(Today's guest blog is from author Maya Chhabra (who was also one of my beta-readers for Mother of Souls) to celebrate release day for her little mermaid retelling, Walking on Knives.)
As a kid, I never liked the main character in Rumpelstiltskin, the girl who must spin straw into gold or die. The miller’s daughter agrees to hand over her first-born to the mysterious Rumpelstiltskin if he helps her accomplish this impossible task. Then she goes back on the deal.
As an adult, I recognize that the miller’s daughter was in an impossible situation, and Rumpelstiltskin took advantage of it to make an unfair bargain. I also realize that if she willingly handed over her child to the dubiously ethical Rumpelstiltskin, she’d be a terrible parent. But as a kid, the unfairness rankled. She got the benefit of supernatural help without having to follow through on the price.
The little mermaid is an entirely different kind of person. She’s under a lot less pressure than the miller’s daughter. She enters into her terrifying bargain voluntarily, for the promise of something better rather than to avoid a terrible fate. And what she does when things go wrong for her is entirely different as well.
In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the little mermaid’s sisters try to save her from her impending death when the prince refuses to marry her. They give up their beautiful long hair in exchange for a knife. With this knife, the little mermaid can kill the prince and live out her full life as a mermaid.
But the little mermaid is made of sterner stuff. Though tempted, in the end she refuses to displace the terrible consequences of her bargain onto another person, and throws the knife into the sea.
She may not have her voice, but actions speak louder than words. And that’s why she’s a hero—both in the original tale and in my queer take on it, Walking on Knives. Though I changed much in my reimagining, that moment is central to her character.
You can find Maya's book blog "Maya Reads Books" at Wordpress.
She is on Twitter as: @mayachhabra.
The full picture of what life was like comes not just from individual details nor from the "official" opinions of professionals, but from an interaction between the two. The legal theories of what constitutes "sodomy" for a woman won't tell you what women were actually doing, but it will help us understand what the potential consequences were for them, depending on the nature of their activities. Similarly, a learned physician's opinion about whether lesbianism was a moral or a medical matter could inform what arguments could be brought to bear on how such women should be treated. This chapter lays the groundwork for those formal, professional opinions into which women fit their lives.
Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.
Chapter 2: Legal, Medical, and Religious Approaches to Lesbians in Early Modern Spain
This chapter looks at the context of non-normative sexuality as discussed in “professional” texts (legal, medical, theological). They show the variety of practices considered to be present and of concern. A great deal of this chapter is something of a “review of the field” and concerns not only texts specific to early modern Spain, but ones that would have formed part of the background understanding of the time.
Religious prohibitions included interpretations of Romans 1:26 that more clearly positioned the text as referring to “female with female” vice, as in Aquinas. Some texts straddle the divide between law and theology, such as Cino da Pistoia’s interpretation of 3rd century Roman law as condemning both “active” and “passive” participants in sex between women, or the recommendation by Bartholomaeus de Saliceto in the 15th century of the death penalty for female sodomy.
Spanish law saw an increase in intolerance for unorthodox sex in the 16-17th centuries. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the recommended punishment for male sodomites increased from castration to death by burning, as for heretics. The increasing association of sodomy with heresy motivated transferring jurisdiction for sodomy cases to the Inquisition beginning in the early 16th century. But there was an active debate regarding whether what women could do together could be classified as “sodomy”. A 1532 edict by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V explicitly included women under sodomy laws. This interpretation was also confirmed by a 1555 opinion discussing the medieval law code Las siete partidas. But competing legal opinions held that sex between women was inherently less of a transgression than male sodomy and recommended leniency on this basis. Technical decisions often focused on whether a dildo had been used. This question could feature in testimony against specific defendants and affect the resulting sentence.
The chapter offers a brief summary of classical medieval theories of lesbian desire, including Islamic and Jewish writers such as Avicenna and Maimonides. These sources, while disapproving of sex between women, did not necessarily prescribe legal penalties. Arabic sexual texts discuss a variety of sexual practices between women, or generally on non-heterosexual practices that focused on women’s sexual fulfilment. There is a brief discussion of theories of physiognomy and astrology regarding sexual orientation. Pseudo-medical theories about innate sexual orientation include humoral theories or attribute it to the results of prenatal (maternal) experiences. These approaches tend to be strongly gender-essentialist, seeing lesbian desire as a type of masculinity.
