The Cross-dressing Swashbucklers of Spain

By , March 19, 2013
Catalina de Erauso (via Wikimedia Commons)

Catalina de Erauso
(via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a big secret in The Book of Seven Hands, and Imma spill it. Ready?

One of my main male characters – a swordsman and paragon of Spanish masculinity – is not a man.

Don’t worry, that reveal comes almost as soon as the character is introduced, and I won’t give the character’s name here, so I’m not spoiling the story for you.

But I do want to blog about my “swishbuckling” hero because researching how Spaniards thought of gender in 1524 completely fascinates me, and I’m not quite ready to let it go. In fact, my research on Spanish notions of gender, masculinity, and attitudes toward cross-dressing completely hijacked my adventure plot.

I wanted a female character posing as a man in this adventure, because while researching I chanced across a historical figure that I couldn’t ignore: The so called “lieutenant nun,” Catalina de Erauso, a fascinating exception to Spanish gender rules that proves them all.

Let me explain. No, wait. There is way too much. Let me sum up Erauso’s story.

Catalina de Earauso was born in 1590, and when she was four years old, her father entered her into a nunnery.

At fifteen, she was about to take her vows to become a nun when she got involved in a quarrel (I’m guessing “brawl,” considering Catalina’s personality) with an older nun. Erauso took the opportunity to flee the nunnery, fashion breeches from a dress and a doublet from her petticoat, and change her name from Catalina to Francisco. Erauso would live as a man for the rest of his life.

Erauso would suffer many challenges to his masculinity, many of which would land him in jail for fighting. But the crucial moment comes at sixteen when a young tough named Reyes insults him – and Erauso, working as a page at this time, responds as Spanish gender-code dictates: He faces his bully and makes him pay for the insult. From Erauso’s own autobiography:

“[Reyes] 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…

“The next morning, a Monday…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 sawtoothed 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 the face you were thinking of cutting up,” and gave him a slash worth ten 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.”

Bar-mitzvah by way of blade and blood: Today she is a man.

From there, Erauso’s story is non-stop violence as he boards a ship and makes for Central and South America. From his autobiography Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, which of course must be taken with a giant block of salt, we learn Erauso served the King’s Army in Chile and Peru, brawled, dueled, and gambled constantly, wooed women and was nearly married to a girl who’d fallen in love with him, made lieutenant, was reprimanded more than once for excessive violence toward the native people of those colonies, and unknowingly killed his own brother Miguel in a duel.

Due to these violent escapades, Erauso’s time in South America was also punctuated with petitions of sanctuary for protection in a church or, interestingly, a convent. Historical records verify that he sought sanctuary six times in Peru and Chile to avoid military arrest and/or close inspection of his person, presumably.

During his sixth and final sanctuary, Erauso was wounded badly and figured it was time to confess his story to a Bishop in Lima. Nuns were brought in to examine Erauso, and they determined that the lieutenant was indeed a woman and “virginal as the day she was born.” Intriguingly, the Bishop declares that Erauso is both a perfect woman and a perfect man. (More on this in a moment.)

Erauso recovered, but, thinking his life was over having admitted his big Truth, he returns to Spain, arriving in Cádiz, where he finds that he’s a celebrity: His story has preceded him and Spain has been telling tales of the “lieutenant nun” for weeks. Erauso appears before King Philip IV where he petitions the king seeking for a military  pension. The king sends Erauso to Rome, where the Pope concurs with the Bishop in Lima and grants him dispensation to continue dressing as a man, advising Philip to bestow the pension upon Erauso. Erauso writes his autobiography and retires to Mexico.

Gender is a performance and not a static state, even in Early Modern Spain, and Erauso’s gender is a commanding star turn. Not only does he totally “become the part,” as method actors say, but when it’s determined upon examination that Francisco is actually a Catalina, a bishop and the pope declare him the paragon of manhood and the perfect woman.

Why? How is that possible?

To grasp this, it’s important for us modernistas to grasp that gender wasn’t a dichotomy of scientific co-equals – not in heavily Catholic Spain (the notion of two genders is a humanistic, post-Renaissance ideal). In medieval Christian thought, gender was a monolith. There was only one gender, male, and the “female” was an imperfection of the male. It goes a long way in explaining medieval Christianity’s abject misogyny to realize that a virgin was the perfect state for women, that a married or pregnant woman was considered even “less than woman.” Laws regarding “limpieza de sangre,” Spain’s codified racial purity laws, bolstered the religious significance that Spain placed on the state of virginity.

