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Fictionalizing the Lieutenant Nun

Monday, July 10, 2017 - 07:00

Velasco takes a deep look at how the historical facts of a specific individual are interpreted and rearranged to suit the entertainment and didactic purposes of later ages. From that angle, this book is strongly aligned with the underlying purpose of the LHMP: to consider how history can be used as a basis for fiction, without the fiction being constrained entirely by the history. This book is also a great example of how a focus on only the texts, histories, and creative works that are available in English can distort our picture, not only of what history was like, but of the rich tradition of interpretation of historical stories.

Fortunately for those of us who are primarily constrained to English language sources, Velasco has written another book on the subject of lesbian sexuality in early modern Spain, which we'll be tackling in the next several weeks.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2000. The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire and Catalina de Erauso. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-78746-4

Publication summary: 

A study of how the story of Catalina de Erauso was interpreted and used in popular culture during the 17-20th centuries.


This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.

The book looks at the larger context of transgender narratives, and how private (real-life) experiences got turned into public spectacles that reflect cultural anxieties of the era doing the interpretation. Chapter 1 looks at the early modern Spanish context of lesbians, gender ambiguity, and crossdressing in life and art. All this fed into how Catalina’s story was constructed, and how that story in turn fed back into the cultural context. Chapter 2 considers the politics of Catalina’s life in Spain and the New World through the different versions offered in the early 17th century legal records, witness accounts, letters, popular news publications, and her memoir, as well as later renderings of her life in novels and on stage. In particular, 17th century versions framed Catalina as a lesbian, while later interpretations began to erase that aspect.  The historic context allowed Catalina to simultaneously be a heroic virgin hero and a killer lesbian. Her desire for women enabled approval for her transgender performance, simultaneously framing her as virtuously non-heterosexually active, but excluding her from acceptable models for female behavior.

In chapter 3 we see how Catalina figures in 19th century works as a character in Spanish and Mexican novels and theatrical works, including an operetta. But lesbianism was no longer considered harmlessly eccentric, so her character was either pushed to demonization as a lesbian, or reconstructed as hetersexual or asexual. This parallels a general cultural shift to demonized lesbian sexuality. One anonymous Mexican novel is an exception in presenting her lesbianism as erotic entertainment. Chapter 4 concerns 20th century interpretations that “re-lesbianize” Catalina. For example, three films dating from 1944 to 1987 show shifting portrayals of her sexuality and the attitude toward it. Mid-20th century prose works leaned toward various takes on a transgender framing, based on her desire for women. Versions of her life in sequential comics focus on historic or action-adventure takes, but often overtly show her rejecting queer encounters.


The book begins with a summary of the facts of Catalina de Erauso’s life. She lived in the early 17th century, born to a Basque noble family, and ran away from the convent where she was being “warehoused” at age 15 before taking vows. She passed as a man and went adventuring in the Spanish colonies in the New World where she lived a violent and unsettled life. She returned to Spain after revealing her physical sex and received a pension from the Spanish king as well as dispensation from the Pope to continue cross-dressing. She later returned to the New World and spent 20 years in Mexico as a mule-driver until her death.

In addition to later transcriptions of her autobiography, her life is recorded in letters, legal records, and testimony relating to her status and return to Spain. There is a detailed discussion of the textual transmission and editions of her memoir. Velasco considers the question of whether the sensational news accounts fed into the more sensational variants of her biography, or whether they simply reflected the “true” story, while the tamer variants were deliberately toned down. There is also a question whether Catalina counts as a “woman writer” of the era, due to questions regarding whether she was the author of her memoir or whether it was ghostwritten.

The translation by Steptoe and Steptoe (1996), although not the first rendering into English, brought Catalina’s story to the attention of Anglophone queer studies scholars and sparked conflicts over how Catalina’s gender should be understood and presented. For example, one scholar chose to alternate randomly between feminine and masculine pronouns in writing of Catalina in order to reject privileging either approach or associating gender with specific actions or contexts. Other authors have alternated based on context and presentation, or follow Leslie Feinberg’s example in referring to Catalina a “s/he” (a style that is now deprecated).