Velasco reviews literature on the Renaissance “rediscovery of the clitoris” and theories of the relationship between lesbianism and an enlarged clitoris. There is a medical acceptance of the possibility of spontaneous sex change from female to male, situated within a general fascination for “monstrosity”. A detailed Spanish case history of such a transformation in mid life is offered. (Note: I’m once again disappointed that the author omits any discussion of the possibility of intersex interpretations of this topic.) In 1700, the medical writer Sinistrari puts forth the opinion that women cannot commit sodomy, apparently defining sodomy narrowly in terms of penetration by a natural organ and the “transmission of seed”, but he makes a possible allowance for women with an enlarged clitoris and considers this phenomenon to be the basis of “spontaneous sex change” stories. The discussion notes the racist strain in discussions of the “enlarged clitoris” phenomenon. Clitoridectomy is noted as a treatment for an enlarged clitoris, though Sinistrari deprecates it due to the risk of fatal consequences.
Thus lesbianism could be seen as a medical issue due to abnormal anatomy, rather than a legal or moral one. But if two women were known to have lain together and one was found to have what was considered to be an enlarged clitoris, then the law considered that sodomy could be presumed to have happened.
Theological sources of information include guidelines for confessors, listing possible questions to elicit details of sins. These, like many of the other “professional” texts discussed in this chapter have a heterocentric bias, assuming that sex between women will be an imitation of heterosexual (penetrative) sex.
When reading a contemporary werewolf story, generally one’s first thought isn’t “I love the multi-layered allegorical resonances,” but that’s what I came away with from Lundoff’s Silver Moon (originally published 2012 by Lethe Press but now reissued as one of the initial offerings of Queen of Swords Press).
Becca Thornton’s quiet life in the rural town of Wolf’s Point seems likely to be troubled only by the occasional tiresome contact from her ex-husband until three experiences intersect at once: the first stirrings of menopause, an unexpected attraction to the woman next door, and turning into a werewolf. Fortunately, the local women’s club is there to walk her through her lycanthropic initiation into their not-so-secret inner circle. Wolf’s Point has a long tradition of calling on women of a certain age to join the supernatural protectors of the town and its surrounds.
Becca is distracted from her uncertainty about this new stage of her life (heck, about all three new stages) by the incursion of a cult-like group of werewolf hunters, though their methods and opinions are more suggestive of gay conversion “therapy”--a parallel that is no more likely to be coincidence than any of the other thematic resonances.
Lundoff’s writing style is delightfully smooth and transparent, letting the story itself take the wheel. She evokes both the delights and annoyances of small town life--especially for a character who will be a newcomer however long she lives there--and mirrors them in the struggle to integrate into the alien dynamics of a werewolf pack that Becca seems to have had no choice in joining. This makes the thriller-style plot involving “conversion therapy” entirely believable as Becca is tempted by the possibility of “being normal again”. Conversely, the romantic subplot never raises such questions, only the standard anxieties around an unexpected attraction and the complexities of exploring it when everything else in your life is turned upside down.
I liked the overall pacing and how the various plot strands, both dramatic and humorous, were braided together. In an era when the “sexy dom/sub werewolf soulmate” plot seems to have taken over shapeshifter fiction, Silver Moon is a breath of fresh air: just a complex personal story of a woman going through The Changes. All of them.
I picked up this collection after seeing mention of the author’s novel Mask of the Highwaywoman, and seeing that it had the original shorter version of the same story (since the novel isn’t yet available for iBooks). I’m always looking for lesbian historical fiction that reaches farther back than the 20th century. Magic and Romance doesn’t have a focused theme (other than lesbian protagonists) and only four of the eight stories fall in my historical/fantasy target interest. The other four (In Rhythm: A ballroom dancing romance, Is She?: An on-campus student rom-com, Reason to Stay: A teen romance, and Delicious: A New Year’s Eve tale of food and infatuation -- and, yes, the genre-descriptive subtitles are part of the story titles) are contemporary romance and I’ll confess that I skimmed them lightly.
