Posts Tagged ‘11th grade’

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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Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work "Book of Divine Works."  Source.

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work “Book of Divine Works.” Source.

So, after a hiatus of a few weeks (during which time I co-taught a class on Dante and was down with the flu), I’m back with another post, inspired by my time spent considering medieval cosmology.  Here’s the deal, yo: Hildegard von Bingen is the most crazily comprehensive and erudite philosopher-cum-mystic you’ve (probably) never heard of.  So read on, and prepare to be impressed…

Name: Hildegard von Bingen

Birthplace/Dates:  Bermersheim, in Rheinhessen (in what is now Germany); 1098-1179.

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  Where do I begin?  Hildegard was a visionary who wrote extensive works of mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.  She also carried on correspondences with popes, kings, and prominent theologians of her day.  She composed breathtakingly beautiful music (which is how she is most widely known today), supervised illuminations of her visions, wrote dramas, and invented her own language.  It is nearly impossible to overestimate the breadth and depth of her work, or its importance in its day.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Hildegard perfectly captures the medieval way of looking at the world.  In particular, her ideas of the macrocosm/microcosm and of the principle “as above, so below” can be used in any number of lesson blocks relating to the Middle Ages–history or literature.  Plus, Rudolf Steiner mentions her specifically as an important historical figure.  So we really have no excuse to not include her in our lesson plans.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Dante block (as a background for Dante’s world-view); 6th grade Medieval History; 11th grade History of Music; any time you are doing History of Science/Medicine.

If you read only one thing by Hildegard, I’d recommend: Peter Dronke’s chapter on her (which quotes extensively from her works) in his book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.  pp. 144-201.  Or, alternatively, you could use a reader that contains selections of all her many writings.  Two good readers are Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, eds. Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995; and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Hildegard von Bingen, a spiritual reader.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007.  Both have helpful maps and chronologies.  For some online excerpts, try this site, which has a brief bio followed by selections from her works.

Hildegard Stands Alone


Ryan Gosling’s down with Hildegard–are you?

Most people these days, if they know Hildegard at all, know her as a composer, since her work has become fairly popular among early music lovers.  Others might have heard her mentioned as one of many female mystics of the middle ages.  Though she is both of these things, she is so much more–so much, in fact, that it can be difficult (not to mention overwhelming) to try to sum her up in one or two blog entries.  But I’m going to give it my best shot.  Hildegard, if you’re reading this somewhere, forgive me for my manifold sins of omission as I attempt to encapsulate your work.  But girl, there’s just so damn much of it!

In fact, in preparing to write this post I racked my brains to find someone to compare Hildegard to in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of her work.  There certainly aren’t many other medieval figures (male or female) that easily come to mind in comparison.  Even authors like Aquinas didn’t attempt to write medical tracts and compose music (not to mention cookbooks and morality plays) alongside their theological work.

The three figures I finally came up with as possible comparison points?  Aristotle, Goethe, and Rudolf Steiner.  I later read another scholar compare her to the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroës (and also Goethe).  Someone else said Avicenna.  So, ok, there were some other medieval writers who are just as impressive, but I mean, come on!  When you’re being compared to Averroës, you KNOW you’re a big deal.  So I’m not just making this stuff up.  She really is all that AND a bag of chips, as my sister would say.

Hildegard, The Early Years

So who was this nun about whom we know so little these days?  Hildegard started life as the 10th child of a couple, who, in keeping with medieval custom, gave her for the church as a “tithe,” since she represented 1/10th of the children they had produced.  At age eight she was “enclosed” in a cell with an older religious woman named Jutta, who taught her rudimentary Latin, how to chant Psalms, and all the other things a female hermit would need to know.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an "anchorhold") at a small church in Hislip, England. Source.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an “anchorhold”) at a small church in Hartlip, England. Source.

The practice of enclosure, though strange to us now, was fairly common during that period.  (English female mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich is perhaps the most famous example of this practice.) Women called “anchoresses” would live in cells (called “anchorholds”) adjoining the wall of a church, praying the liturgical hours, living a simple life, and offering prayers and advice to churchgoers.  The role of an anchoress fell somewhere between that of a nun, a hermit, and a lay person; though they never left their anchorholds and focused all their attention on God, they did have regular contact with the outside world through the window of their enclosure, which gave onto the church, and sometimes through an exterior window, through which they could consult with parishioners. They also often retained a servant girl who went out to do shopping and other daily tasks, leaving them free to focus on the prayer and contemplation that was their raison d’être.   Apparently Hildegard’s teacher Jutta was rather popular, because she accepted so many girls under her tutelage that they all eventually moved to a separate facility that became a convent.  When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess–a position she retained until her own death in 1179.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar. Source.