The early manuscripts themselves provide no clear guidance on the issue, rendering the adjectives Catalina uses to describe herself in both masculine and feminine grammatical forms. Different manuscripts distribute them differently but, for example, there is a tendency for masculine forms to be used in passages about courtship, flirtation, and romance as well as martial contexts, while feminine forms appear in neutral or unmarked contexts. Velasco sets out her reason for using feminine pronouns in the book: because it is studying the literary/cultural figure, not the real life historic individual, and that cultural figure is clearly understood to be a woman in male disguise. In trying to assess Catalina’s own position, it can’t be ignored that gender presentation had massive social and economic consequences. As a woman, Catalina had no option but life as a nun. As a man, Catalina had physical freedom, could travel, earn money, have adventures, and have as much control over her life as anyone of her class and context could. The only means Catalina knew of to be “not a nun” was to be a man.

In popular culture, Catalina has consistently been used to reflect the readers/viewer’s concerns: a transgender activist, a Basque patriot, a heroic colonial soldier, an adventurous lesbian. Velasco discusses the cultural contexts that drive each of these. Transgender narratives destabilize the idea of fixed categories, but also can be used to enforce gender difference. The introduction of Catalina’s romantic/erotic encounters with women can provide the reader or viewer with titillation while preserving the forms of heteronormativity. (Popular culture, alas, rarely allows a context for a same-sex romantic/erotic resolution.)

Chapter 1: Hybrid Spectacles

Catalina’s memoir includes a number of episodes with romantic and erotic encounters with women that remain short of any activity that would reveal her body. 16-17th century Spanish records (like everywhere else) have fewer examples of genital contact between women than between men but there is a long record on the topic in legal, religious, and philosophical discussion. Spain had a reputation for being the “specialists” in legal concerns about lesbianism. For example, a 1556 version of Las Siete Partidas argued that sodomy laws applied to women as well as men.

Velasco reviews all the usual arguments for and against using the word “lesbian” in discussing historic persons and activities. She chooses to use the terms “lesbian” and “transgender” to the extent that they can be associated with early modern frameworks. But she notes that Brantôme used the word “lesbian” in the 16th century for women who had sex with women, so supposed concerns about anachronism are overblown.

Sex between women in the early modern period was considered less sinful than heterosexual fornication, due to the presumed lack of penetration. In general, women’s sexual activities were not viewed as threatening in and of themselves. Velasco offers a survey of early modern Spanish depictions of female homoeroticism in literature, theater, songs, and pornography.

Within limits, female masculinity could be considered admirable, as masculinity was more highly valued. Studies of “hermaphrodites” considered it possible for spontaneous female-to-male transformation, but not the reverse, as nature would only spontaneously “improve” a body. 

Neo-platonic love between women could be framed admirably even when a “masculine” woman was involved. But this was only because love between women could be considered “chaste”. In this context, Velasco presents an extensive discussion of same-sex love and “masculine” women in Alvaro Cubillo de Aragón’s play Añasco el de Talavera.

Female cross-dressers on the stage from the 16th century onward were always associated with at least the implication of female same-sex desire. Scholars differ on whether it was felt one must “be” a man to experience desire for women, or if the performance of masculinity made expression of desire between women more acceptable. Theatrical performances may have inspired some real-life “masculine women”.

Legal records suggest that the boundary of tolerance for female same-sex activity was the use of an instrument for penetration. But see also the Italian case of Benedetta Carlini where no instrument was involved. There is ample evidence for concern about same-sex love in convents. See also the case of Elena/Eleno de Céspedes.

These complex attitudes toward lesbian desire, cross-dressing, and masculine women help explain the variety of responses to Catalina de Erauso. Catalina allowed patriarchal authorities to define and control her identity after her revelation, and emphasized both her virginal status and the absence of penetrative or genital activities with women. She also allowed or encouraged interpretation of her life as a “spectacle”. This brought her life within the general fascination for “hybrid monsters”, including the concept of hermaphroditism and “monstrosity” in general. In the context of monstrosity, there were theories that “manly women” were a type of birth defect, a consequence of some prenatal experience by their mother. Other theories interpreted physiological ambiguity (which modern medicine would likely see as intersex conditions or hormonal issues) in terms of humoral imbalances.

The image of the warrior woman is found in an extensive tradition of women cross-dressing for military service, both in real life and in popular culture. These often explore the potential for same-sex romantic consequences. Cross-dressing on stage prompted censure from moralists and sometimes even official sanction. Stage presentations featured sexualization of cross-dressed women for the male gaze, especially as it revealed body parts (e.g., legs) typically concealed in that era.