Enthralled: A dark vampire hunter story follows the usual conventions of the modern erotic vampire vs. vampire hunter story, with the protagonist infiltrating the lair of a vampire queen to rescue the object of her affection. The story veers away from being a rescue-the-damsel adventure at the climax when the protagonist’s understanding of what’s going on is turned inside out. A dark and violent story for those who enjoy charging single-handedly into danger.
The Lady Edris and the Kingdom in a Cave: A tale inspired by Arthurian legends also turns the protagonist’s initial understanding upside down, but is more of a traditional quest-and-rescue-the-damsel scenario. Edris is on a quest to seek assistance against the plague in her homeland from the sorceress-queen of Northgales, their traditional enemy. But the queen has other ideas for the female knight who has penetrated her enchanted realm--ideas that involve the queen’s bed. A deep familiarity with the themes and tropes of Arthurian legend shines through, though the plot feels like the summary of a role-playing game, where the character passes through a sequence of tests and challenges to emerge victorious with the McGuffin and the girl.
Mask of the Highwaywoman: The short-story that became a novel is the story that led me to pick this up in the first place. The plot itself follows the usual formula for highwaywoman romance stories: our heroine’s coach is stopped by a masked highwayman (with or without accomplices) who betrays a brief sympathy or erotic interest in the heroine, but takes a piece of sentimental jewelry from her. The highwaywoman uses returning the jewelry as an excuse for another meeting in which sparks fly, and... Well, presumably what happens next is in the expanded version of the story.
The Black Hound: A romantic gothic horror distills down the platonic ideal of a gothic novel. Our impoverished heroine has come to a lonely, sinister mansion to be the companion of a tyrannical distant relative. On being warned not to wander the woods as night, of course she does so, and barely escapes an encounter with The Black Hound. Curses, nightmares, and supernatural events come to a head as our heroine takes comfort in the arms of her employer’s lady’s maid. A forced separation, another flight through the haunted woods with the hound in pursuit, and a bloody denouement that...well, that would be giving away whether this turns our to be gothic horror or gothic romance.
I liked the story premises and how they dodged around some of the usual formulas, but the writing style was often choppy and too reliant on short declarative sentences and long passages of dialogue. I’m always hoping for something a bit more lyrical. The impression of a choppy style also comes from the stories being broken up into short chapters (as short as 300-400 words), sometimes breaking in the middle of a scene. Murphy has the potential to turn out some very enjoyable historical and fantastic fiction with a bit more work on the technical side and I will probably try out the expanded version of Mask of the Highwaywoman to see if it’s addressed some of these weak spots.
One of the regular challenges to understanding the history of lesbians, even in as defined a scope as Europe, is the accessibility of the literature--not just the languages of the primary sources, but the languages in which research is published. I will freely confess that my own access is largely limited to material published in English, though I can work my way through a German article if need be. This means that every once in a while, I can be surprised by the wealth of information covering a topic that falls outside the usual England-France-Italy focus of English language publications, when I've previously only seen bits and cross-references that hint at what's out there.
I knew of Sherry Velasco's work on Catalina de Erauso in popular culture, but only stumbled across this title by chance when searching for something else online. This is one reason why I hunt through bibliographies to see what other publications might be out there waiting for me. (And, of course, why I spend a lot of time in the book sales room at the annual Kalamazoo medieval studies conference.) If you have an image of early modern Spain--the era of the Inquisition and the Armada and Spanish dominance throughout much of Catholic Europe--as being an unlikely place to find lesbians, this books should open your eyes as it did mine.
Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.
Chapter 1: Introduction
The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.
Representations of female homoeroticism in this era range from the publicly notorious, such as Catalina de Erauso and Queen Christina of Sweden [*], to those treated as criminal, as with Inés and Catalina Ledesma. That range of representations is the topic of this study.
[*] It may seem odd to treat Queen Christina of Sweden as relevant to a discussion of Spain, but she had strong ties to several Spanish individuals, especially in the context of her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, and was consequently a figure of interest there.
