Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Catalina de Erauso, "the Lieutenant Nun"

Catalina de Erauso (escapes her convent, 18 March 1600)


According to her autobiography, Catalina de Erauso was born in 1585, although the surviving record of her baptism notes a date of 1592--just a small indication of the confusion about many of the details of her tumultuous, adventure-filled life.

But, really, even if Erauso has exaggerated (or even misrepresented) some aspects of her life, what a life it was!

Catalina de Erauso, c. 1626,
attributed to  Juan van der Hamen
Born in the Basque town of San Sebastián, Catalina was the daughter of Miguel de Erauso, a captain in the Spanish army, and of Maria Pérez de Gallarraga y Arce.

When she was four years old (she gives the year as 1589 in her autobiography), the girl and her two sisters were sent to be educated at the Dominican convent of San Sebastián el Antiguo, where her mother's sister was prioress. 

Catalina says nothing more about convent life, noting only that, when she was fifteen, she had a series of increasingly heated encounters with members of the community.

Finally, seeing a chance of escape, she took it, fleeing the convent on the night of 18 March 1600 and entering a world that she "had never seen before." 

At that point, she changed her identity. "I don’t know where I headed," she writes, "but I ended up in a chestnut grove out behind the rear of the convent. There I hid out for three days tracing and cutting clothing. I made myself a pair of trousers from a skirt of blue cloth that I had, and a shirt and leggings from the green shift that I wore underneath. Not knowing what to make of the rest of my habit, I left it there. I cut off my hair and threw it away."

From this moment on, Catalina de Erauso lived much, but not all, of her life as a man. Her decision seems at first purely practical, a way to avoid being identified and returned to convent life, but also a way to avoid the perils of traveling alone as a woman. At the same time, however, her life as a man seems also to correspond to other needs and desires as well. 

As you can well imagine, gender and sexuality scholars have focused a great deal of attention on the both the "real" life of Catalina de Erauso (as it can be reconstructed) and the written (and constructed) life of Catalina de Erauso, la monja alférez ("the lieutenant nun) 

Catalina de Erauso first came to my attention in 1996, when Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite Nun in the New World, translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto, was published. In her introduction to the volume, gender theorist Marjorie Garber focuses the attention of the reader on difficulties of addressing questions of gender and identity in Catalina de Erauso's autobiography. "How can we assess the erotic, social, and political effects of cross-dressing at a remove of almost four centuries, in the context of a culture very different from our own, and as described in a Spanish-language text?" asks Garber. "The short answer, of course, is that we can't.”
When Catalina de Erauso fights duels, steals money, leads soldiers into battle, rescues a woman in distress, evades the marriage plans of hopeful widows and their daughters, and marches across league upon league of uncharted Peruvian terrain, it is tempting to see in her tale an allegory of early modern woman's emergent subjectivity. . . . When Catalina flirts with two young women, "frolicking" and "teasing," it might seem intriguing to read this as lesbianism avant la lettre, an instance of female homosexuality or, at the very least, love play between women. Yet all these readings are allegorical--that is to say, they are readings of her story as a story about something else--as indeed saints' and others' lives have been offered in the literary annals of her time and ours--as exempla, as indications of deeper or higher truths.
In 1996, when this English translation of Erauso's autobiography was published, the identification of this seventeenth-century figure as "transvestite" was controversial and contested. Now, more than twenty years later, the discussion is still complicated, with many scholars of gender and sexuality suggesting Erauso was transgender, still others continuing the debate about trying to understand the identity of a seventeenth-century person using twenty-first century concepts.

What follows here is just a brief summary of Catalina's life. After leaving the convent, Erauso has a series of adventures in a number of Spanish cities, serving a variety of masters in a variety of roles under a number of different names, including Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and Antonio de Erauso. At times Erauso either meets or serves some members of her own family--cousins, her aunt, even her father--who never recognize her.

At last Erauso decides to travel to the Americas, where, as a man, he lives a riotous life, the autobiography recounting all kinds of madcap adventures, fights and brawls, and sexual misadventures. At one point, "he" is almost forced to marry a woman, at another, "he" is dismissed when caught in a compromising position with a young woman.

Eventually Catalina joins the Spanish army, using the name Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán. As a man, Erauso serves in Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant, recognized for brutality and efficiency.

