(Originally released 2017/07/29 - listen here)
In the early 1620s, the bishop of Huamanga, Peru was approached by a desperate wounded soldier, being pursued by a mob led by the local sheriff, who begged sanctuary and his protection. The next morning, the soldier was summoned before the bishop and began to tell a turbulent life story of hazards and adventures. But then, as the soldier later explains:
I felt a calm sweeping over me, I felt as if I were humbled before God, that things were simpler than they had seemed before, and that I was very small and insignificant. And seeing that he was such a saintly man, and feeling as if I might already be in the presence of God, I revealed myself to the bishop and told him, “Señor, all of this that I have told you…in truth it is not so. The truth is this: that I am a woman, that I was born in such and such a place, the daughter of this man and this woman, that at a certain age I was placed in a certain convent with a certain aunt, that I was raised there and took the veil and became a novice, and that when I was about to profess my final vows, I left the convent for such and such a reason, and went to such and such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair, traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant, at the feet of Your Eminence.”
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 heteronormative interactions 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.
In this podcast I’ll be using the name Catalina and female pronouns, not to weigh in on a particular side of that debate, but to align with the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, which is to examine historic sources as data for creating fictional female characters. Aside from that, Catalina’s autobiography used both masculine and feminine language, and Catalina went by a number of different names when living as a man: Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and--in later life after her history was made public--Antonio de Erauso. So there is enough ambiguity that I don’t feel that my choice is in contradiction with her own presentation of her life.
The opening passage that I read comes fairly late in Catalina’s autobiography. Those initial events of her adventure are given in somewhat greater detail at the beginning of her memoir.
I, doña Catalina de Erauso, was born in the town of San Sebastian in Guipúzcpa province, in the year 1585. My parents, Captain Don Miguel de Erauso and Dona María Pérez de Galarraga y Arce, were native born residents of the town, and they raised me at home with my brothers and sisters until I was four. In 1589, they placed me in a convent of Dominican nuns there in town, San Sebastian the Elder, with my aunt doña Ursula Unzá y Sarasti, who was my mother’s older sister and the prioressof the convent. There I lived until the age of 15, in training for the day when I would profess myself a nun.
In the year of my novitiate, toward the end of it, when I was about to make my final vows, I got in a quarrel with one of the sisters, doña Catalina de Aliri, who had entered the convent and taken the veil after the death of her husband. She was a big, robust woman, I was but a girl – and when she beat me, I felt it. It was on Saint Joseph’s eve, March 18, 1600, when the entire convent rose at midnight to perform matins, that I went into the choir and found my aunt on her knees. She called me over, handed me the key to her cell and asked me to fetch her breviary. I went after it, unlocked her cell door and grabbed up the breviary, and seeing the keys to the convent dangling from a nail on the wall, I left the cell open and returned the key and the breviary to my aunt.
The nuns were singing the songs in a mournful tone, and when they got to the first lesson I went to my aunt and asked to be excused, telling her I was sick. She touched her hand to my forehead and said, “Go on, go to bed.” I left the choir, took up the lamp and returned to my aunt’s cell. I took a pair of scissors and a needle and thread, I took some of the pieces of eight that were lying there, and the keys to the convent, and I left. I went opening doors and closing them carefully behind me, and when I came to the last one I took off my veil and went out into a street I had never seen, without any idea which way to turn, or where I might be going. I struck out, in what direction I cannot say, and came upon a chestnut grove just beyond the walls, on the outskirts of the convent grounds. There, I holed up for three days, planning and re-planning and cutting myself out a suit of clothes. With the blue woollen bodice I had I made a pair of breeches, and with the green petticoat I wore underneath, a doublet and hose – my nun’s habit was useless and I threw it away, I cut my hair and threw it away, and on the third night, wanting to get as far from that place as I possibly could, I set off without knowing where I was going, threading my way down roads and passing villages, until I came to the town of Vitoria, some 20 leagues from San Sebastian, on foot, tired, and having eaten nothing more than the herbs I had found growing by the roadside.
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--as we have seen--escaped by more dramatic means.
When considering the possible motivation of gender identity in this action, I think it’s impossible to ignore how completely circumscribed the life of a well-born Spanish woman was in this era. The options presented by her family were marriage--only if a suitable one could be arranged--or the veil. What’s more, the career possibilities for men in an equivalent situation were narrow enough that vast quantities of them--including all four of Catalina’s brothers--considered a hazardous and adventurous life in the Spanish colonies to be not merely an available option but a preferred one.