The historic texts under study here often focus on the presence or absence of specific acts. But the picture that emerges is not a simple “acts vs. identity” dichotomy, as Foucault would have it. Velasco chooses to use the word “lesbian” in this book, not only because of evidence for a concept of specific romantic/erotic interests, but because it is less anachronistic than “homosexual” or “homoerotic”. In 16th century France, Brantôme was using “lesbian” in a homoerotic sense, just as Chorier was in the 17th century. When playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote a play based on the life of Queen Christina, he named her lady in waiting “Lesbia” with a wink and nod to Christina’s reputation, and included a motif of proposed same-sex marriage. Velasco spends a couple of pages rehearsing the usual debate over terminology in books on this history of gender and sexuality, and points out the markedness with which only non-heterosexual concepts have their terminology hedged about and policed.
Within historic documents, the absence of mention of lesbian-related topics can itself suggest meaning, as when writers such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and María de Zayas omit mention of Sappho as a literary antecedent in contexts where such an omission is notable. The absence suggests the possibility that they were anxious about how their own same-sex relations with friends and mentors were viewed.
Even when the topic of lesbianism is danced around with vagueness, the texts being studied here have no lack of language to convey female homoerotic activities. Velasco list the following: somética (sodomite), bujarrona (female sodomite), cañita (little cane), donna con donna (woman with woman), marimacho (butch), medio hombre y mujer (half man-half woman), incuba (partner who lies on top), succuba (partner who lies underneath), subigatrice (dominator, one who bounces up and down), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wearing scoundrel), terms equivalent to “tribade”, “fricatrice”, “rubster”, “Sahacat” (originally from Arabic), “Lesbian”, as well as more allusive phrases such as amistades particulares (particular friendships), “fruitless love”, “love without reward”, “not the marrying type”, “like man and woman”, “[women] making themselves into roosters”, and so forth. One somewhat telling term was the Latin peccatum mutum “silent sin”, specifically highlighting the approach of erasure by un-naming.
Velasco’s work seeks to demonstrate that representations both of romantic and erotic love between women were visible and accessible to all types of women in early modern Spain. These works not only discussed specific acts, but assumed a “type” of woman who participated in them, whether in fictional works or real life. Early modern Spanish legal writers were considered to be the “experts” in Europe on female homoerotic activity. The evidence suggests that this expertise was not merely a theoretical exercise but existed within a culture with an open interest in the topic.
Examples of this interest can be seen in the 16th century novel La Celestina in which lesbian acts are seen as part of the initiation of a prostitute, works that include erotic encounters between women, such as the pastoral novel La Diana and the chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc, or the novellas of María de Zayas. Popular plays went beyond the erotic implications of cross-dressed women to include female homoerotic desire outside that context. And real life “celebrity” could be conferred by individuals who challenged categories of gender and sexuality, such as Catalina de Erauso “the Lieutenant Nun” and the physician Elena/Eleno de Céspedes who was charged with sodomy and bigamy after marrying while living as a man. Saint Teresa of Avila warned of the erotic potential of “particular friendships” in convents, and the truth of this concern can be found in correspondence between nuns as well as personal memoirs of convent life. Court records of prosecutions reflect a complex understanding of lesbian potentials that went beyond a simple division between legal and illegal acts.
Within all this, there is often an ignorance demonstrated by male writers of “what women can do together” apart from a vague understanding of mutual masturbation or an assumption of the imitation of heterosexual penetrative sex. It isn’t always clear whether this is genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of specifics to avoid “giving women ideas” (an avoidance that is sometimes explicit in penitential manuals). But clearly the absence of such detail shouldn’t be presumed to imply an absence of activity.
The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the topics covered in the remaining chapters.
