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.

One Response to “The Cross-dressing Swashbucklers of Spain”

  1. Yangsze says:

    What a great, informative article — I really enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to your book!

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