Catalina lived in an age when cross-dressing women were a staple on the dramatic stage and in fiction. Most people will be familiar with Shakespeare’s examples of heroines in male disguise and their homoerotic romantic adventures. But this phenomenon wasn’t limited only to England. It might be tempting to see Catalina’s story as simply falling within this tradition if the facts of her life weren’t so clearly supported as a true narrative by other evidence. We might turn the question around: to what extent did this existing literary tradition of female cross-dressing offer Catalina the inspiration for her own path?
Modern views of gender disguise often fixate on the difficulties of long-term success and the dangers of unintentionally giving oneself away by gendered mannerisms. But within Catalina’s narrative, she 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 possible recognition by family members and people who knew her before she left the convent. This aspect of her life lines up with the experiences of other women in male disguise, where discovery most often came through recognition by a former neighbor.
This is an era when performance becomes identity, rather than simply being “costume”. People of lower social classes are penalized for wearing the clothing of the nobility, not simply for acting above their station, but because doing so was a claim to have that station. Similarly, much of the anxiety across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries around men and women wearing styles associated with the other gender was because people felt that to do so was to become the other gender. Catalina’s adoption of male clothing and a male profession was not a simple masquerade but an act of transformation, regardless of how she may have understood the concept of gender. And it was successful, to a large extent, because--in an era where differences in gender presentation were much more rigid than they are today--it normally wouldn’t occur to people to doubt that surface performance, even despite the use of gender-disguise on stage.
So for two years after leaving the convent, Catalina stayed relatively close to home and presented herself in a changing series of roles to obtain employment. During this initial period, she regularly interacted with people who were either blood relatives or associates of her family. These uncomfortable interactions may have been part of the motivation for her next step: which was to voyage to the New World as a ship’s boy. Even here she was followed by family connections. The captain of the ship she traveled on was captained by a relative. And at a later date in Peru she found herself under the military command of one of her brothers.
Family feeling was not, however, one of Catalina’s major personality traits. On arriving in the New World in 1603, Catalina stole some of the silver her uncle the ship’s captain was receiving for transport and set out for adventure. And the brother she served under would eventually be accidentally killed by Catalina in a duel.
Criminal activity (including targeting unwitting relatives or employers) was a common feature of Catalina’s exploits, and the violent consequences of a hot temper were another regular feature. These features fit solidly within the literary tradition of the picareseque novel, a genre that emerged in 16th and 17th century Spain. Picaresque novels feature the adventures of a roguish protagonist, typically of low social class, who lives by his wits in the midst of a corrupt or dystopian society. 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. Like the motif of a woman cross-dressing for military service, this reading of Catalina’s life blurs the boundaries between real life and fiction.
One might be forgiven for considering these aspects of Catalina’s memoir as being suspiciously faithful to the picaresque genre, and it isn't impossible that the flavor of her narrative was shaped by those literary expectations. In the same way, the possibilities for cross-dressing to create homoerotic situations in fiction and on stage may have affected how people viewed and accepted the erotic potential of Catalina’s life, as in the following episode from her memoir when she is working as a sales agent for Diego de Solarte, a wealthy merchant in Lima, Peru:
He received me in his house in a most kind and gracious manner, and a couple of days later put me in charge of his shop, with a yearly salary of 600 pesos, and there I worked, much to his satisfaction and content.
But at the end of nine months, he told me I should think about making my living elsewhere, the reason being that there were two young ladies in the house, his wife’s sisters, and I had become accustomed to frolicking with them and teasing them -- one, in particular, who had taken a fancy to me. And one day, when she and I were in the front parlor, and I had my head in the folds of her skirt and she was combing my hair while I ran my hand up and down between her legs, Diego de Solarte happened to pass by the window, and spied us through the grate, just as she was telling me I should go to Potosí and seek my fortune, so that the two of us could be married. Solarte went to his office, called for me a little while later, asked for the books, took them, fired me, and I left.
One of the fascinating features of Catalina’s story is that there is no indication that she had any practical instruction in martial activities or masculine professions. She was first sent to the convent at the age of five. And yet there never seems to have been any question of her relative success in succeeding at her chosen professions. Early on after her arrival in the New World, she relates the following adventure:
One Sunday, when I had gone to the theater and pulled up a chair to enjoy the show, a certain Reyes showed up, and placed his chair squarely in front of mine, and so close up I couldn’t see a thing -- I asked him if he wouldn’t mind moving a bit to the side, he responded in a nasty tone, and I gave him back a little of the same. Then he told me I’d best disappear, or he’d be forced to cut my face wide open. Seeing as how I was weaponless, except for a short dagger, I made my exit, more than a little enraged, and with a couple of friends at my side who followed along trying to calm me down.
