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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #109 Burshatin 1996 “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain”

Full citation: 

Burshatin, Israel. “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.

Burshatin, Israel. “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain”

I picked up Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures specifically for this article, which I have been hunting for since I first saw the subject referenced. This is yet another case where an individual who presents historically in a way that would be classified as trans today is also relevant to exploring attitudes and strategies of those who present in way that would be classified as lesbian today. Although both groups were subject to persecution (and prosecution), the prevailing understandings of gender and sexuality in early modern Europe made it slightly less hazardous to argue a trans identity than a lesbian one. (Only slightly.)

What makes Elen@ even more interesting (and a facet that was omitted in some of the first references I saw) is the complex and intersectional life history, and a brief glimpse of triumph as a respected surgeon in what appears to have been a happy and accepting marriage. There's lots of scope for someone to write the story of what Eleno's life could have been without the twists of fate that left the legal traces for us to see.

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I’ve been hoping to track down this article since it first came to my attention, and the historic individual documented here is even more intersectionally mind-blowing than I knew. If I had to sum up the story in click-bait style, it would be: “Sixteenth-century Spanish bi-racial ex-slave transman becomes classically trained surgeon and marries happily.” Alas, the ending isn’t quite as happy, though far from tragic.

Burshatin is more concerned with the discourse around how “nature” is understood in these documents, particularly as it intersects with gender issues and ethnicity. But for the purposes of my Project, a simple presentation of the life of Eleno de Céspedes is more valuable. As Eleno maintained in testimony that he had become male (after, and despite, giving birth to a child) I will treat him as a transgender man after the point of that identification. However as is often the case with similar historic individuals, the context, challenges, and hazards that are seen here will also apply to any woman passing as a man. And the sexual and marital themes are similarly of relevance to the Project. I have re-organized the data from the article in chronological order, as best I can.

Some time around 1545, a child was born in Alhama de Granada to an enslaved black woman and an unknown white man. At some point, the child was branded on the face to indicate her slave status and the brand was still notable much later in life. At the age of twelve, at the death of her owner, Elena was manumitted and renamed “Elena de Céspedes” in the late owner’s memory. There is no record what name she bore before that.

Around 1561, at the age of sixteen, Elena married a stonemason with whom she lived for only three months. She never saw him again and learned of his death soon after. He left her pregnant and she gave birth to a son, Christóval, whom she left in the care of a baker in Seville and with whom she had no further contact.

Much later, Eleno testified that the force of giving birth caused the skin to break over the urinary canal and a penis-like organ emerged. Thereafter the organ would emerge from the stimulus of excitement and desire but would recede and become hidden afterward. Evidently it was at this time that he took on the name Eleno and began dressing and presenting as a man. This organ, Eleno testified, emerged when he was sexually aroused by women but was prevented from becoming fully erect by an impeding skin. That same year, Eleno went to a surgeon in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, who diagnosed Eleno as a hermaphrodite and removed the skin, enabling Eleno to have successful sexual relations with women--which he proceeded to do with his employer’s wife for the next four or five months. This presumably brings us up to approximately the year 1562 or 1563.

The article notes a succession of professions, which may have been placed in a clearer chronology in the original documents: weaver, hose-maker (the job held at the time of his surgery), shepherd, tailor, soldier, and finally surgeon. There is a specific note that Eleno served as a soldier in the War of the Alpujarras in 1568-1570, so if this list is chronological, his training as a surgeon must have occurred after that date. But it is clear that this training was not simply in the physical techniques of surgery, for he was acquainted with classical medical literature and well versed in contemporary medical theories of sexuality.

Eleno’s lack of facial hair led to some questions regarding gender. In December 1584 the vicar of Madrid, on seeing Eleno, asked whether he was a capon (a castrated rooster, i.e., asking if Eleno were a eunuch), to which the answer was “No”. Sometime shortly later, Eleno received a ruling from the Madrid court of the archbishop of Toledo that he was a man and not a hermaphrodite, thus making possible Eleno’s marriage to María del Caño.

The article fails to note the precise context in which Eleno and María came under legal scrutiny, but there does seem to have been some public question about Eleno’s gender and the possibility of demonic assistance in presenting as a man. At some point prior to June 1587, the couple was arrested and imprisoned in the municipal prison of the town of Ocaña.

A group of midwives were brought in to examine Eleno’s genitals in order to determine his biological sex. The examination (which is described in technical detail and amounted to medical rape) concluded that Eleno had female genitalia and that the vulva was so small as to indicate virgin status. [Note: it’s a regular trope for “admirable” cross-dressing women to be established as virgins, despite their free association with men. In this case, the fact that Eleno admitted to having borne a child casts significant doubt on the reliability of these assessments.] María was also examined and was found to be “corrupted and wide and roomy” indicating regular participation in penetrative sex.

The examination by the midwives was confirmed by a group of male physicians who focused not only on physical genitalia (noting that the genitals were female with no sign of hermaphroditism), but also on behavioral data, saying of Eleno that “in the composure of body, face, and speech she has the appearance of a woman, as she is, and not a man.” [The author notes that the grammar of the original Spanish is often more ambiguous with regard to pronoun gender, therefore some of the female pronouns in the translations have been chosen by Burshatin and I have not altered them when I am quoting the article.] This appeal to the “obvious” femininity of Eleno’s “body, face, and speech” is undermined by twenty years of successfully living as a man.