So the idea that the head of the Catholic Church would deem Erauso to be both a manly heroic fighter who passionately defended his masculinity and a virginal and blessed woman was a bit of a paradox, perhaps, but not hypocrisy. He’d managed both and deserved praise for it (indeed, no man could do what Erauso had done). Catalina de Erauso was a social, political, and religious marvel.

Part of what I love about Erauso’s narrative is that there’s something modern, almost American about it. Stories like this usually involve Ellis Island, a beat-up six-string guitar, or being discovered at a cafe in Hollywood and made into a movie star. But Spain in 1600 was very much like a young America. The myth and promise of the New World had unleashed a boomtown consciousness and Spain was urging its young men to “go west” long before there even was a United State. Indeed, so many young men were boarding ships, joining the Spanish army/armada, and becoming conquistadores or pirates that the populations of some towns in central Spain were 90% women in the Sixteenth Century. As never before, Spaniards could level up in economic class and completely reinvent themselves.

For my purposes in The Book of Seven Hands, I lifted what I found most interesting about Catalina de Erauso and gave it to one of my heroes: Her indomitable spirit and drive for dominance. Some scholars make the compelling argument that Erauso was a lesbian, that her sexuality drove her to dress and pose as a man (but if so, why not remain in the nunnery?), while others say she was simply driven by economic desire. Those elements could be part of the story too (Erauso never muses why she did what she did), but to me, I see a naturally dominant person, unable to submit if she wanted to, born into a world where there were no words for what she was or how she needed to live. It wasn’t enough to dress as a man. She chose to be a brawler and womanizer. It wasn’t enough to brawl, she had to be duelist, a swordsman. She had to be the best. As a an educated, virginal nun, Catalina would have held a social status above that of, say, a farmer’s wife or  a mother of many. But she still would have had to submit, to the pecking order of a cloister, a Mother Superior, and my hunch is she knew she couldn’t do it.  There was something about that night when she was fifteen, the quarrel/brawl with an older nun, and the constricting vows of sisterhood that drove Catalina de Erauso to prove she was something else, more, and huge.

An absolutely perfect heroic character for a swashbuckling story.

Two Words I Couldn’t Use When Writing My Swashbuckling Book

By , March 17, 2013

Writing The Book of Seven Hands could have been a simple matter: Heroes go on quest to translate an ancient tome owned by their beloved teacher; Heroes run into three successive problems; Heroes thrust and parry their way to victory! Amen. That’s all readers really want, right?

But as an enthusiast of Mexican and Spanish history, and of Zorro, too, I wanted a swashbuckling story with deep historical accuracy.

I initially began writing The Book of Seven Hands with novelist Will Alexander, and he had the great idea of the character’s needing the famous alchemist Paracelsus to translate their ancient tome. So after deciding that history places Paracelsus in Spain in 1524, our work was cut out for us to make that world come alive.

Well, I had my work cut out for me. Unfortunately, Will had a book deadline that interfered with our swashbuckling, so he had to hit eject on this project (tough luck for him: he went on to win the national Book Award last fall). So it fell to me make early modern Spain come alive.

But the choice of 1524 set-up some interesting parameters for the writing of a swashbuckler because the fashion of carrying a rapier wasn’t happening in Spain yet. People did carry swords like that, and certainly there were training schools popping up all across Europe, especially in Germany and Italy before 1524. But the genre trope of the dashing Spaniard who carries a rapier for dueling and fencing with lots of cool thrusts and parries? That’s not a fashion for another 50-75 years or so (Jeronimo de Carranza, the father of the Spanish fencing style “la destreza,” published his definitive training manual in 1569).

As a result, I quickly realized certain words couldn’t be used, words that made writing a story about swashbuckling . . . well, problematic.

The two words that I told myself not to use: RAPIER and DUEL.

Here’s why:

RAPIER

Don Diego without a rapier? Inigo Montoya without his father’s sword? Why refuse  the word rapier, if a swashbuckling adventure is what you want to write?

Scroll hilt rapier

Pretty Scroll-hilt Rapier

It might sound like a picky thing, but the word rapier wasn’t used in 1524 and in Spain that word doesn’t come along until the late 16th Century. The need for carrying long, thin swords for personal security was present in 1524 Spain (see DUEL below for more on that) and in one of the earliest appearances of the English word, a rapier is referred to as “the Spanische sword” (1530), suggesting that Spain might have even given birth to the first rapiers.

But scroll-hilted swords with a sharpened edge? Those pretty swords so prevalent in a readers’ mind aren’t common for a few more decades.

