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Lucrecia's Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain.

When Lucrecia de Leon was not yet twenty, as she and her mother, Ana Ordonez, stood in the royal chapel before a copy of van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, their gazes apparently lingered over the panel of Eve. Reportedly, the mother exclaimed, "By Jesus, Lucrecia, look how her body resembles yours ... especially from the neck down!" (19).

A luscious reproduction of van Eyck's Eve that adorns the book's dust jacket connects to this moment in Lucrecia's upbringing. Curiously though, the cover illustration is cropped below Eve's navel. Whether due to misguided post-modern prudery or to mundane aesthetic considerations about relative dimensions of the painting and the dust jacket, the result is the same: a part of female anatomy that is crucial to the whole story is concealed. Lucrecia was a prophet, one well along on a path toward causing all sorts of excitement with her politically charged mystical predictions, especially as they came to be interpreted by a coterie of high clerics and courtiers attracted to her for various reasons. Then she found herself pregnant. In a book of over 200 pages, all aspects of her career are explored at length but what the entire case boils down to is really quite simple: an unwed girl who becomes pregnant, by her confessor's scribe no less, cannot possibly be a true prophet -- no ifs, ands, or buts. The hide-and-seek approach to history found in the dust jacket characterizes the prose sections of the book as well. Readers will respond variously to this style, but I found it to be annoying as narrative and wanting as sustained analysis.

The outlines of the story can be told quickly. Lucrecia de Leon was born in 1568 and lived in the heart of Madrid with her father, a legal agent who never made enough money or had enough influence to provide her with a proper dowry; her mother, who took her on visits to many churches to hear sermons, who apparently filled her head with ideas about how attractive her body was, and who served as promoter of her prophetic career, which she thought might help attract a suitable husband; and four surviving younger siblings, none of whom made any independent historical impression. Her dreams, 415 registered in all, began to be recorded in November 1587, and that winter they occurred on a nightly basis. From the outset she was closely guided by the illustrious Doctor Alonso de Mendoza, a canon and theologian obsessed with oneiromancy who in turn handpicked Fray Lucas de Allende to assist him as her new personal confessor. By February her dreams had aroused sufficient suspicion that she was placed under house arrest and shortly thereafter Lucrecia fell into a long period of illness, probably depression. The dreams occurred less frequently in the spring and summer of 1588 but returned quite regularly by the fall and at some point Allende hired the twenty-eight-year-old scholar Diego de Vitores Texeda to take over the work of transcribing them, which in the beginning Mendoza appears to have been doing personally. On 20 February 1590 Diego and Lucrecia secretly exchanged promises of marriage and at some time before or after that date "they treated each other like man and wife and knew each other carnally." From a dream of 18 April it is evident that Lucrecia was distressed over the prospects of giving birth out of wedlock, and at her initial appearance before the Inquisition on 4 June the judge noted that "she is six or seven months pregnant." She gave birth to a girl that summer and nurtured the child in her prison cell, where she received notes of tender affection from her lover, now also imprisoned. It took the Inquisitors over five years to reach a verdict, and even then it was a split decision, on Lucrecia and on the men most immediately involved in her dreaming. On 20 August 1595 she was pronounced guilty of blasphemy, falsehood, sacrilege, and sedition; she had made a pact with the devil and was "a notorious mother of prophets" and an "evil dreamer." For all this her punishment was extremely light: "one hundred lashes, banishment from Madrid, and two years' seclusion in a religious house" (155). Her codefendants received equally lenient treatment, ranging from two years' banishment but no further incarceration for her lover and amanuensis Vitores, to a year of seclusion for her confessor Allende and six years (reduced on appeal to two) for the apparent mastermind of all this heresy and sedition, Dr. Alonso de Mendoza.

What did Lucrecia dream or, more accurately, what was transcribed? Eight months before it happened, she foresaw the defeat of the Spanish Armada and after that event did occur she predicted a string of spiralling calamities that would destroy the Empire, sparing only the select few who joined her band in an apocalyptic rebirth in specially outfitted caves near Toledo. She would marry "Miguel," the reconquistador of Spain, and become Queen; the Papacy itself would relocate to Toledo, sometime after Miguel had recovered Jerusalem from Islam and at the onset of a terrestrial paradise leading to the end of the universe. The responsibility for Spain's downfall rested entirely with King Philip. The personae in Lucrecia's dreams said horrible things about him: "he's tyrannized the poor"; "there would not be so many prostitutes if it weren't for the poverty he's brought to us"; "he is responsible for the evil and ruin of Spain"; he has "a cold, cold heart" (80). Again and again, he is portrayed "as a weak, aging, decrepit, monarch whose subjects impatiently await his demise" (82). Lucrecia sees him asleep, with insects crawling out of his mouth, and with signs at his head and feet saying "he follows the path of idiocy" and "your lack of constancy will carry you to hell" (83).

As the pungency of these quotations makes clear, there was so much reason to shut up Lucrecia and her stage managers that the real question may be why they were not silenced sooner and more forcefully. No one could have hesitated to condemn a pregnant prophet, so the deeper struggles must have been among male courtiers and churchmen. Notwithstanding occasional inconsistencies and even contradictions, Richard Kagan recognizes this underlying reality; the key player in his plot is not Lucrecia, however attractive her body, but a group of dull theologians, all of whom were power hungry and at least one of whom was probably quite mad. When Mendoza finally did serve his time in monastic seclusion, the prior complained that he had turned the house into something more like "a lunatic asylum than a religious house" (158).

Kagan closes with a brief chapter titled "Understanding Lucrecia," one in which he speculates about her ultimate fate, notes the limited roles of women in sixteenth-century Spain, asserts that she may possibly have had more control over her brief career as a prophet than the "mere pawn" defense she used at her trial would suggest, and concludes that, if nothing else, she did express negative judgments about King Philip's reign that were shared by many of his subjects during and after her moment in the center spotlight.

My frustrations with Kagan's way of casting his story may be conveyed with just one example. He doubts the accuracy of the innocent, naive doncella portrait that Lucrecia presented to her Inquisitors. In assembling evidence to show her worldliness and political sophistication, he asks "Was this the same Lucrecia who discussed in frank and knowing terms various types of dildos with one of her cellmates in Toledo?" (33). This rhetorical question is tagged with endnote 72 (out of 446), where the reader engaged in hide-and-seek gets the following nugget:

For this discussion, see AHN Inq 2105/1, fol. 205. After listening to her cellmate describe such an object made out of sheepskin, Lucrecia noted that she preferred to make "the member out of a special kind of wood, with hinges and nails, and a cover of satin or velvet" and claimed that she had a friend in Madrid who possessed one.

"Hinges and nails"--this is stuff for upfront social history, or sexual history, or some kind of psychohistory, not endnotes. Truly this is a book in which I felt that Kagan's traditional historical approach got in the way of understanding Lucrecia. The rich imagery of the dreams and Lucrecia's feisty spirit came through best when he let her speak for herself, least well when her words and actions were sacrificed to the circumscribed rhetoric of scholarly analysis.

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Author:Bell, Rudolph M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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