After another dizzying array of adventures and misadventures--he is promoted, he is suspended, he is imprisoned, he deserts the army, he commits heinous crimes, including murder, for which he is condemned to death and then reprieved--in 1623 Erauso is forced to reveal "her" identity as a woman. Her revelation is a last desperate act; about to be executed, she "confesses" to the local bishop, Francisco Verdugo Cabrerathat she is not only a woman but that she is a virgin, having been brought up in a convent. 

As she tells the story in her memoir, the "truth" is this: "I am a woman; that I was born in such-and-such a place, daughter of such-and-such man and woman; that I was placed at a certain age in such-and-such a convent with my aunt so-and-so; that I grew up there, took the habit and became a novice; that, about to take the vows, I ran off; that I went to such-and-such a place, stripped, dressed myself as a man, cut off my hair, travelled here and there, went to sea, roamed, hustled, corrupted, maimed, and murdered, until coming to end up here at his Lordship’s feet.”

Sent back to Spain, Catalina gains notoriety and attempts to get a military pension, in recognition for her years of service. The documents in her petition include her relación de méritos y servicios ("account of merits and services") and a number of testimonies of witnesses. These records from her 1625-26 appeal preserve a great deal of the verifiable information about her. It is during this same period that she is said to have written or dictated (accounts vary) her memoir. 

Catalina de Erauso is eventually awarded her military pension. In addition, she is also granted another, more unusual request: she asks to be allowed to continue living as a man, and she receives official permission to do so. In 1630 Erauso returns to the Americas, living the last twenty years of his life in Mexico as Antonio de Erauso. 

Notions about Catalina de Erauso's gender and sexuality are thus confused and confusing. In the memoir, she uses female pronouns to refer to herself when she is living as a woman, male pronouns for her life as a man, a practice I've tried to reproduce here, though I remain unclear about which pronouns to use--if she were transgender, I would use the pronoun s/he uses--but I'm not at all sure about what "correct" usage might be in Erauso's case. 

There are also questions about the genre of Catalina's work--is it autobiography? Or confession? Or an adventure story? Is it "true" at all, in any sense of that word?

1829 edition of Catalina de Erauso's
memoir
And there are questions about the authenticity of the memoir, which wasn't published until the nineteenth century. Did Catalina de Erauso "write" this story of her life? There is no surviving manuscript, nor is there any copy of a supposed seventeenth-century printed edition. There is a reference to a supposed manuscript copy in the eighteenth century, a copy of which was eventually published in France in 1829. 

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, though I do enjoy the lively scholarly debate about Catalina de Erauso and the memoir attributed to her. And, while I never taught this text, I did share it with a number of students in the years that I taught, for one of whom it proved to be a transformative text.

I could see the young woman in my class was struggling--she was absent far too many days, she wasn't doing the course reading, and she was missing assignments. She also missed the day students signed up for topics for an independent research assignment--when she came by my office, she was uninterested in the few remaining topics on the list. So I handed her a copy of the 1996 English translation of Erauso's memoir--maybe she'd be interested in this, I suggested. 

She took the book. I'd like to say it saved her life--she didn't do all that well in the course, but she did complete it, and she didn't commit suicide, which is what she was threatening to do (and what I feared).

And two years later, happy, writing like mad, and active in the gay and lesbian group on campus, she stopped by my office one day to say thank you. The story of Catalina de Erauso had been an inspiration. 

The 1996 English translation of Catalina de Erauso's memoir is still in print--you can access it by clicking here. And, if you search "lieutenant nun" on the Amazon website, you will see a number of critical works, focusing on gender and sexuality, about Catalina de Erauso, and while they seem to be out of print, used copies are available.

For an introduction to the critical issues, I recommend Isabel Hernández's essay, "From Spain to the Americas, from the Convent to the Front: Catalina de Erauso's Shifting Identities," originally published in L'Homme, available online through Eurozine (click here).

While you can buy a copy of the memoir, you can also access it freely online. In English, the memoir is available through the Early Americas Digital Archive; the translation, by Dan Harvey Pedrick, can be accessed by clicking here. For a Spanish edition, available through the Biblioteca virtual de Miguel Cervantes, click here.