Archive for the ‘Renaissance History’ Category

In keeping with my theme lately of bad girls of history, here’s an excellent blog post (by a writer named Mike Dash) on a female serial poisoner from 17th century Rome who specialized in helping women escape their loveless marriages.  Dash does an excellent job getting beyond the rumors to the strange truth behind Giulia Tofana, one of the most notorious poisoners in history.  So famous was her mysterious “Acqua Tofana” (the name of her poison), that Mozart himself believed his early death was due to imbibing some.  Enjoy the re-blogged read below!


It was the deadliest poison known to 17th century Europe: odourless, colourless, tasteless, lethal. As little as four drops was enough to kill the strongest man – and to do so in a way that no doct…

Source: Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

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Well, it’s been two full years since I last updated this blog, and if it weren’t for a helpful kick in the ass from Ugo in Florence, I’d probably still be hiding behind mounds of schoolwork trying not to think about how badly I need to get back to this site.  Thank you, Ugo!  You rock!


Portrait of Catalina in her “Lieutenant’s” clothes, by Spanish court painter Juan van der Hamen y Gomez de León. (Source)

When I last left you, I promised you a second fabulous Renaissance lesbian, and here she is, though it’s difficult to know whether to classify her as a lesbian, a trans man, both, or none of the above.  After giving it much thought, I think I’ll settle for “badass queer,” because that, she definitely was.  World, meet Catalina de Erauso, aka “The Lieutenant Nun,” (1) who spent the great majority of her life living as a man, having dashing adventures (both in and out of the bedroom), and who ultimately successfully petitioned both the Spanish court and the Pope himself (!) to recognize her as a legal male.  (3)

Gender Bending in the Renaissance

Now, as anyone even half-familiar with Shakespeare knows, Renaissance literature and theater were full of people and practices that we might now consider genderqueer.  From the boy actors who played female roles on the English stage, to literary gender-bending disguises in Shakespearean comedies, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and other Renaissance tales–gender fluidity abounds in the stories and plays of the Renaissance.  And there are tantalizing indications that though in some ways gender roles were more fixed than they are today, then as now, people found ways to express themselves in non-gender-conforming ways.  We saw an incredible real-life example of this in the last post, which looked at Splenditello, the truly fabulous male alter-ego of a Florentine Renaissance nun, Sister Benedetta Carlini.

squirrel nuts

Catalina had some big ones.  (Source)

However, even among the wide variety of literary and true-life stories of Renaissance gender fluidity, Catalina’s story stands out.  First of all, talk about cojones!  This woman had no problem filling a pair of breeches, as her story will make amply evident.  Second of all, like Sister Benedetta’s story, Catalina’s tale provides us with a rare glimpse of real-life lesbian relationships during the Renaissance–though, notably, like Benedetta, she engaged in these romances while in her guise as a man.  And last but not least in the list of reasons we should care about and study Catalina: much of her tale takes place in the frontier of New Spain (modern-day Central and South America), so her tale provides a window into some of the ways that gender figured in that tragic period of history when the genocide and epistemicide (3) of an entire hemisphere was in full swing.  As her story makes clear, the nascent, transitional social systems in the New World opened up gaps into which someone like Catalina, who wanted to reinvent herself, could slip and even flourish.

So…on with her story.

Catalina’s Early Life

Catalina gives us an account of her childhood in the autobiography she wrote later in life, when she had achieved international fame for her exploits. (4)  Many (though not all) facts from this account have subsequently been verified both in Renaissance times by the Papal and Spanish courts, and by modern scholars.

She was born in the Basque country to a captain in the Spanish military, Don Miguel de Erauso, and his wife, Doña Maria Perez de Galarraga y Arce–sometime in the mid-1580s-early 1590s. (5)  She seems to have been from a large family, as she was constantly bumping into various brothers in far-flung places on her many adventures.  At the age of four, she was placed in a convent along with two sisters.  Her maternal aunt was the prioress.  She remained there until the age of 15, when she was due to take her vows.  At that point, the resentful Catalina, who had been singled out for a beating by a much older novice, seized a moment when all the other nuns were at prayer (Catalina had conned her aunt into thinking she was ill), grabbed a needle and thread, some coins she found lying around, stole her aunt’s keys, ran out the door, into the streets and up into the woods surrounding the convent.  As a cloistered nun, she hadn’t been outside the convent since she entered as a toddler, so at first she wandered aimlessly, her only goal to avoid recapture.

mulan haircut

You knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this post without a Mulan picture, didn’t you?  (See the whole movie sequence here.)

From this exciting beginning, Catalina’s tale gets more and more incredible.  She hid for three days making herself men’s clothes (pants and a shirt) out of her habit and undergarment.  Then she chopped off her hair and headed for a nearby town.

There, in a scenario that would repeat itself many times in the years to come, Catalina’s natural charisma seems to have taken over, because a kindly gentleman (who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin, but didn’t recognize her) took her in, clothed her as the boy he believed she was, and put her up.  She only left three months later when he wanted her to study Latin, she refused, and he hit her.

Having left the gentleman’s house, she went to the king’s court and, calling herself Francisco de Loyola, found a position as a page to the king’s secretary. (6) According to Catalina, one day she witnessed her own father come to the secretary’s house as part of his ongoing search for her.  She encountered her dad in the doorway, but he didn’t give her a second glance.  This too, is a theme in Catalina’s biography–the way that, dressed as a man, she could pass unnoticed among even her closest relations.  That evening she decided her situation was too precarious, so once again she made off in the middle of the night, this time landing, after some time, in Navarre, as the page to a knight of Santiago.  In her two years of travels with him in and around Spain, she one day attended mass at her old convent, where her mother was in attendance and apparently looked directly at her without recognizing her.

How Did She Do It?