In the late 1490s, the term used for a rapier-like sword was espada ropera, that is, dress sword (indeed, ropera may be the origin of the word rapier), and another was espada corta (short sword), a term used for the simple stabbing swords that had been common in Europe since the Roman legion. Espada ropera just sounded odd to me, so I used the terms espada corta and espada, or sometimes just “sword,” and did my best to give a taste of this murky moment in the rapier’s history when I could:

“His widening eyes seeming to swallow the insanity of the situation – a French-looking woman dressed all in gray with a savagely broken nose and an espada so long and thin with such a deadly edge right down to the hilt that it looked like a weapon from the future.”

DUEL

In the end, I used this word once or twice, but I cringed inside when I did. Because when I began writing The Book of Seven Hands, I wanted to avoid using it altogether.

Why? Because dueling didn’t mean sword fighting until much later in the Sixteenth Century. It would be like writing about travel in 1905 and using the word “driving” for riding a horse.

To be clear, what we think of sword dueling was a nobleman’s martial art, the means to defend one’s class and reputation. In 1524, if you said two guys were “dueling,” it meant they were aristocrats settling a judicial dispute, not whipping out swords a la Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.

Sword fighting did become that, of course, but only after half a century of the lower classes hashing things in the rougher quarters of Europe. My thinking is that sword fighting initially became popular not by aristocrats defending their honor but by Spain sending Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery.

Think about it.

From 1492 onward, gold, tobacco, and lucrative new commodities from the New World came pouring into Spain’s port towns. The volume of wealth sailing across the Atlantic would be enough to finance wars in Italy, Holland, and France, and it would make Spain the preeminent European superpower for the next two centuries. We’re talking about a ransacking of Roman proportions and it was just toddling down the docks of Seville, day after day.

Who was guarding it? There was no Spanish Armada at first – not until 1588. Spain itself didn’t even have a national army until 1495 or so and whole regions of Spain were unconnected except by ancient Roman and Carthaginian roads. So for the 20-30 years after the plundering of the Americas began, Spain’s ports were nothing more than big juicy ducks waiting to be shot. The age of piracy was inevitable: Get a ship, hire some sailors with loose morals, a gross of espadas cortas from the local smithy, and grab yourself a piece of the action in short order.

But forget about pirates. That’s another story (he said with an eager grin).  Why go to the trouble of commandeering a ship when all the gold has to come ashore eventually? Just imagine what the docks of Seville and Cadiz must have been like before Spain started policing its cities aggressively. The seaside public houses and alleyways must have been bristling with weapons. The fights among mercenaries, privateers, thugs, and the occasional nobleman getting dragged down into the muck would have been lethal. And brief.

In my mind, these are the conditions in which the “Spanische sword” became common as prayer in Spain.

Because mastering the sword would have been an immediate necessity (and not a martial “art,” per se). One of my sources discussed the poor quality of espadas cortas used by Spanish sailors in the 1490s, saying their blades broke frequently. To me that suggests the quality of weapon-forging hadn’t caught up with the new and widespread demand yet. A simple parry of blade on blade, the kind that anyone would perform out of reflex, might leave a young tough with no weapon. And dead in the street.

Playing that out, if you spent the money on a sturdier espada corta, well-forged by a cunning weapons-smith (and there were plenty of those guys in the ancient metal town of Toledo), you were more likely to win fights by being aggressive and letting your opponent parry, if he dare. If you were lucky to survive a fight or two beyond that, you might realize that your espada corta is actually a decent piece of armor, too. You don’t need a massive sword and thick helmet or grieves, if you can parry once and counter thrust effectively. That would be enough, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Mercutio.

So sword fighting did exist in Spain, and it would have been a finely honed skill, har har, but a skill developed out of fear of death and sheer necessity for most. My Spaniards almost certainly would not have called it “dueling,” a martial art, or anything other than luchar — fighting — and without aristocratic honor to muss things up yet, fighting would have been its own tough reward.

To quote Don Manuel, the teacher of my heroes Basilio and Alejo, “Luchamos por la derecha luchar luchas más.” 

We fight for the right to fight more fights.

Killing Characters is Chicken Soup for the Soul

By , March 13, 2013

I wrote a swashbuckler for the Foreworld Saga last spring and summer called The Book of Seven Hands. it was written in the wake of a divorce, and I can tell you, with no uncertainty, that I loved my mental escape to Sixteenth Century Spain. I really, really needed that world of exploding cannon fire, back-alley sword fights, and insults volleying over crossed steel.

Hm. Upon further review, it wasn’t much of an escape from reality. But let’s press on!