Today I have a reader question from Andrei, who has kindly allowed me to answer in this blog:
I really enjoy your books. Lately I've been reading a history book on pre-Revolutionary France and it noted that the Christian message that was preached to the masses by the post-Reformation Catholic Church was one of a angry God, a God of vengeance and wrath that demanded penitence and misery. This sermon that Yves Michel Marchais delivered to his congregation in Western France in the 1780s is quite illustrative:
"The joys, the pleasures, the happiness of life are always dangerous and almost always fatal; the games, laughter, and amusements of the world are like the mark of damnation and are given given to us by God in his anger. Whereas tears and suffering are the signs of God's pity and a certain promise of salvation"
With that dully noted, how do characters like Margerit, Barbara, Antuniet and Serafina, who have studied theology (in depth, I presume) in order to work mysteries, reconcile their sexuality with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma? I'm asking because at this time in history, the religious climate seems to have been hostile to legitimate "earthly pleasures", let alone illegitimate ones.
I've stacked the deck for my answer a bit in the title I gave to this post. But the answer can be broken down into several questions:
1. To what extent do the positions of religious extremists affect the self-perception of devoutly religious persons?
2. Do views like the one quoted above reflect the general beliefs about worldly pleasures among the educated classes of the time?
3. Did women who loved women in the early 19th century consider that to be a qualitatively different moral problem than other possible moral lapses in their lives?
For the first, in every age we can find ascetic extremists who feel that suffering is the only moral good and that any sort of non-devotional pleasure (and sometimes even the devotional pleasures) is sinful. And in every age you will find lay people who take those views to heart and lay people who dismiss them. Consider that many of the philosophers that contributed to the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of humanism were Catholic and found no inherent contradiction in that. (Or, in some cases, resolved the contradiction by drifting away from a strong adherence to the religious hierarchy in favor of more general philosophical principles, such as the deists.) I think that if you take issues of sex (much less sexuality) out of the question and ask, "how did people who had studied theology in depth in a philosophical context reconcile the enjoyment of 'joys, pleasures, games, laughter, and amusements of the world' with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma?" I think the simplest answer is that, historically, obviously many of them did, though some could not. So I don't feel the need for special pleading with regard to my characters on that point.
In general, the extent to which extreme religious positions are taken to heart depends a lot on what other theological and philosophical arguments a person or a society can bring to bear in dialectic. And the extent to which people turn away from sensory pleasures to embrace asceticism often reflects the overall tenor of the times: whether people feel hopeful or fearful, optimistic or pessimistic. Pre-revolutionary France was obviously a time of great social unrest and hardship--if it hadn't been, there wouldn't have been a revolution. Some of those factors were specific to the political and social situation in France. Consider also that the church was, to some extent, viewed as part of those hardships, not necessarily as a solace for them. Alpennia is hardly a social or political paradise, but it didn't experience the specific forces and conditions that led to revolution in France in the later 18th century. And therefore the specific religious undercurrents present in France don't necessarily apply either.
Moving on to the more specific topic of moral attitudes towards sex and sexuality, it's important to keep in mind that different ages have different frameworks for thinking about these things. In the specific case of lesbian sexuality, there have been many eras in western history when the dividing line between what counted as non-sexual acts of affection and love and what counted as sexual acts have been drawn in very different places. There's a long history of theological positions that only penetrative sex counts as "fornication" (as well as a long history of contrary arguments, it must be admitted). So it's not only possible, but fairly certain, that many pre-modern women enjoyed what we would consider a sexual relationship without themselves considering what they were enjoying to be "sex" in the context of moral prohibiltions.
I did include one interaction between Margerit and one of the nuns at Saint Orisule's convent where it's clear that the nun specifically disapproves of the nature of Margerit and Barbara's relationship. And Margerit's answer to her is that she considers the love she has with Barbara to be the best means she knows by which she can understand God's love. It isn't necessarily a solid theological argument in the specific form presented, but it does have roots in historic theology regarding the divide between praiseworthy and suspect forms of affection between unmarried individuals (regardless of gender). As a scholar, she would have more access to those arguments than an average person would, so it makes sense that she might bring them to bear on a relationship that she very much wants to feel good about.