By this time Catalina was at least 17-18 years old, and one might think her femininity would be harder to disguise, but she apparently had her means.  The Spanish pilgrim Pedro de la Valle, whom met her later in life when she was at the Pope’s court in Rome, gives us some sense of her physique when he remarks that she was tall for a woman, and had confessed to him that she used some sort of very painful poultice or herbal remedy given to her by an Italian to “dry up” her breasts.  (7) This latter comment is perhaps one of the few testaments we have about pre-hormone therapy “transition” methods.

rupaul drag mother

The drag “mother” is a time-honored tradition.  Did Catalina have a drag father?  Seems like she may have, though I doubt he was as fierce as RuPaul. (Source)

To me, what’s fascinating about this little bit of side commentary by de la Valle is that it both implies that Catalina confided her secret early on to another man (maybe a local apothecary?), (8) and also that he gave her some sort of remedio that was in common use at the time. Which raises a few questions: Exactly how many people out there were looking to reduce their breast size and/or disguise themselves as men?  Clearly enough so that breast reduction herbs were something an Italian medical professional might have in his repertoire. (9)  And furthermore, how did Catalina know to trust her herb-wise mentor with her secret?  As with so many details of Catalina’s tale, we just don’t know.  Unfortunately, this is the only mention we have of the mysterious Italian and his gender-bending recipes.  In any case, the poultice seems to have worked.  What is certain is that by her late teens/early adulthood, she was successfully living as a man in the highest echelons of Spanish society, and that no one ever seems to have questioned her identity as a man.  Even when she was eventually discovered, it was due to her own (unforced) confession rather than the fact that someone had suspected her of being a woman.

“Well,” you might be thinking, taking a break and scrolling back up to the title to this post.  “This is certainly the Renaissance, and Catalina seems pretty boss, but really, I was promised lesbian love scenes.  Where are the lesbian love scenes?” Hang on, folks, because the ride is just getting started.  If you think living successfully as a trans man in Renaissance Spain was badass, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Catalina in the New World

jay z hustler

Jay-Z wasn’t the only hustler, baby.  Catalina was no slouch herself. (Source)

To pick up Catalina’s story, she once again ditched her patron on a whim (perhaps because of that close call with her mother), and this time, headed for New Spain.  The Spanish colonies were where Catalina really got down to the business of fully owning and embodying exactly what it meant to be a virile young Spanish gentleman.  Or some might say, a cad.  When she eventually confessed her true identity to the Bishop, Catalina summed up her time in the New World by saying:

I traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instance, at the feet of Your Eminence. (10)

I don’t know about you, but to me that reads like the résumé of an original gangsta.

Case in point:  Catalina had arrived in the New World as a cabin boy on a ship belonging to (of all people) her uncle, who in a now-familiar pattern, did not recognize her, but quickly adopted the young man as his protégé.  Catalina admits that the uncle was very good to her, but in the end, her ne’er-do-well instincts took over. Upon docking in Panama, their last stop before the return trip to Spain, she clubbed him over the head while he was sleeping (!) and made off with 500 reales.  (BTW, from what we can tell, her nom de guerre changed at this point–she used many throughout her remarkable life, but it appears as though this may be the moment when she changed from Francisco de Loyola to Alonso Díaz Ramirez de Guzmán.)

catalina rejected princesses

Just as I was going to press I found this AMAZING website featuring “princesses” too bold/quirky/badass to make Disney’s cut.  Catalina’s among their picks, obvs.

After a dramatic shipwreck and another bout living with yet another patron who outfitted her with not only clothes and a business, but slaves as well, Catalina/Alonso found herself in a pickle.  Having slashed the face of a local dandy in a sword fight, (10) she was thrown in jail.  The only way out, according to her patron, was if she (being to all parties concerned a “he,” of course) married the patron’s own mistress, whose niece was, in turn, married to Catalina’s victim.

Confused?  Join the club.  Shakespeare couldn’t invent better hijinks than these. Basically, the patron’s brilliant idea was to create an alliance between the two feuding families by having Catalina/Alonso marry his own (i.e. the patron’s) lover.  That way the boss would have a forever bond with his mistress, the mistress would have the income and security of a marriage (which the boss, being already married, couldn’t give her), and the blood feud between Catalina/Alonso and the young man she mutilated would be resolved through the marriage, thereby freeing Catalina/Alonso from prison.

Now here’s the interesting bit, as far as lesbian history goes.  From this first mention of the boss’ lover, Catalina/Alonso’s tale basically reads more or less as a series of seduction narratives and fight scenes, in which the protagonist is taken in by patron after patron (sometimes patronesses as well), only to become inescapably attractive to a young woman, usually either the daughter or niece of the person who is hosting her.  Catalina/Alonso always seems to enjoy the company of the lady, and to participate quite willingly in all sorts of caresses and fondlings.  Only when events climax (as it were) in the woman’s proposal of marriage does the young Alonso flee, often leaving a substantial promised dowry behind.  In other words, it appears as though Catalina/Alsonso actively participated in all the courting and foreplay of the relationship, only deserting her lover when her male alter-ego was about to be found out.

The Juicy Details


Don Juan could have learned a thing or two from Don Alonso, Catalina’s alter ego. (Source)

The story itself makes great reading in the tradition of all swashbucklers, and I encourage you to read it for yourself, which is easily done online.  (You can read it in about an hour, and really, anything that includes cross-dressing, lesbian affairs, numerous rapier duels, a torture scene, and a trans-friendly Pope should be on your “must-read” list.)  Here are just a few excerpts, though, of the parts that most directly address Catalina’s relationships with women.  These should give you a sense of both what is said and unsaid in her narrative. Her tone, as she describes these encounters, makes it clear that she fancies herself quite the Don Juan.  (Or rather, given the chronology of the two, that Don Juan may have fancied himself quite the Don Alonso.) She writes:

I used to slip out by night to that lady’s (i.e. the above mentioned patron’s mistress) house. There she caressed me passionately and, feigning fear of the police, begged me not to return to the church [where Catalina had sought sanctuary] but to stay there. One night she even locked me in and declared that in spite of the Devil I had to bed her. She held on to me so tightly that I had to pry her hands loose to get away.