Chapter 2: Celebrity and Scandal

This chapter looks at the symbolic use of Catalina in popular culture, as opposed to the true facts of her life. There were four general aspects to her image: criminal, lesbian, virgin, and hero. These are reflected with different emphasis in contemporary records, in sensational news pamphlets, in her memoir, and in later dramatic renderings. Of the four aspects, the lesbian theme undergoes the greatest change over the course of the 17th century.

The image of the hero is more relevant in her petitions for recognition and a pension, but also in her request to be allowed to continue to cross-dress. These focus on her vocation as a “defender of the faith and the Spanish crown.” The bare details of Catalina’s memoir are more aligned with the image of the criminal than the hero. The memoir could be compared to the genre of picaresque novel and other autobiographies of soldiers in the New World, with a focus on violent altercations and criminality, or at least episodic violence.

The lesbian element is most prominent in Juan Pérez de Montalbán’s 1626 play La Monja Alférez and in a letter from the bishop of Guamanga (to whom Catalina first told her story) that cites her attraction to other women. In two of the relaciones (tabloid new publications), her lesbianism is linked overtly to criminality. They emphasize how jealousy of her brother over a woman they both associated with led to his death. Catalina had three brushes with marriage that included flirtation and erotic activity though they are, in the end, more about exploitation than desire. In a third relacion, detailing an incident positioned well after the end of Catalina’s memoir, she falls in love with a young woman that she is escorting on a trip, but when the woman marries a man, despite Catalina’s persuasions, Catalina is violently jealous such that the new husband forbids her from visiting. Note that in this (almost certainly fictional) relacion Catalina’s sex is known openly at this point in the story. Various texts of Catalina’s life include episodes of affection shown to nuns (e.g., in Peru when she was waiting for the results of the inquiry into her status vis-a-vis final vows). These are presented in a positive light and framed as non-erotic, but in several later (20th century) dramatizations, this affection is portrayed as clearly sexual.

Velasco takes a close look at the portrayal of Catalina in de Montalbán’s play, which was first performed in 1626 at the height of her initial notoriety. The immediacy of the events meant de Montalbán was not entirely free to fictionalize Catalina’s life. He depicts her as very masculine but as a sympathetic figure, sacrificing her own interests to benefit her female love interest. De Montalbán’s audience was familiar with cross-dressing female stage roles. His work does not have a tragic ending but can’t be considered “happily ever after” as Catalina’s beloved ends up with a man. The play doesn’t focus on Catalina’s initial decision and transformation, but only on the “after” period. And in contrast to the lack of concern about discovery in Catalina’s memoir, de Montalbán’s character regularly denies challenges to her gender presentation. The play associates military performance with masculinity. The central plot is Catalina’s love for Ana (the love interest) and how Catalina tries to protect and secure Ana’s reputation after her honor is impugned. Although Catalina is portrayed as violent and impulsive, it’s always in a justifiable cause. Her erotic desire is framed as being in vain, and therefore non-threatening.

Though overt homoeroticism is absent from much of the documentary evidence, it was an inevitable implication of Catalina’s cross-dresing in the context of 17th century Spanish drama. Some modern analysis interprets Catalina’s homoerotic actions as a deliberate part of her male persona. However one interprets Catalina’s motivations, she is never portrayed as desiring or flirting with men.

Perhaps one of the more surprising depictions of Catalina is as “orthodox virgin”. Connections can be made with the “transvestite saint” motif of early Christian women who cross-dressed to preserve chastity and to prove religious devotion. One account of Catalina’s life by Fray Diego de Rosales does its best to portray her as driven by religious motivations. This included many outright inventions regarding her behavior and habits in order to make her conform to the image. At least one of the relaciones also created an image of devotion, especially at the end of Catalina’s life. Catalina’s “proof of virginity” is taken as balancing out her other transgressions.

Velasco discusses the complex image of the “hybrid spectacle” with a emphasis on the contrast of “lieutenant” and “nun” in Catalina’s nickname. Her story was treated as interesting specifically for this sensational aspect. De Montalbán’s character explicitly complains about being treated as a freak show and there is a semi-comical episode in the play when she is induced to wear a hybrid costume to meet an official, with themes of the restrictiveness of female fashion and her unfamiliarity with it. Catalina’s memoir also depicts her negative responses to celebrity.