Social disapproval of women's romantic relationships in the 18-19th centuries in western Europe more often focused on whether those relationships interfered with women's availability for marriage, rather than on the question of the nature of their physical relationship. Another aspect of disapproval focused on whether a woman appeared to be claiming a masculine role, either in society in general, or specifically in the context of the relationship. Both of these concerns are reasons why Margerit and Barbara experience social disapproval without anyone involved necessarily bringing sexual activity into the question. They accept that there are those who consider their close friendship suspect on the grounds of proper gender roles in society, but that holds true as well for their interest in women's education and for Barbara's eager participation in politics in her own name (rather than marrying and handing off the political duties to a husband). They wouldn't necessarily extrapolate that social disapproval to moral self-doubt.
For another example, consider Antuniet's attitude toward her two different types of sexual experience: the incident in Heidelberg when she traded sex to a man for protection and assistance, and her sexual relationship with Jeanne. It should be clear that she views the first as a moral failing, but her concerns about the second are much more to do with emotional insecurity and her precarious social position at the time of their courtship. Having sex once with Gustaf made her a "fallen woman", having an ongoing sexual relationship with Jeanne makes her an "eccentric".
And as an overall consideration, all of my central characters are living lives of comfort and pleasure, within the scope of their individual means. In the case of Margerit and Barbara, those means are considerable and they enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. If their theological studies led them to question the pursuit of earthly pleasures, there would be a lot more of those pleasures to consider rejecting than just the erotic ones.
Now, as it happens, Margerit is due for something of a crisis of faith in the aftermath of the events in Floodtide (the book I'm currently writing), as well as certain other events. That crisis won't be specifically about her sexuality, but her general uncertainty about whether she's chosen the right paths in life will probably end up touching on that aspect as well. So stay tuned to see how she works through that crisis and what her conclusions are about living a moral and ethical life that includes both magic and the pleasures of the flesh.
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.
Velasco, Sherry. 2000. The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire and Catalina de Erauso. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-78746-4
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.
There is an expression—a phrase, an image, a verbal trope—that I am trying to eliminate from my critical writing: “Does not disappoint.” When I think about it, I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to identify it as something I wanted to stop using, because I’d already examined a different model of the underlying issue from another angle and identified what it was that would eventually start bothering me about “does not disappoint.”
Here’s the thing. If I’m talking about a property (a book a movie, a meal, a performance) and describe an expectation I have for it, and then—having consumed the property—I observe that it “does not disappoint,” it seems to me that I’ve rejected the possibility of being surprised by joy. I’ve set the standard of my base-level neutral experience and determined that the property hasn’t fallen below that base level. It’s as if I’ve set up a job performance rating scale with only two options: “disappoints” and “does not disappoint”. Or, that if the rating scale includes “exceeds expectations,” I’m indicating that the experience didn’t exceed them.
And I don’t think that’s what I ever intended to convey when I used the expression. I don’t honestly believe that it’s what anyone else ever intends to convey when they use the expression. And yet, having seen it from that angle, it’s very difficult not to feel the gut-punch of, “So is that all I managed? I succeeded in not disappointing you?”
And here’s why I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to come to this point. Once upon a time, there was a couple in my social circle whom I’d had a chance to observe over an extended relationship arc. I listened to how Partner A talked about their expectations and interactions with Partner B, and it seemed to me that Partner A was operating on “disappoints/does not disappoint” performance rating. That—based on how their interactions were framed—the most that Partner B could hope to achieve was “does not disappoint.” It struck me as tragic. I felt strongly enough about it at the time that I spoke to Person A about my perception, no doubt being marked down as an obnoxious busybody as a result. And A and B are still together more than a decade later, so perhaps my perception was out of line. I don’t know.
But that’s why I’ve been trying to eliminate that phrase, in any of its forms. Because I want everything I consume to be allowed the possibility of surprising me with joy, not just failing to disappoint me.
In 16-17th century Spain, a fictional genre emerged called the "picaresque novel". It features the adventures of a roguish protagonist, generally of low social class, who lives by his wits in the midst of a corrupt or dystopian scoiety. These works are generally written in the form of an autobiographical narrative and are episodic in nature, featuring neither an over-arching plot nor significant change or development of the protagonist as a character.