And about Catalina’s/Alonso’s next conquest:

At the end of nine months he (i.e. Catalina/Alonso’s new patron) informed me that I should seek my living elsewhere. The reason for this was that he had two young maidens living in his house, sisters of his wife, and with whom (and above all with one who was especially fond of me) I used to frolic and fool around. And one day he happened by a window and saw us in the parlour. Reclining in her petticoats, she was combing my hair, our legs entangled. He heard her telling me that I should go to Potosí and earn money so we could get married. He withdrew and summoned me shortly. He questioned me, settled accounts, and I left.

And again, this time with her own brother’s lover (how she came to be the best friend of her brother, who didn’t know her identity, and how she eventually killed him in a duel after he found her sexing up his girlfriend, you will have to find out for yourself):

I remained with my brother as his aide, dining at his table for nearly three years without his ever realizing anything. I went with him sometimes to the house of a girlfriend he had there. Other times I went there without him. He found out about this and took it hard, telling me to keep away from there. He lay in wait for me and caught me at it again. When I came out, he attacked me with his belt and injured my hand.


Like many famous lovers, Catalina was adept at juggling the attentions of two women. (Source)

And my personal favorite, the time that she juggled two different proposals at once by claiming that the gifts given to her by one prospective bride were really a wedding gift for the impending marriage to the other.  (She wound up dumping both girls just before the weddings.)  That story contains the line in which Catalina comes the closest as she ever does to declaring her sexual orientation outright, when she writes that one of the girls who desired her was “contrary to my taste, which was always the pretty faces.” (11)

Yes, but how Real is her Story?

There is so much more in her narrative that I can’t even begin to summarize it here: multiple duels and stints in prison, bouts of near-death in the high Andes, run-ins with frozen mummies, torture scenes in which she triumphs over the rack, feats of soldierly derring do, etc. etc.

If you are beginning to think to yourself that it is highly unlikely that a woman of her time could have gotten away with such brash deceit, and moreover, that all these adventures both in and out of the bedroom could not possibly have happened to one person, let me assure you that you are not the first to think so.  However, by and large, most of the major events in her tale do correlate with actual events, as far as church officials at the time and modern-day scholars have been able to tell. In other words, we don’t know for sure, for instance, whether or not the boss’ mistress really was in love with her and caressed her, but we do know that Catalina/Francisco/Alonso did serve such-and-such a master, that Alonso served in various Spanish forces in the New World, and we can verify that many of the people whom she mentions in the text did, indeed, interact with her.  Many of them even supported her (in writing and in person) in her eventual claim for a pension from the Spanish state.  Even the medical side of her story can be verified:  When she finally confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she volunteered to have a gynecological exam by a panel of matron midwives, who legally vouched for the fact that Catalina did, indeed, have female “parts,” and that she was, moreover, a virgin. (12)


Catalina excelled at “realness.” (Source)

The Bishop’s response to the midwives’ report was sheer amazement–that Catalina could have fooled so many people in so many places, and that, despite having lived among sex-starved men (soldiers, sailors, etc) for so long, she remained a virgin–seemed to him proof of God’s miracles.  Rather than arrest her and condemn her for cross-dressing (as had happened to Joan of Arc, for instance), he simply asked her to live among a group of nuns so that she could preserve her chastity. Catalina agreed for the moment, although eventually, she would appeal to the Pope himself in order to continue living her life as a man.  (More on that later.)

The Downside of “Realness” and Food for Thought

Like certain drag kings and queens that specialize in “realness,” Catalina/Alonso could quite rightly be said to embody most of the most sought-after masculine traits of her time.  This can make her a really fun, and potentially inspiring role model for contemporary trans folk, who need more genderqueer heroes from history included in the textbooks they read.  However, in the age of conquistadores, nothing is without its shadow side.  For Catalina’s hyper-masculinity includes not just the fun stuff like hose, codpieces, and feathered hats, but also casual misogyny, a hyper-macho sense of easily slighted honor, a tendency to reach for one’s sword at the slightest provocation, and most disturbingly, a truly horrific active participation in the slavery and genocide upon which the Spanish empire was based.  Indeed, Catalina/Alonso’s rousing adventures would be fun and games on the order of an old Errol Flynn movie if it weren’t for the very disturbing scenes in which she, like most Spanish soldiers, not only engages in, but positively brags about her triumphantly genocidal tactics against the indigenous population. In by far the most troubling scene in the book, her military party kills a twelve-year-old Indian boy who shot an arrow at them from a tree, and then later massacres his village, boasting that “a gutter of blood like a river flowed down through the place.”


Like the scene depicted here, Catalina describes one of her party’s raids against indigenous groups as culminating in a “river of blood.” (Source)

Catalina/Alonso was no innocent bystander, folks.  For you teachers out there, this should be made abundantly clear to the students whenever we are teaching her.  Part of what makes Catalina so great for the classroom is that her story offers us both a way to celebrating early LGBTQ heroes AND a way to shine a light on the heinous human rights abuses of the time period.

So because I always like to be practical, as well as (hopefully) inspiring, here are some suggestions for classroom discussion.  For those of you who just want to get on with her story, you can just scroll down to continue her tale below.

Questions for Discussion

  • How did Catalina perform her gender?
  • What did it mean to be a man in her time, and how well did she embody those ideals?
  • Who needs to be put down, pushed aside, or altogether obliterated in order for Catalina to seem “manly”?