The next morning, Monday, I was in the shop doing business as usual when I saw Reyes walk past the door, first one way and then the other. I closed the shop, grabbed up a knife, and went looking for a barber to grind the blade to a sawtooth edge, and then, throwing on my sword – it was the first I ever wore – I went looking for Reyes and found him where he was strolling by the church with a friend.
I approached him from behind and said, “Ah, Señor Reyes!”
He turned and asked, “What do you want?”
I said, “This is this is the face you were thinking of cutting up,” and gave him a slash worth 10 stitches.
He clutched at the wound with both hands, his friend drew his sword and came at me, and I went at him with my own. We met, I thrust the blade through his left side, and down he went.
During this era, Spain’s conquest of Peru and surrounding areas was solidly established. 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 structure were often sent off on expeditions to subdue the frontiers in order to make use of their destructive energy. Some of these newcomers 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.
As in the passage I just read, Catalina regularly gets into fights and duels, often over little more than a card game or a suspicious look. And one of the options regularly offered by the local justices was to participate in expeditions to subdue indigenous groups that had not yet surrendered to Spanish rule. It was in the context of one of these that Catalina found herself under the command of her brother Captain Miguel de Erauso. Miguel’s failure to recognize his sister may be entirely forgiven as he had left Spain when Catalina was only two years old.
This connection not being public, the two bonded over their common Basque identity and spent several years as close companions, even quarreling over Miguel’s mistress, as we see in this passage:
I stayed behind as my brother’s soldier, and dined at his table for three years, all the while never letting on to my secret. On occasion, I went with him to the house of the mistress he kept in town, and on other occasions I went there without him. It wasn’t long before he found out and, imagining the worst, he told me that he’d better not catch me at it again. But he spied on me, and when he caught me there the next time he waited outside, and when I came out he lit into me with his belt, wounding me in the hand.
I was forced to defend myself, and the sound of our brawling brought the Captain Francisco de Aillón, and he made peace between us. Still, for fear of the governor, who was a stickler for rules, I had to take refuge in the church of San Francisco, and there I remained, even though my brother interceded on my behalf, until the day he came to tell me I had been banished to Paicabí. There was nothing to be done.
Several years later, during a brawl between two groups of soldiers over little more than macho posturing, the following happens:
One of the friends who came to see me during this time was don Juan de Silva, a full lieutenant, who told me he had had some words with a certain Don Francisco de Rojas, a knight of Santiago, and that he had challenged him to a duel for eleven that night. Each man was to bring a second, he said, and he had no one to turn to but myself.
I didn’t answer at first, thinking it was some sort of trap, Juan de Silva guessed what was on my mind, and said, “If you’re not with me, so be it, I will go alone. There is no other man I trust at my side.” I said to myself, “What can you be thinking?” And accepted.
As the bells were ringing out for evening prayer, I left the church and went to his house. We dined and chatted about one thing or another until 10 o’clock, when we heard the bells strike the hour and gathered up our swords and cloaks and set out for the spot. The darkness was so thick, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face – and noting this, I suggested we should tie our handkerchiefs around our arms so that, whatever might happen in the next couple of hours, we would not mistake one another.
The two men arrived, and one of them said, “Don Juan de Silva?” And I could tell by the voice it was Don Francisco de Rojas.
Don Juan answered, “Here I am!” And they each laid hand to sword and went at each other, while the other man and I stood by.
They went on dueling, and after a while I could tell my friend had taken a hit and that he wasn’t any the better for it. I jumped to his side and the other man took the side of Don Francisco, we parried two on two, and before long Don Francisco and Don Juan fell to the ground. My opponent and I kept fighting, and my point went home below his left nipple, as I later learned, through what felt like a double thickness of leather, and he fell to the ground.
“Ah, traitor,” he said, “you have killed me!” I thought I recognized the stranger’s voice.
“Who are you?” I asked, and he answered “Captain Miguel de Erauso.”
I was stunned. My brother begged for a priest, as did the other two, and I went running to the Franciscan church and dispatched two friars to take their confessions. The other two died on the spot -- and my brother was carried to the house of the governor, whom he had served as secretary of war. A doctor and a surgeon were summoned to tend to his wounds, and they did what they could. Then a statement was taken and they asked him the name of his murderer, and when my brother begged for a mouthful of wine, the doctor, whose name was Robledo, said no, it would not be advisable, and he begged again, and again the doctor refused, and my brother said, “Why, sir, you are crueler to me than Lieutenant Díaz was!” – and after a few minutes, he passed away.