One might be forgiven for considering the memoir of Catalina de Erauso, the "Lieutenant Nun" (Monja Alférez) as being suspiciously faithful to this fictional genre, and it isn't impossible that the flavor of her narrative was shaped by those literary expectations. But there is plentiful corroborating evidence for the truth of de Erauso's story, in its basic facts. And those basic facts present a fascinating picture of the ways in which a woman might escape the expectations for her life, as well as the practical realities and possibilities for gender disguise and performance.
One of the interesting features of her story is that there is no indication that she had any practical instruction in martial activites or masculine professions, and yet there never seems to have been any question of her relative success in performing them, nor does casual discovery of her physiological sex seem to have been an issue. However one views Catalina's life from a modern understanding of gender and sexuality, these practical aspects are of immense interest to writers who wish to tackle the practicalities of a passing or transgender protagonist.
Stepto, Michele & Gabriel Stepto (translators). Catalina de Erauso. Lieutenant Nun -- Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8070-7073-4
A translation, with commentary, of the memoirs of a 17th century Basque woman who lived and adventured as a man in the Spanish colonies in South America.
[Note: within the context of current frameworks of gender and sexuality, there are equally strong cases for viewing de Erauso as a transgender man, or as a “passing woman” who used male disguise for the purpose of gaining economic and social independence, and who may have enjoyed erotic desires for women apart from performing heterosexuality as part of that disguise. There is an equally strong case to be made for considering both framings to be anachronistically meaningless in the context of early 17th century Spain. This topic is directly discussed in the book, however as the author defaults to referring to “Catalina” and using female pronouns, I will follow this usage in my summary.]
This is a translation and discussion of the (possibly ghost-written) autobiography of a 17th century Basque named Catalina de Erauso who escaped a convent prior to taking final vows, and began living as a man, using various names at different times: Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and--in later life after this history was made public--Antonio de Erauso. De Erauso, like many contemporaries, traveled to the Spanish colonial territories in South America and made a violent and turbulent living in a variety of military and civilian professions.
Many things can be read into Catalina’s story, which presents itself as a strict autobiography, though certainly ghost-written and probably embellished to follow contemporary narrative conventions. Certain events are too conveniently symbolic for literal truth (such as time-periods that can be seen as having biblical significance). At heart, this is a story of re-making the self, at a time when performance became the self rather than being “costume”. Catalina’s adoption of male clothing and a male profession was not simple masquerade, regardless of how she may have viewed her own gender.
The book’s introduction has a long discussion of the European social context in the 16th century and later of cross-dressing, both in theatrical performance and erotic play. Within the narrative itself, Catalina expresses little concern regarding casual disclosure of her physiological sex--including during extensive imprisonments and even when undergoing torture or medical treatment. Her concern for disclosure centers only around recognition by family members and people who knew her before she left the convent.
The first-person narrative does not clearly reveal any personal sexual desire (though, to be fair, it doesn’t involve much emotional introspection at all), but only anxiety about situations in which someone might expect her to perform desire. She evades the marriage plans of several women, but conversely expresses no erotic interest in her male companions. When her story is eventually made public, she requests medical examination and a great deal is made of the judgement that she is an “intact virgin”.
The fascination of society with examples such as Catalina indicate a “category crisis” that typically reflects greater social anxiety about categories. And Catalina’s avoidance of marriage is not strictly focused on issues of gender and desire, but is complicated by her attitudes toward race and class (e.g., rejecting the marriage proposal of a mixed-race woman using negative racialized language regarding the woman’s appearance). Attempts to adopt Catalina as some sort of progressive social radical must founder on the undeniable degree to which she participated in and benefitted from Spanish colonialist structures. An interesting related feature is the degree to which Catalina’s most crucial identity is her Basque origin, and she regularly evokes this to make common cause with other Basque individuals in South America to receive preferential treatment or to escape legal consequences.
One of the genres in which Catalina’s story must be positioned is that of “New World marvels." Another is that of “female soldiers”, who were sometimes given dispensation for gender transgression when their motivations could be framed as patriotic. In addition to this, Catalina can be seen as something of a pop culture celebrity, who was able to trade on being an entertaining “spectacle”.