And taking off from this point, one could extend the discussion further by asking:

  • How do we all perform gender in our daily lives?
  • What negative sides are there to our own performances?
  • ratchet mileyAre there certain groups that must be dominated or put down in order to achieve “realness” of a particular gender role?  (e.g. The use of “bitch/ho” in certain rap subcultures to create a hyper-masculine African-American persona, or the class-based insult “ratchet” to cast aspersion on a woman’s femininity)
  • Are there certain subgroups of people excluded from embodying certain roles? (e.g. Are gay or East Asian men considered “real” men in the media? Can a dark-skinned, heavy woman be “truly” feminine to Madison Avenue standards?)
  • Must certain groups be abolished outright or given fewer freedoms as part of some other group’s gender performance?  (e.g. conservative groups that believe gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, and so must be prohibited)
  • And finally: Can we find ways to embody our own preferred gender role without engaging in the harmful stereotypes and practices that can accompany it?

If we play it right, Catalina’s story can become a springboard to much wider discussions that may help our students consider the intersection of power dynamics between gender, race, class, and ethnicity (among other things) in their own lives.

Catalina’s Significance

So in addition to her usefulness as a touchpoint for issues of cross-platform oppression, what makes Catalina so special?  Other than her setting during the Spanish conquest, what sets her apart from other famous cross-dressing women like Mulan and Joan of Arc?

I’ve thought about it and researched quite a bit, and here’s what I’ve come to:

Catalina/Alonso is important because she is (as far as I can tell) the first case we can find of a person going against deeply ingrained gender norms in order to successfully live out her life as a member of another gender for no other reason than that she wanted to.

Phew! That’s a mouthful.  Let’s unpack some key phrases.



A Roman Archigallus, a MtF priestess of the goddess Cybele. (Source)

She is the first case: There are plenty of other examples of cross-dressing and gender-bending way before Catalina, most notably the priests and priestesses of a variety of gods and goddesses throughout the Near East, India, Africa, and the Americas from ancient times all the way to the present.  Shamans, both ancient and modern, have also often practiced cross-dressing or engaged in other gender-bending acts as a way of reaching the divine.  To my knowledge, however, these practices were all undertaken in the context of larger religious/cultural systems that allowed, or in some cases, even encouraged gender fluidity.  This is not to downplay their significance in the history of gender identity, but simply to point out that a male-to-female priestess of Cybele, for instance, was engaging in behavior that had a socially sanctioned and ritual purpose, whereas Catalina’s transformation was neither ritualized, nor did it form part of a larger social order that would be recognized by her peers.


Going against deeply ingrained gender norms:  Again, even when cultures have very distinct gender roles for men and women, they may have specific proscribed ways of “violating” these norms.  I’m thinking, for example, of Indian hijras, or men who dress (and in some cases live) as women.  Traditional Hindu culture has very specifically delineated gender roles, that for the most part, are strictly enforced (as they were in the Spanish culture of Catalina’s time.)  But unlike the Spanish Renaissance, which had no specific outlet for fluid gender identities, the hijra is a proscribed role for men who wish to take on female characteristics.  Similar things could be said for most of the priests, priestesses, and shamans mentioned above.  (This of course, is not to deny the very real discrimination that hijras face, but simply to point out that a third category of gender identity is socially recognized.)  Not so in Catalina’s world.  She was going her own road, without the support of any community, and without any template to follow or specific role to fill.

Successfully lived out her life: As her story makes clear, Catalina lived most of her life as a man without being discovered, doing all those things (soldiering, seducing, dueling, praying, pillaging, traveling) that a Spanish gentleman was expected to do.  At no point was she discovered until she chose to reveal herself, and even then, she went on to secure the right to continue living as a man.  (More on that below.)  This is in stark contrast, to for instance, Joan of Arc, her more famous cross-dressing counterpart, who was burned at the stake for (among other things) wearing men’s clothes.

laverne cox

I think Catalina would approve. (Source)

For no other reason than that she wanted to: Here’s the part that to me, seems so stellar.  Catalina wasn’t living as Alfonso because she wanted to save her father from having to fight in a war (a la Mulan), or because she heard voices telling her to defeat the British (a la Joan of Arc), or because she was fulfilling a religious call (like so many priests, shamans, and religious figures from around the world).  Nor was she following an already-established pathway to gender difference, as was, say, a traditional two-spirit “berdache” in Mississippian culture.  Catalina seems to have chosen to live as a man simply because she wanted to.  Whether that desire came out of a deeply felt belief that she really was a man (as many trans people today feel), or because it was simply the most expedient way not to be confined by oppressive female gender norms, is almost impossible to say.  We do know this: Catalina insisted BOTH on the fact that she was a woman (and a virgin, at that), AND that she should have the right to be called “Alonso” (or one of her other male names) and live out her life as a man.  Just because.

That makes her, in my book, a boss.

Catalina, the Court, and the Pope

So how did Catalina’s story end?  Well, once she had confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she was in a tricky legal position.  Of all the most pressing issues facing her, the most important, in that time period, was her commitment to the church.  If she had ever professed vows as a nun, she was legally obligated to return to her original convent. (In the meantime, because there was really no other option for single, virgin women of a certain age, she was housed temporarily in a convent.)  Given the distance and bureaucracy involved with establishing her legal status, it took several years for confirmation to reach Peru that she had not, in fact, ever taken orders officially.  At that point, she was urged by the new Bishop of Peru to take permanent vows in the convent in which she was temporarily housed, but Catalina pushed back.  She writes, “I told him that I had no order nor religious obligation and that I was trying to get back to my native land where I would do whatever seemed best for my salvation.”

equal pay

Catalina was one of the first in the long, unfinished fight for equal pay. (Source)

What seemed best to her for her salvation, apparently, was to see if she could get a pension from the Spanish court for serving as a soldier all those years in the Indies.  This took a fair amount of work.  She needed to prove her case–not that she was a woman (for that had already been established), but that she’d been a good soldier and worthy of the same treatment as her male compatriots.  This is when many of her past patrons, battalion leaders, and others came forward and vouched for the character and battle-worthiness of Alonso (or whatever name she had been fighting under when she was in their service).  Since none of them had known she was a woman when she served with them, they were initially baffled, but many supported her cause.