At this point, the governor had the church surrounded and tried to force his way in with his personal guard. The friars resisted, along with their superior, a certain brother Francisco de Otaloza who today lives in Lima, and a hot argument ensued, until a couple of the brothers plucked up their courage and told the governor to think it over carefully, because if he came in he could forget about leaving, and with that the governor cooled down and withdrew, leaving some guards behind.
Captain Miguel de Erauso was dead, they buried him in the Franciscan monastery, and I watched from the choir -- God knows in what misery! I stayed there for eight months while they prosecuted me on a charge of rebellion -- a charge I was given no opportunity to defend myself against.
When Don Juan Ponce de León offered me his protection, I saw my chance. He gave me a horse and weapons and wished me Godspeed out of Concepción, on to Valdivia, and Tucumán.
Catalina’s narrative is hazy about any personal sexual desire (though, to be fair, it doesn’t involve much emotional introspection at all). She expresses no erotic interest in her male companions, but also evades the marriage plans of several women. Her avoidance of marriage is not strictly focused on issues of gender and desire, but is complicated by issues around race and class. For example, she rejects the marriage proposal of a mixed-race woman using negative racial language about the woman’s appearance.
Catalina’s more positive reception of another woman’s attentions is outstanding mostly for her rather mercenary comments.
I struck up a casual friendship with the bishop’s secretary, who made quite a fuss over me and more than once invited me to his house, where we played cards and where I met a certain churchman, Don Antonio de Cervantes, the bishops vicar-general. This gentleman also took a fancy to me, and gave me gifts and wined me and dined me at his house until, finally, he came to the point, and told me that he had a niece living with him who was just about my age, a girl of many charms, not to mention a fine dowry, and that he had a mind to see the two of us married -- and so did she.
I pretended to be quite humbled by his flattering intentions. I met the girl, and she seemed good enough. She sent me a suit of good velvet, 12 shirts, six pairs of Rouen breeches, a collar a fine Dutch linen, a dozen handkerchiefs, and 200 pesos in a silver dish – all of this a gift, sent simply as a compliment, and having nothing to do with the dowry itself.
Well, I received it all gratefully and composed the best thank you I knew how, saying I was on fire for the moment when I would kiss her hand and throw myself at her feet.
This courtship was evaded, as so many of Catalina’s predicaments were, by simply saddling up and vanishing down the road.
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. Similarly, attempts to claim her as some sort of proto-lesbian run up against the lack of any clear expression of romantic or erotic desire toward the women who showed interest in her. Though one must recall that the memoir was intended to be a public text, and she may have been more reticent on sexual matters than on murder and mayhem.
An interesting related feature is the degree to which Catalina’s most crucial identity is her Basque ethnicity, and she regularly brings this up to make common cause with other Basque individuals in South America in order to receive preferential treatment or to escape legal consequences.
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 the bishop of Huamanga, as related at the beginning of this podcast. 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, she was released and she returned to Spain. In 1625, she petitioned the Spanish king for a pension, on very little basis beyond simple notoriety. It was during this same period, that she wrote or dictated her autobiography. Eventually, she traveled to Rome, where she was treated as a celebrity.
As she notes, “I kissed the feet of the Blessed Pope Urban the Eighth, and told him in brief and as well as I could the story of my life and travels, the fact that I was a woman, and that I had kept my virginity. His Holiness seemed amazed to hear such things, and graciously gave me leave to pursue my life in men’s clothing, all the while reminding me it was my duty to lead an honest existence from that day forward, that I must refrain from harming my fellow creatures, and that his commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, carried with it the vengeance of God for those who transgressed. My fame had spread abroad, and it was remarkable to see the throng that followed me about--famous people, princes, bishops, cardinals. Indeed, wherever I went, people’s doors were open, and in the six weeks I spent in Rome, scarcely a day went by when I did not dine with princes.”
Catalina’s memoir ends during a brief interlude in Naples as she is returning from Rome to Spain, in which she recounts a rather odd encounter with two prostitutes who address her by name, “Señora Catalina, where are you going, all by your lonesome?” She responds to them with a snarl and a threat of violence, and with that the manuscript ends.