The text is presented as a “confession narrative” and therefore had specific functional purposes. Catalina made contradictory claims for herself to escape the consequences of her various actions, alternately identifying herself with the nobility, as a heretic and, on her eventual revelation, as a chaste virgin. The confession served its purpose, gaining her not only immediate physical safety, but eventually a pension from the Spanish crown, and later a dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing.
Catalina was born (most likely) in 1585) to a prosperous Basque family during the height of Spain’s conquest in the Americas. All four of her brothers became soldiers in the New World (and ended their days there). In contrast, the five de Erauso daughters were all sent to a convent for education and to protect their chastity, of which only one left the convent to marry, three lived out their lives in the convent, and Catalina escaped by more dramatic means. She describes how she remade her female clothing into a suit of male clothes, cut her hair short, and walked to the next town, where she presented herself in a changing series of roles until she eventually took ship for the New World as a ship’s boy. During this intial stage, she regularly interacted with people who were either blood relatives (the captain of the ship she traveled on was an uncle) or associates of her family. These interactions may have been part of the motivation for going overseas, but at this time becoming part of the colonial expansion was the easiest means for any young Spanish man to expand his horizons and seek a fortune.
On arriving in the New World in 1603, Catalina stole some of the silver her uncle was receiving for transport back to Spain and set out for adventure. Criminal activity (including targeting unwitting relatives or employers) was a common feature of her exploits, with the violent consequences of a hot temper being another regular feature.
At this time, Spain’s conquest of Peru and surrounding areas was solidly established and normalized. This wasn’t a frontier war zone, but a thriving colony, based on the coerced labor of the native population. At the same time, Spanish newcomers could expect wealth and status far above what was available back home. The resulting instability was a problem to manage, and newer arrivals who had no solid stake in the colonial strucure yet were often sent off on expeditions to subdue the frontiers. Some succeeded in becoming part of the very profitable colonial structure, others (in which category Catalina falls) led a boom-and-bust existence where short term gains were lost to robbers, rivals, or legal penalties.
Catalina spent 20 years as an itinerant soldier, mercantile agent, gambler, and troublemaker. And then, perhaps tired of the struggle to manage the consequences of her activities, she revealed her secret to a bishop and became something of a sensation. She spent three years in a Peruvian convent while her story was investigated. When it was confirmed that she had never taken final vows as a nun in Spain (if she'd taken final vows, she would have been held to them), she was released and returned to Spain. In 1625, she petitioned the Spanish king for a pension, essentially for being a celebrity, and indicated a desire to return to Peru. During this same period, she wrote or dictated her story, framing it in the tradition of the picaresque novel. Eventually, she traveled to Rome and received dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing. In 1630, she allowed her relatives to buy out her share of the familial estate and returned to Peru. There are later records of her living as a merchant and mule driver in Mexico (in 1639) using the name Antonio de Erauso and being referred to as one of several “brothers” of the de Erauso family. There is also an account dicated in 1693 by a man who met her in 1645 in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Her death is less directly documented, but is placed in 1650 near Vera Cruz.
Catalina’s story revolves primarily around action, travel, and detailed recitations of names and facts. It is not particularly introspective and makes no attempt at presenting her in a consistently heroic light, nor is there any imposition of an overall narrative plot.
The manuscript of Catalina’s story was copied some time in the 18th century and then re-copied with the names Hispanicized in 1784. This later version, with the Basque forms of the names restored, was printed in Paris in 1829. Neither the original, nor the first copy are known to still exist. The present translation is based on the 1784 version.
Given that the narrative is in the first person, the narrator’s presentation of gender is largely revealed in the grammatical inflections of adjectives. This aspect is, of course, lost in the English translation. Catalina uses both masculine and feminine grammatical forms for herself in the text, but not entirely randomly. In the majority of contexts--and especially when discussing martial matters--masculine forms are used, while feminine forms more typically appear in more reflective or neutral contexts.
After all the above discussion, my ambition fails at giving an overview summary of the text itself. The basic outline of Catalina’s life, as contained in the work, is decribed above. The rest is a random and episodic account of the details. I encourage those who are interested in the specifics to pick up a copy. It’s relatively short and quite readable.
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