity in opposition to the Spanish Crown. Jaffary explores the cases of these ilusos or alumbrados between the end of the sixteenth and beginning of nineteenth centuries and how the Holy Office saw them as a threat to the Catholic Church because of their unorthodox practices. They were accused of unconventional practices and of having been tricked by the devil into believing they had received true prophecies from God. In this regard, Nora E. Jaffary argues that “inquisitors founded their determination of false mysticism only partly on an examination of the religious practices of the accused.” She uses inquisitorial records, a database of iluso and alumbrado trials, documents from ecclesiastical councils, magazines from the time, etc. Although the argument could be persuasive it does not deepen enough into how these Inquisitorial records were acquired from the accused and how reliable could they be in establishing the reality of what actually took place, meaning what can we really get from them? The cases were presented lightly without further deepening. Certainly, a document presenting the testimony of someone frightened and coerced can not be taken as a reflection of the total truth but as a biased reflection of its authors, inquisitorial officials.
The book also explores the reason for these popular mystics and how some were after status, power, and material gain in an unequal society. What is surprising is that many wealthy patrons supported them and boosted their prophetic careers. The ilusos or alumbrados criticized the corruption in society and within the Church, composed theological treatises, personal prayers, and documented their visions and prophecies. It was clear that for ecclesiastical authorities such liberties endangered their authority, although Jaffary says these false mystics just wanted to “secure spiritual and societal endorsement.” During this period, the very fact of being poor and a female were reasons enough to be suspected and accused if you had claimed prophetic inspiration. Women, especially among the mystics, were a challenge to a male-dominated intellectual and religious social order since they were not expected to exhibit such behavior and status.
Jaffary’s argumentation that the Inquisition ruled what was false mysticism by the accused practices is well presented in the book by its many examples. People claimed that these mystics or ilusos were able to perform miraculous deeds setting them apart from the common people such as in the case of Ana Rodriguez de Castro y Aramburu of whom many “detailed the ecstatic fits, visions, prophecies, and bouts of demonic possession they had watched Aramburu experience.” At the same time, others gave a very negative report of her discrediting her deeds and moral reputation, in general, saying she was a drunk woman. But could we say that either testimony presents us with a real characterization of the facts? It is obvious that the Inquisition choose to side with those who presented negative reports about these popular mystics, something that the book does not question deeply enough on the biases and reliability of the records. Could this perhaps have affected the result of the evidence? It could certainly be the case. Although it is not easy to dig further over one hundred and two cases in just a book. The author tells us that as an approximation half of the accused were female and “almost all of these women were either poor members of the laity of beatas.” On the contrary, few of the men tried were poor or belonged to the laypeople. Could such trial reports have enough credit when they seem to target specific strata in society? It seems not really possible for me in such a biased environment.
The author herself tells us the Inquisition manipulated the way in which orthodox Catholicism in Mexico determined what was heretical and what was not, especially during this Counter-Reformation period. Many people, such as in the case of Pedro Garcia de Arias, who was condemned to the stake “for his unorthodox ideas and for his heretical presumption that God had inspired his knowledge of them.” In his case, the tribunal determined that his ideas reflected the teaching of the Lutherans and therefore, a threat to the Church. It seems to be, though, that he was sentenced because he refused to abjure from his ideas and submit to the authority of the Inquisition. It is obvious then that the Church was more worried about preserving its orthodoxy and primacy in a society infected by Lutheran, Indian, and African influences.
Therefore, although Nora E. Jaffary does a good job in presenting us with some of the heretical practices of the ilusos or alumbrados and how the inquisition derived their definition of heresies from such practices; the book does not deepen enough on the reliability of the sources and testimonies of those accused, and the Inquisitorial methods of obtaining them. The records came to us from those who condemned the mystics, a biased and manipulated description of blurred realities from a distant past. Even though, the book is a good source for a better understanding of people’s lives in Colonial Mexico and the efforts of the Church to suppress whatever seemed to pose a threat to their authority and that of the Spanish Crown. Thanks to Jaffary’s research we can learn about how the common people, especially women, claiming divine inspiration and mystical powers were able to obtain wealth, status, power, and influence in an unequal and male-dominated society. Overall the book is a good source of knowledge on gender, status, and mysticism throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth-century Mexico.


Yoel Benhabib

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