Wherever she went, Catalina attracted great crowds.  This is in large part because as soon as she left the convent, she took up wearing men’s clothes again, and people couldn’t contain themselves from ogling at the “Lieutenant Nun,” as she had come to be called.  Her fame was such that when she traveled to Rome, she was granted an audience with Pope Urban VIII, whom she asked for a special papal dispensation that would allow her to live out her life as a man.  This was a brilliant strategy–if he said yes, then she’d essentially be considered legally male in any Catholic country.  He did. Catalina relates his response:

gay urban

Pope Urban VIII is better known as the man who indicted Galileo, but he turns out to have been remarkably trans-friendly.

His Holiness showed himself to be astonished by such a tale, and kindly granted me permission to continue my life dressed as a man, charging me to live honestly henceforth and to abstain from offending my neighbor, attaching the threat of the wrath of God to his order, “Non Occides.” [Latin for “Do not kill.”]

What I think is particularly interesting in Catalina’s account is that the Pope seems not to be overly concerned with her gender identity, but rather, gives his attention to her propensity for murder and mayhem. (And rightly so, I might add.)  In fact, the implication seems to be that “living honestly” for Catalina would mean living peacefully as a man.  It’s a remarkably mild, even positive reaction.

From this point on, Catalina, or rather, Don Antonio de Erauso, as she was now legally known, became a minor celebrity, fêted by Cardinals, princes, and the like at every turn.  Catalina ends her autobiography on a happy note with typical zest, with an anecdote in which she deals with some would-be hecklers.  These are literally her last words:

While strolling along the wharf in Naples one day, I perceived the loud laughter of two girls who were chatting with a couple of boys. We stared at each other and one said to me, “Where to, Lady Catalina?”  I answered, “To give you a hundred whacks on the head, my lady whores, and a hundred slashes to whomever may wish to defend you!” They shut up and slipped away.

If that isn’t the very definition of having cojones, I don’t know what is.  Would to God that all haters were as easily and forcefully shut down.

trans meme

If Catalina were alive today, she might express herself like this. (Source)

Catalina/Antonio eventually returned to the Indies (modern-day Mexico), where she set up an import/export business and died “an exemplary death” in 1650 in Veracruz. (13) To the last of her days, she lived as a man.  As far as I can tell, she was the first and only person ever to receive papal dispensation to live as another gender. (14)

And with that, I rest my case.  Model Spanish cavalier (with all the good and bad that entails). Lesbian heartbreaker. Early trans success story.  Despite, or even because of, her many flaws, Catalina de Erauso should enter history textbooks (and classrooms) as an early “badass queer.” QED.



  1. This is an English translation of Catalina’s Spanish moniker, given to her by her contemporaries, “La Monja Alférez.”
  2. It has been very difficult to figure out which gender pronoun to use when speaking about Catalina and her male alter-egos.  On the one hand, most scholarship refers to Catalina as “she,” and Catalina herself was insistent that she was, indeed, a woman. On the other hand, she herself spent most of her life dressed and living like a man, and clearly (and on more than one occasion) pled, ultimately successfully, to be treated as a man, complete with the use of an alternate name. Switching back and forth between “she” and “he” for Catalina and her various male alter-egos might make things a bit too complex for readers to follow, so I reluctantly am going to go with the scholarly crowd here.  However, I do this with quite a bit of unease.  I also might change my usage if I were teaching Catalina in class, since I tend to follow modern gender pronoun and vocabulary usage when working with teenagers.  For more of my thoughts on why this is an especially important point for teens, see my note on my use of words like “gay,” “trans,” “genderqueer,” etc. from the first note in my last post.  Having a commonly accepted English-language gender neutral pronoun would make things so much easier. *Deep sigh*
  3. The concept of “epistemicide” or the annihilation of non-Western (particularly indigenous) systems/paradigms of knowledge is one that is increasingly important in academic work on the colonial and post-colonial eras.  Even the World Bank now makes use of the concept when trying to preserve indigenous farming and medical knowledge.  It’s beyond my purview to really investigate this theme closely here, but I do think it’s interesting to note that Catalina finds her opportunity not in the Old World, where she was born, but in a place that is at the epicenter of a shift in world systems, where identities in general are to some degree both more fixed (as in the designation of people as being “pure” Castilian vs. “mestizo,” etc.) and more fluid, as the “wild west” setting of her tale makes clear.  I also think it’s important to note that Catalina, as a Spaniard, enjoyed privileges not available to many indigenous or even mestizo individuals, and so it may have been easier for her to “pass.”
  4. All the quotes from and autobiographical information about Catalina are taken from her book, “The Autobiography of Doña Catalina de Erauso,”an English translation of which can be found here online.
  5. Catalina herself gives her birthdate as 1584, but her baptismal certificate would seem to indicate it was 1592.
  6. Catalina used a variety of names throughout her life, a few of which were Pedro de Olive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman, and Antonio de Erauso.  See the Spanish-language article in ARTEHISTORIA. “Monja alférez. Catalina de Erauso – Personajes – ARTEHISTORIA V2”
  7. From what I’ve been able to tell, given my admittedly scant knowledge about Renaissance herbal lore, there certainly were (and are) herbal remedies used to “dry up” milk after miscarriages or unsuccessful births; how effective these would be at eliminating breasts altogether remains unclear to me.  Or perhaps Catalina was using something that we now might recognize as an anti-estrogen. Or an acid-like concoction that literally burned her glands (perhaps explaining the pain?).  Who knows.  I should definitely take this moment, though, to add that I am NOT endorsing trying this at home, folks.  Although herbs continue to be popular among some trans folk as a way of making a supposedly kinder, gentler transition, botanicals can be just as powerful as pharmaceuticals, and I would urge extreme caution when going it alone.  Plus, we (thankfully) have WAY more options now than Catalina did.
  8. The original Spanish makes it clear that the person in whom Catalina confided and received a remedy from was male (“un italiano”).
  9. Catalina drops one other tantalizing hint that gender-bending behavior was perhaps more common during the Renaissance than we know.  She writes that, upon hearing her confession about her identity, the Bishop stated “that he considered this the most remarkable case of its type he had ever heard of in his life.” [My italics.] A lot hangs on those three little italicized words.  On the one hand, they could mean simply that the Bishop found Catalina’s story remarkable because it was more outrageous than the relatively common literary trope of cross-dressing.  On the other hand, it could also imply that the Bishop knew of other such contemporary real-life cases of women dressing as men, and that among these, Catalina’s was the most remarkable.  It’s impossible to know for sure, but the latter interpretation certainly piques one’s interest.
  10. Catalina’s military prowess has been the subject of much speculation.  Some have conjectured that she was taught sword-fighting by her father, but this seems unlikely, since she entered the convent when she was four.  It’s far more likely that she learned her military skills during her stints as a page.  In other words, she was trained exactly like any other young gentleman of the period.
  11. I should note here that this is one of the places where the ugly social and racial realities of the time are made explicit in the text.  The reason given by Catalina for her dislike of the young woman in question is that she is “very dark and ugly as the devil.”  By Catalina’s own account, the girl was the daughter of a woman who was herself the product of a mixed Spanish-Indigenous marriage.  As a pure-blood Spaniard, Catalina/Francisco was therefore situated much higher up in the colonial apartheid system, and was clearly not above abusing her own privilege, marginalized (in some ways) as she was herself.
  12. There has been a certain amount of speculation over the years about whether or not Catalina was intersex (e.g., whether or not she really had two X chromosomes, or whether she actually was XY).  Of course, barring a DNA examination of her remains (and we don’t know where she is buried), this will remain a mystery.  What we do know, though, is whatever her genes, she at least appeared to the midwives who examined her to be a woman.
  13. This quote comes from a legal document (another relación) written in 1653 in Mexico, quoted here.
  14. This is of course, discounting the legend of “Pope Joan,” a supposedly female pope who lived in the Middle Ages.  She is believed by nearly all modern scholars to be fictitious.