Chapter 3: Melodrama and Reconstruction

Catalina’s story was not given much attention in the 18th century except for the transcription of her autobiography in the later part of the century. There was a revived interest in her (in part due to that transcription) in the 19th century, as an asexual or heterosexual figure. Catalina was seen as a cautionary tale, not a source of entertainment, that showed what happens when women are not educated in proper behavior. Ferrer’s publication of her memoir in Paris may have contributed in part to the stock image of the “exotic” aggressive transvestite lesbian in French literature.

The Romantic movement’s appreciation for spontaneity and adventure latched onto those aspects of Catalina’s life. But this sympathy required erasure of the sexual aspects of her story. Romantic renderings depict her as embarrassed by women’s erotic interest in her and compare her to Jeanne d’Arc. In contrast, Carlos Coello’s 1866 play of her life depicts Catalina as a sinister and savage animal, but desexualizes her and then redeems her by a heterosexual adaptation of the love triangle set up in de Montalbán’s play. Juan A. Mateo’s 1877 play La Monja Alférez largely abandons any previous version to create a Romantic heroine. Here she escapes the convent in pursuit of a man’s affections. The conflict is around her jealousy of the man’s intended marriage to another, which Catalina interferes with in male disguise.

An anonymous Mexican version of Catalina’s story in the 19th century works more from the original texts. She is coached on how to perform masculinity by a male friend, including the seduction of women as part of that performance. But these are framed specifically as disguise performances, and Catalina shows by interior monologue how conflicted she is about the whole masquerade. Once her physical sex is revealed, she is able to express true (but chaste) affection for a woman. Here the presumed impossibility of love between women is a shield for its expression.

A late 19th century Spanish historical novel based on Catalina’s life depicts her homoeroticism as pure disguise and the author overtly undermines the possibility of genuine lesbian desire.

Chapter 4: From Cinema to Comics

20th century media reintroduced a lesbian framing for Catalina’s life, but the specific portrayal depends on the media. In 1940s movies she was depicted as a heterosexual femme fatale, while 1980s movies took a lesbian approach ranging from tragic to hopeful. Text and visual media in the 20th century that were aimed at a younger female audience downplayed the same-sex attraction, while works aimed at older audiences were variable. Overall, most 20th century interpretations marketed Catalina as a “transvestite spectacle.”

Film versions tended to highlight the actress’s attributes, not those of the historic Catalina. The marketing of a sexualized masculine woman for the male gaze evokes the early modern sex appeal of cross-dressed actresses appearing on stage in form-fitting and revealing clothing. The actress María Félix (who starred in a 1944 film) adopted the clothing styles she wore for the role in everyday life afterward.

One consequence of this approach (of highlighting the traditionally feminine appearance of the actress) is that the movie viewer is never in doubt of the character’s underlying sex, even though the other characters are fooled. Comparisons are made with the Spanish obsession with the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden, who cross-dressed and was almost certainly bisexual. Greta Garbo’s 1933 portrayal of Queen Christina was likely a major stylistic influence on the 1944 film about Catalina. Velasco discusses the differential treatment of male and female cross-dressing in cinema. Male cross-dressing is an occasion for laughter, female cross-dressing is an occasion for (male) desire.

In mid-century fascist Spain, Catalina was used as a model of female heroism for indoctrinating girls, somewhat in contradiction to the domestic ideal it purported to encourage. But this purpose required focusing on (masculine) bravery and erasing homoerotic implications. In addition to erasing issues of sexuality, fascist Spain also erased Catalina’s Basque identity and Basque nationalism, which played a major role in her memoir.

A Mexican graphic novel of 1991 presents homoerotic scenes in Catalina’s life as an unexpected and unwelcome consequence of her disguise. Operating in an entirely different context were works aimed squarely at the pornography market, such as two Chilean historical novels (of 1938 and 1972) that manipulate Catalina as an erotic spectacle in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts.

In post-Franco Spain, adaptation of Catalina’s story returned to the image of a lesbian military hero, for example in a theatrical version performed in 1993. It depicts Catalina’s erotic encounters with women as representing genuine desire, but the context is presenting a spectacle for the audience. This approach didn’t necessarily result in a postive portrayal, as in a 1986 Spanish film where Catalina comes to accept her desire for women, but is prevented from enjoying it.

Catalina’s life is treated overtly as a transgender/lesbian figure in the 1987 film She Must be Seeing Things, about two modern women obsessed with Catalina’s life.


Velasco concludes with a discussion of the popular reception of various of the works discussed and a summary of her thesis statements.