In consequence of this conclusion, on June 7, 1587, the chief magistrate of the province ordered that Eleno be removed from the male area of prison (or rather, an area that “men frequent”) and be moved to the women’s section to be locked alone in a room with the key given to the said chief magistrate. Eleno’s wife, María was also moved to a nearby room, in isolation “so that no one may speak with her.” Although Eleno had entered the prison under that name, the document ordering this move identified him as “Elena” and used grammatically feminine language for him. The move and isolation was implied to be for the protection of Eleno’s modesty and chastity, now that he had been reclassified as female. But conversely, Eleno’s continued sequestration indicates a certain doubt regarding placing him among the general population of women in the prison.

Eleno’s case was then moved to the court of the Inquisition at Toledo. At this point, Eleno’s crime centers around being an “unruly woman”, with the legal examination focusing on details of his rejection of a female role such as his name. While many Spanish given names exist in masculine/feminine pairs that differ only by grammatical ending, the prosecution noted that “Elena” (derived from the Greek name Helen) is only ever used as a woman’s name and that there is no such name as “Eleno”, therefore it could not have been given at baptism.

More importantly, Eleno is indicted for committing sodomy “with a stiff and smooth instrument”. This accusation emphasizes the contradictory hazard that Eleno represented: he could neither be treated as male nor as female in a system that only recognized those two categories. To this charge were added “contempt for the sacrament of marriage” and consorting with demons.

Eleno’s defense against these charges was he was a hermaphrodite and that between the age of sixteen up until twelve days before his imprisonment in Ocaña he was physiologically male. He testified that his male organs had withered away from a cancer following a traumatic riding accident. He pled innocent to all the gender-related charges (cross-dressing, having sex with women, marrying a woman, and practicing medicine as a man) on the basis that nature had changed him into a man, therefore he was a natural man at the time all those things were done. (The charge of making a pact with the devil was related to the sexual charges.) As a medical professional, Eleno had access to the prevalent medical literature of the time that considered hermaphroditism, and the spontaneous conversion of apparently female bodies into apparently male ones, to be known and natural phenomena.

He testifies, “Many times people have been seen who are androgynous, who, in other words, are called hermaphrodites, who have both sexes, I too have been one of these, and when I intended to marry I prevailed more in the masculine sex and was naturally a man and had all that was necessary for a man to be able to marry.... As for the other [charge], regarding the testimony by women questioned in this case, with whom I have had carnal coupling, they have given evidence that I was a man and had the effect of such at the time that such coupling occurred, and I was considered a man, and that is what the first of the four witnesses says, whose testimony was given to me.”

Eleno goes on to say that the other witnesses [with whom it is implied that he had sexual relations] who claim that because he couldn’t have been a man, that his ability to give the impression of one must be due to a demonic illusion, he says that these are “vain beliefs” and that “I have quite naturally been a man and a woman, and even though this may seem like a prodigious and rare thing that is seldom seen, hermaphrodites, as I have been one myself, are not against nature.” And in support of this claim, he cites classical sources such as Cicero, Augustine, and Pliny.

Race is brought into the matter in that these classical sources tended to locate populations of hermaphrodites at the edges of civilized lands, and therefore, Eleno implies, his nature may have come through his African mother. (The article explores this topic at some length that I won’t go into in detail. In essence, Eleno plays upon beliefs in the exoticized sexual Other to establish himself as both Other and Natural, rather than being unnatural and trangressive.)

It is unclear whether these arguments had an impact. There is an additional medical examination at Toledo that concludes that Eleno is, and always has been, female. But the verdict and sentence side-step the charges of sodomy and demonic association and settle somewhat confusingly on bigamy. That is, that Eleno failed to obtain proper documentation of his original husband’s death before marrying María. (For which conclusion, the marriage to María must necessarily have been considered potentially valid, rather than the “contempt for the sacrament of marriage” that had originally been charged.)

The sentence was two hundred lashes and ten years confinement, but this was augmented to require a public abjuration of the crimes in an auto da fé on December 17, 1588 in Toledo. This public shaming, ironically, greatly increased Eleno’s fame and notoriety. Eleno (though now presumably required to live as the woman Elena) begins serving the “confinement” working at the Royal Hospital in Toledo, healing the indigent sick. But after only a few months the hospital administrator requested Eleno’s transfer as his presence “has caused great annoyance and embarrassment from the beginning, since many people come to see and be healed by her.” Eleno is then transferred to work at a hospital at Puente del Arzopbispo and is still followed by notoriety and interest.

In 1599, Jerónimo de Huerta published an annotated translation of Pliny--one of the texts Eleno cited in his own defense--that situates Eleno’s case, not among the hermaphroditic marvels, but in the category of deceits practiced by the servile classes, an “Andalusian slave, named Elena de Céspedes, who having abandoned female dress, for many years pretended to be a man [and] gave indications of being one, though badly sculpted, and without a beard and with some deceitful artifice; and it was so natural in style that after being examined by several surgeons and declared a man, she was married in Cien Poçuelos.” Thus all of Eleno’s accomplishments were reduced to the simple accusation of gender deception.

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