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Renaissance Lesbians--the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

Renaissance Lesbians–the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

It’s hard to believe I haven’t posted in nearly a year.  My first year of full-time teaching kicked my butt–so much fun, but so many lesson plans to make!  Now that I can take a breather, I finally have time to post here about some of the amazing women from history I’ve discovered in the last year–many of them the result of insightful questions asked of me by my students.  This particular post comes about because while we were studying Renaissance artists and authors, Fiona asked (apropos of Michelangelo and Leonardo): It seems like there was some sort of more-or-less openly gay culture in the Medici courts.  What about lesbians?  Do we know anything about Renaissance lesbians?

Darn it!  I’d been so focused on providing examples of female writers and artists that I’d overlooked the sexual orientation piece!  And I was embarrassed to admit that day that beyond knowing they MUST have been out there, I had no actual examples of Renaissance lesbians to provide. (1)

So…off I went to do some research, and the first example I came across was so wonderfully strange, so incredibly surreal, that, dear readers, I knew not only that I would bring it back to class, but that I would eventually share it with you here.  Nothing I’m about to write is new–whole books have been written about these wonderful characters from history: the Tuscan nun Sister Benedetta Carlini, her young lover (also a nun), and a randy male angel named – wait for it – Splenditello, who possessed Benedetta from time to time, and whose supernatural presence presumably both explained and condoned her lesbian relationship (at least in Benedetta’s own eyes). (2)

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he was an eight or nine-year-old boy.

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he took the form of an eight or nine-year-old boy. (Photo Source)

Splenditello, the Best Alter-ego Ever

Yes, that’s right.  Benedetta believed that she was possessed by a male angel named Splenditello.  I’m not sure if the name sounds more like a low-sugar Nutella substitute or a dominatrix.  All I know is that if I ever live out my fantasy of being a DJ in a New York City club, that will be my nom de guerre.  And I’ll wear a black catsuit with a cape and wings while in the DJ booth.

Ahem… back to Renaissance history.  Benedetta and her fabulous alter-ego Splenditello would remain unknown to us were it not for the work of historian Judith Brown, who discovered the transcripts of church inquests into Benedetta’s mystical claims while doing research in the Florence city archives.  Dating from 1619-1623, these investigations were carried out by a series of local and papal officials not because of Benedetta’s lesbian relationship (at least not at first), but rather, because she claimed to have had a series of increasingly fervent visions and mystical experiences.  Church authorities were bent on determining whether or not Sister Benedetta’s exceptional religious life was the work of God or of demonic forces.

Benedetta: The Life of an Ordinary Woman?

So who was Benedetta, anyway?  As far as we know, she was just plain folk–the daughter of a middle-class villager from one of the numerous hamlets that dot the Apennine mountains. That, in and of itself, makes Benedetta special.  We have so few accounts of “regular” women’s lives before relatively modern times.   And then there’s the fact that though we possess a fair number of references to lesbian conduct (especially by finger-wagging male authors of church moral codes), we can count on fewer than 10 fingers the number of pre-modern, detailed accounts of lesbian love affairs.  Thanks to those nosey inquisitors, we have nothing if not a wealth of details about Benedetta’s (and her young lover, Bartolomea’s) love life.  So in some ways, Benedetta represents a rare glimpse into the life of an “ordinary” Renaissance woman.

Apparently, Benedetta's fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Apparently, Benedetta’s fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Except for that angel thing.  That makes Benedetta (or should I say, Splenditello?) just a little bit special.  Apparently, though Benedetta was given to the Theatine nuns at age nine, she was not content to remain an anonymous country girl alongside her more urbane fellow sisters.  Far from staying in the lower position indicated by her humble village birth, she quickly rose to a position of prominence within the convent based on the splendor of her visions.  While in trances, she spoke in the voices of angels, or even of Jesus; at times, she even seemed to her sisters to take on the appearance of a young man.  Eventually, she even displayed the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on her hands, feet, side, and head.