Five years later, in 1630, Catalina allowed her relatives to buy out her share of the family estate and returned to Peru. Her later life is referenced in two pieces of surviving correspondence. In 1639, during a hearing relating to the Erauso estate, a Captain Juan Perez de Aguirre testified that he had been in Vera Cruz, Mexico and quote, “asked...for news of Miguel, Francisco, Martin and Domingo de Erauso, and had been told they were all dead--Francisco in the city of Lima, in his capacity as majordomo or secretary to the Viceroy, Miguel in Chile, and that he couldn’t remember where the others were said to have died but it was common knowledge that they were all dead, all excepting a brother of theirs called Don Antonio de Erauso, also known as Lieutenant Nun, with whom he had spoken.”
A few years later--though the incident is recorded fifty years afterward--a man named Nicolas de la Renteria met in Vera Cruz with “La Monja Alferez doña Catarina de Erauso (who went there by the name of Antonio de Erauso)”. He noted that she was working as a mule driver and that “she was the King’s subject and known as a person of much courage and skill; that she went in men’s clothing, and wore a sword and dagger ornamented in silver. She seemed to be about fifty years old, of strong build, somewhat stout, swarthy in complexion, with a few hairs on her chin.” Five years after that, according to an account in a sensational news publication, she died and was buried at a church in nearby Orizava.
But Catalina’s story didn’t end with the true facts of her life, or even the fictionalized version published under her name. The manuscript of Catalina’s story was copied and re-copied and eventually was printed in Paris in 1829.
Even during Catalina’s lifetime, her history was being fictionalized. Several different accounts appear in Spanish sensational news tabloids in the 17th century. And in 1626, while Catalina was still in Spain enjoying her first flush of notoriety, a play based on her life was produced by Juan Pérez de Montalbán’s titled La Monja Alférez “The Lieutenant Nun”. It would have been hard for de Montalbán to depart too seriously from the facts of Catalina’s life, given that she was around to contradict him. But he plays up the romantic potential of Catalina’s cross-dressing, giving her a female love interest. The fictional Lieutenant Nun self-sacrificingly reveals her true sex to safeguard the good name and honor of her beloved. In the process losing any hope of a happy ending of her own.
This was only the first of many fictional versions of Catalina’s story across the centuries. She has been presented variously as a nationalist hero, a violent sexual predator, an erotic spectacle, and a transgender icon. Through it all, it is worth remembering that even the bare, unembellished facts of her life are a tale stranger and more exciting than we could have guessed, if the history were not right there in front of us.
And now, I am excited to tell you about some big changes to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. Don’t worry, these monthly essays taking a close look at some historic individual or topic are going to continue. But the podcast is going to expand from that one monthly episode to being a weekly show.
What’s going to fill those other episodes? Each month we’ll start out with a bit of a potpourri show that I’m calling On The Shelf, where I’ll talk about the publications that are being discussed on the Lesbian Historic Motif Blog and give some hints about what’s coming up. There will also be a feature I’m calling “Ask Sappho” that answers questions from listeners about any sort of historic topic that’s come up in the podcasts or on the blog--or really anything you’re curious about. If you want to have a question included, you can post it in the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group, or e-mail me through the link in the show notes.
In the second week of every month, I’ll have an interview with an author who is writing lesbian characters in historic settings--lesbian or bi, but the focus is on women-centered stories. This series won’t be confined strictly to historical fiction, but can include stories with fantastic elements. The only requirement is that the story has to be grounded in a real time and place and be informed by that historic setting. I’m excited to have this chance to start showcasing authors who are writing historic stories.
Every third week, we’ll have what I’m calling the book appreciation feature. The author featured in that month’s interview -- of maybe sometimes another fan of historical fiction -- will talk about one or two historical lesbian novels that they particularly enjoy. This won’t be book reviews, but simply a chance to share our love and excitement for books we think other people might enjoy.
The fourth week will be the same in-depth historic essays that have been the core of this podcast up until now. I have some exciting topics sketched out in my calendar and can’t wait to share them with you. And every once in a while, when there’s a fifth Saturday in the month, I’ll have some sort of surprise as my fancy takes me.
So instead of waiting another entire month for the next Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, you’ll be getting a new episode next week, when I begin the expanded show with our first On The Shelf.
This is a brief tour through the life of an early 17th century Basque woman (or possibly trans man--though it’s tricky to use any sort of modern category label) who escaped from a convent at age 15, began living as a man, and went off to the Spanish colonies in the New World to seek fortune and adventure. She found plenty of adventure.
In this episode we talk about:
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online