I’m not big on Art as Therapy. In most of my stories, I play. That’s what writing is. It’s a way of diverting my mind to matters of beauty and fun. I like playing with structure in science fiction (“Lot 12A: The Feast of the Dead Manuscript”) and making stories that steer straight into the surreal (“Parade of You”). Stories like those require me to be in a flow of words and dreams, meta-aware of how the sentences are coming out, more like writing poetry than telling an actual hook-rising action-big climax sorta story.

Ripping good yarns of dueling swordsmen are a different kind of flow, but I like it just as much. It’s a flow that’s comforting and familiar to me from studying stage combat, kendo, and tae kwon do. A story about swordmasters resurrecting an ancient martial art in 1524 Spain? Yes, please!

While writing The Book of Seven Hands, I had the 1973/74 production of The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers very much on my mind, probably because fight arranger William Hobbes blocked those movies’ duels to look so chaotic, dirty, deadly, and funny in a seemingly out-of-control way. (Just like life!) He also arranged Robin and Marian, Excalibur, and Pirates, each of which has Hobbes’ signature of fights fought in panicked desperation – little films within the film. I wanted my adventure to have the same taut energy.

Why? Because Basilio and Alejo, the heroes of The Book of Seven Hands, were going to pay for my misery. Accordingly, they only have one scene where they kick actual ass. Every fight and narrow escape after that is another humiliation, another debilitating wound or broken bone. This matters doubly because it’s 1524: There are no doctors as we think of them, only barbers and “surgeons” (a term of near-derision that elicited shudders and disgust in 1524). Poor Basilio and Alejo were unlucky enough to be born in a time when bleeding or burning the victim, er, patient, was the answer to every ailment, and cleaning wounds with water was radical gonzo medicine.

That’s right. I went medieval on my Renaissance characters.

The other thing I found deeply satisfying, beyond torturing my characters, was creating a rich back-story for them. I see The Book of Seven Hands as, perhaps, the final installment of a three part story. It stands on its own just fine because I laid out in rich detail for myself how my middle-aged sword fighters got to this last, hopeless chapter. And it was fun flashing glimpses of the older adventures at readers:

Basilio grabbed the back of the expensive red chair as the room seemed to spin for a moment. He had once leaped from the crow’s nest of a sinking galleon, flaming sails flapping around him as he dived head first into the flotsam and jetsam scattered from a Mediterranean sea-fight. He and Alejo had once run headlong at a French cannon line to stop them from destroying Don Manuel’s supply caravan outside Florence. But the Archbishop of Barcelona, seeking for him in Vacanana – that actually frightened Basilio.

It’s easy for some to disregard adventure stories as being untrue to life, fabricating problems that we know they’ll get out of, or to dismiss a swashbuckler like this as escapist or fantastical. But for everything there is a season, even in writing. A time to create reality and a time to alter it. A time to look life in the teeth and a time to play with it. Last year was hard, but it was also more fun than I’ve ever had in my life, in no small part because I met a new cool and lovely companion and also because of The Book of Seven Hands.

I’ll live.

I can’t say the same for all my characters. But I’ll live.

The Book of Seven Hands

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By , March 11, 2013

the book of seven hands cover

Next week, our next entry in the Foreworld SideQuests will be released (on March 19th; click on the cover if you’d like to go pre-order it now). It’s the first post-Medieval era story, set in Spain during the 1520s, and it inaugurates our Renaissance era stories. I know this is quite a jump from the mid-1200s, but after the release of the third book of The Mongoliad, we wanted to make it abundantly clear we were going to branch out into other eras, and oh boy, but do we with The Book of Seven Hands.

It’s written by Barth Anderson, who is a new name for Foreworld, but he’s been blogging about the food and agriculture industries for several years and he’s quite an accomplished novelist in his own right. You should check out his author page for more information.

As for The Book of Seven Hands, here’s the promo text.

Expert swordsmen Basilio and Alejo have one last mission before they go their separate ways: they must recover their teacher Don Manuel’s ancient fighting manual and take it to remote Cataluña in order to have it translated by the famous alchemist Paracelsus. Unbeknownst to them, however, Don Manuel has been murdered, and a host of powerful forces has come looking for the coveted book – everyone from old lovers and lifelong archenemies to the King’s assassin, and the Spanish Inquisition.

The adventures of Basilio and Alejo usher in a new era of adventures in Foreworld, one wherein the Shield-Brethren, the fabled warrior monks of the medieval era, have been stricken from history. Old traditions are threatened and long-standing secrets are in danger of being revealed.

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