At least at first, many of her sisters and local church officials were persuaded. But the visions were also accompanied, at times, by painful episodes of diabolical temptation and pain.  Benedetta’s superiors were both amazed and alarmed by her “visitations,” so they assigned her a younger companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to share her cell, observe her during her visions, and provide whatever assistance Benedetta’s unusual situation required.  (It was Bartolomea who initially confirmed that Benedetta’s stigmata had appeared as the result of a visit from Christ himself on the night of the second Friday of Lent, 1618.)

As Benedetta’s stature in the convent grew, so did the outrageousness of her visions.  By 1619, she was the abbess, delivering sermons to the assembled nuns while they scourged themselves with whips in an attempt to purify themselves.  To give some perspective, even without the whips, Benedetta’s preaching alone would probably have earned her the suspicion of the various male church authorities: women were not permitted to preach.  Benedetta, however, neatly side-stepped that rule by insisting that it was not she herself who was preaching; she was merely speaking in trance while possessed by a (male) angel.  Further night-time visitations followed–Catherine of Siena appeared, as did the aforementioned Splenditello, a beautiful boy in a white robe.  Each time, these “visitors” didn’t so much appear to Benedetta as take up residence in her body. In her voice they would issue commands (don’t eat meat, eggs, and milk products), or dole out praise (usually for Benedetta herself). One time, Bartolomea reported, Jesus visited, tore out Benedetta’s heart, and then three days later, replaced it with his own.  Bartolomea had confirmed this rather startling encounter by feeling a deep “void” when she placed her hand on Benedetta’s chest.

Nobody Likes a Bridezilla

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Eventually, though, Benedetta’s visions went too far.  In May of 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta insisting on, not just marrying her, but marrying her publicly, and with a very specific bridezilla-like set of wedding demands: the guest list, the decorations, the precise (and elaborate) specifications for the procession and ceremony.  And to top it off, when the nuptials were finally performed before her incredulous sisters, Christ (speaking through Benedetta, of course) insisted that his new bride be made “empress of all nuns.”   Apparently her sisters disagreed, for as Judith Brown noted laconically in her book, “The investigation began the next day.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine they put up with her demands for as long as they did.  Scourging with whips?  OK.  Ripping out hearts?  No problem.  Wedding with Christ that ends in demands for coronation?  Whoa there, girl.  You’ve gone too far now.

As is the case for so many of us, Benedetta’s weak spot was her addiction to antipasti.

At first, the ecclesiastical authorities who were called in upheld her visions, but over time, her claims began to crumble.  Some nuns who spied on her through a keyhole saw her pricking herself in the hands with a needle–evidence that her “stigmata” was self-produced.  And then the (extremely Italian) climax: Benedetta, who claimed to be too saintly to eat meat, was spotted sneaking salami and mortadella on the side.  Who could blame her, really?  What’s the point of being Italian if you can’t enjoy a little antipasti?  But that was it.  The church determined it was time to get to the bottom of this salami-eating bride of Christ.

You’ll never look at a sappy angel statue the same way after learning the tale of Splenditello. (Source)

Sister Bartolomea was questioned, and under oath, revealed that Benedetta (in the guise of Splenditello), made passionate love to her.  (And, perhaps even more touchingly, taught her how to read.)  According to the records, he called Bartolomea his beloved as he touched her breasts and kissed her.  Benedetta’s young companion claimed that she was an unwilling recipient of Splenditello’s affections, and perhaps for this reason, was never censured for her role in the affair.  Benedetta, on the other hand, was imprisoned within the convent until her death, 35 years later.

Which is Worse: Lesbianism or Demon Possession?

It seems fairly clear from the archival material that Benedetta was imprisoned for fraud, not for her lesbian activities.  That’s not to say that her relationship was condoned–the lesbian sex certainly was censured and produced as further evidence of her overall unreliability.  However, what’s interesting to note about the entire episode is how relatively little scandal is attached to the lesbian behavior.  Honestly, Salami-gate (as I like to call it) appears to have been more damning in the eyes of the church authorities.  Whether that’s because lesbianism was regarded as a relatively minor sin, or whether the magnitude of Benedetta’s false claims was so great that they eclipsed the other elements of her tale is difficult to tell.

Reports of “possession” were making both Protestant and Catholic authorities increasingly nervous. By the 1680s, posters like these were commonplace. (Source)

It’s certainly true that by Benedetta’s time, issues of demon possession and witchcraft were becoming ever more prominent.  The counter-reformation, which pitted the Catholic church against the various new religious groups that blossomed after Luther’s reforms, highlighted questions of religious authority.  When someone made new religious claims, the Church wanted to know who was speaking.  Did the mystic in question really speak for Christ, or did some more nefarious element stand behind his or her words?  Was his or her message Truth with a capital T, or superstition?

The latter was a category of thought that had gained new importance in the climate of scientific inquiry heralded by the Renaissance thinkers.  Protestant reformers and Catholic counter-Reformation preachers alike hurled accusations of superstition at one another: the Catholic mass was superstitious in its insistence on the physical transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; reformers within the Catholic church were sometimes labeled “superstitious” when they advocated for greater freedom to interpret the scriptures; women who previously had held sway in their villages as herbal healers and midwives were deemed superstitious because their traditions didn’t find a basis in either Catholic dogma or Protestant scripture.  In this light, Benedetta’s attempt to ground her own authority in the seemingly unquestionable guise of male angels and Christ himself seems understandable.  At least, sort of.

Catherine of Siena's mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

Catherine of Siena’s mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

As several scholars have noted, Benedetta’s claims might have passed muster a century or two earlier, when female mystics (and indeed, mystics of all sorts) were less likely to produce a paranoid reaction on the part of a Church that was now being dragged apart by sectarian violence.  But then again, perhaps the audacity of Benedetta’s claims would have done her in irregardless.  It does seem that both the increasing narcissism of her visions and the demands made on her fellow nuns were her undoing.  Other nuns had had visions of being wed to Christ (most notably Catherine of Siena, who “visited” Benedetta and may have inspired her own nuptials).  But these other women were noted for their humility, a trait that does not appear to have been Benedetta’s forte.

It’s also true that just as Benedetta grounded her transgressive claim to authority in mystical garb, so too she grounded her transgressive sexuality the same way.  Her excessive religious experiences were what first created the conditions for her to have a round-the-clock female companion in her cell; “Splenditello” and his cherubic charms then wrapped the two women’s lesbian affair in a feathery halo of angel light.  Whether or not her lover Bartolomea really felt coerced into the relationship or was simply cowered by the Church authorities into disowning it, we’ll never know.  One thing’s for sure: for a short time, Benedetta created an enchanted fantasy world in which she could enjoy a same-sex relationship with another lower class woman.  Not only that, but she could work those very interactions into a complex imagery that very nearly secured her position as abbess of a convent full of her socio-economic “betters.”  Plus, she left us a story that seems to put the oomph into that old chestnut, “the truth is stranger than fiction.”  It’s hard to believe her story hasn’t yet been made into a softcore period drama featuring two young Hollywood starlets. (3)

Lesbians in the Classroom

So, to circle back to the question of teaching: what, if anything, does the story of Benedetta offer our students beyond a ripping good yarn?  Well, to begin with, there’s that.  She’s got to be one of the more colorful figures from history–one who, like so many women from the past, would have been overlooked had it not been for the work of a diligent female historian.  That alone should recommend her inclusion among the canon of “historical figures we love to hate/hate to love.”  For every Alcibiades or Billy the Kid, there’s a Sister Benedetta waiting to be found.  We owe it to our students to present them with rip-roaring tales of female hucksters and bad girls just as much as we feed them better-known tales of male ne’er-do-wells.

This t-shirt makes the point well.  (Source)

This t-shirt makes the point well. (Source)

But perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that, as I mentioned before, Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair is one of a handful of pre-modern lesbian sexual relationships we have detailed information about.  Finding a way to work in those few examples we do have is vital for the overall academic and social health of our classrooms as we strive to diversify our curriculum.   Making sure we include gay and lesbian figures in our canon can often be as simple as mentioning the sexuality of figures we already teach–from Alexander the Great to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond.  It doesn’t add much in the way of extra work or prep time, and it makes visible what has so often remained hidden or secret.  More importantly, it can give wind to the wings of the kids in our classes who need help claiming and owning their own identities.

But for the history of women and lesbians, we usually need to dig a little deeper.  We know so little about the sexual relationships of pre-modern women that we have to be more actively on the lookout for those few examples available to us.  Benedetta is one of those rare women.  And not only that, but her story fits nicely into the Waldorf curriculum.  Almost every Waldorf high school does a block on Renaissance/Reformation history.  (As do many public schools.) And in that block, one inevitably winds up addressing the way the Church fractured and fought about questions of authority.  Benedetta is a beautiful example to single out as a representation of the tensions and complexities of the period:  a middle-class Catholic girl tries to gain authority within a system that was stacked against her on multiple counts.  She manages to “play” the system for awhile, working every possible angle to achieve her ultimate ends, which appear to have been two-fold: to become abbess (and possibly “empress”) of the convent, and to win Bartolomea’s affections.  And she succeeded at both before her own sense of inflated worth tripped her up.  When she finally fell, she fell hard, and was condemned by the Church authorities to a pretty miserable end.  But the fact that there were women out there who “played the system” and very nearly won can inspire our students, who are so often on the verge of becoming disillusioned by the sheer weight of the historical inequities suffered by women, the poor, and the many others oppressed by Renaissance and Reformation religion and politics.

I know my own students, when I brought them this story, whooped with glee when they heard the name “Splenditello.”  Their faces hung slack-jawed when I described to them Benedetta’s increasing demands for glory, and her daring courtship of Bartolomea in the guise of the cherubic boy.  And they let out a groan of pity when I revealed Benedetta’s fate.  The whole thing took about five minutes of class, but it was certainly the high-point of the day.  Though they may forget the details of Benedetta’s tale (though I doubt they’ll forget the name “Splenditello”), they won’t forget the most important point of the story, the one that answered Fiona’s question that day we studied the Medici:  lesbian women certainly DID exist in the Renaissance, Fiona.  And some of them were ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.


1.  A caveat here: I realize that classifying same-sex behavior during the European Renaissance as “gay” or “lesbian” is neither historically accurate nor optimal, given the different ways both gender and sexuality were figured in that period (and varied dramatically region to region).  However, it’s both quicker than all the longer ways of designating homoerotic/homosocial behavior, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s more true to high school classrooms.  In my experience, most high school kids fundamentally want some sort of connection to the people they study.  Kids either questioning their own sexuality or trying to figure out their response to how our own culture treats people in same-sex relationships don’t necessarily want to hear about how same-sex relationships were DIFFERENT historically–they’re often looking for confirmation that someone out there before them experienced something SIMILAR to what they’ve been going through. (Or witnessing around them.)  This is not to say that there’s no place for the discussion of how sexuality has been envisioned differently at different times in history; it’s just to note that these questions tend to be loaded for high schoolers, and should be approached with a gentleness that might not be as vital when talking to adults or even college students.

2.  The definitive book about Sister Benedetta is Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).  A great summary and review of the book can be found in the NYTimes archives: Frederika Randall, “Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions” The New York Times, January 19, 1986.  See also Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the London Review of Books, No. 8. Vol. 11.  June 19, 1986.  There’s also a terrific, very readable overview of Medieval and Renaissance lesbianism in both Europe and the Near East here; it includes (towards the end) some rather racy quotes from the inquest conducted against Benedetta.

3.  It has, however, been made into a play that was performed at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival:  Vanda, “Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini,” 2006.

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