Ever since she was a toddler, Hildegard had experienced visions.  She was only three when she “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled; yet because of my infant condition I could express nothing of it.”  She apparently did not lose consciousness during these visions, but, as she writes, “whenever I saw these things deep in my soul I still retained outer sight, and… heard this said of no other human being.”  (1)  Perhaps related to these visions were the migraine headaches Hildegard suffered throughout her life–she writes in several places of the “frequent illness” that she suffered that “wore my body out and made my powers fail.”  Much scholarly ink has been spilled over whether her visions can be reduced to simply the side-effect of the migraines.  To my mind, the issue of headaches or no is a red herring.  I mean, really–I don’t know any other migraine sufferer who has gone on to produce canons of work comparable to Hildegard’s, so even if the visions and headaches were related, her experiences (and more importantly, what she made of them) can’t be explained away so neatly.

During her own time, at least, Hildegard was widely known and well-regarded, though she didn’t “come out” as a visionary until she was middle-aged.  As a child and teen, Hildegard writes, she did occasionally speak about otherworldly things that seemed strange to others.  On occasion she even predicted future events.  But she revealed the source of her otherworldly knowledge (her visions) to no one save Jutta.  Even after the elder nun’s death, Hildegard hid her visions from her superiors, until finally, at age 40, she experienced “painful pressures” that led her to believe she must reveal her experiences to her male superior.  He immediately had her write them down and, taking them to his superiors for verification, they were eventually pronounced genuine–the product of “that gift of prophecy which the prophets of old had proclaimed.”  Within a few years, her writings went so far as the Pope, who read them out “with joy” to an assembly of high churchmen at Trier in 1147-48.  He then wrote Hildegard a letter commanding her to write her visions down more systematically so that they could be disseminated among the theologians, churchmen, and laypeople of the day.

Hildegard, the Teacher

Like another "Hil," Hildegard von Bingen's advice was sought by people from all walks of life.   Source.

Like another “Hil,” Hildegard von Bingen’s advice was sought by people from all walks of life. Source.

The effect of this Papal commendation was immediate and far-reaching.  Within a few years Hildegard was carrying on correspondences with all the major figures of her day–kings, theologians, and scholars from all the major universities, as well as common laypeople who sought her advice.  Although she was careful to always distinguish that, as a “poor, little figure of a woman,” her power came from God and not from herself, she did not exactly shy away from doling out advice.  Quite the opposite.  She clarified points of theology for the scholarly superstars of the day in Paris, and even went so far as to upbraid King Henry II of England in a letter written before the murder of Thomas à Becket: “the foul habits of others overwhelm you and you become entangled in them….Shun this, with all your might.” (2)  Henry, apparently, did not give her sufficient heed.

If Hildegard’s opinion was widely sought-after in her day, it was with good reason.  The woman had something to say about everything, from the deepest theological mysteries to what you should feed a sick person in wintertime.  (Spelt porridge, in case you were wondering).  She expounded her ideas about God and the universe in several volumes: Scivias, her first book of visions; The Book of the Rewards of Life, a proto-Dantean look at the afterlife; and The Book of Divine Works, a later magisterial work that laid out a systematic mechanics and meaning of the cosmos.  There is just so much to cover in these works that you’ll have to wait for my next post to get the gist of what she wrote about there.  Suffice it to say, for now, that she believed that the entire cosmos, including the human being, was permeated by and continually upheld by the divine.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard.  Source.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard. Source.

As if her weighty tomes of visions and theology weren’t enough, she also produced learned commentaries on medicine that were at the cutting edge of medieval understandings of the human body.  Indeed, hers is the first medical description of the female orgasm that we have on record, leading one to wonder exactly how, as a life-long nun, she came about that intimate piece of knowledge.  (Given the complete absence of evidence that she ever strayed from the religious fold, scholars conjecture she pieced it together from accounts by her nuns and other women in the community.)  Her medical work has been called “materialist,” because she was quite committed to understanding the human body via the actions of the four elements.  This view came to be mainstream in later years, but at the time she wrote, it represented a fairly avant-garde use of the neo-Aristotelian corpus coming out of the Near East and Moorish Spain. (3)  Hildegard, however, was not interested in medical theory in the abstract; her works are filled with actual recipes for tinctures, herbal preparations, and other “on the ground” advice for physicians. This interest in the practical details of life characterizes her work as much as the high-and-mighty visions of the cosmos.  Apparently, her fame as a cookbook-writer must still be strong in Germany, where her name must conjure up images of good, down-home cooking, judging from the label on this soup can.

Hildegard, the Artist

The list of her accomplishments just goes on and on.  She wrote and directed plays–in fact, most scholars believe her “Ordo Virtutum,” composed in 1151, is the oldest medieval morality play by over a century.  This makes her the inventor of an entirely new type of drama, one that we think of as prototypical of the medieval period.  (Steinerfolk, take note: all those mystery dramas at the Goetheanum have their origin in Hildegard!)

As well as being the first morality play, “Ordo” is also the only one that has survived to us with both script and music relatively intact.  (Hildegard wrote both.)  The plot is relatively simple–a human soul (Anima) struggles between the Virtues (sung by 17 solo female voices) and the Devil.  (There is also a chorus of Patriarchs sung by men and a chorus of Souls sung by still more women.)  The work provides a lovely illustration of the practical application of her more theoretical writings on music.  For instance, the devil only yells or screeches, since according to what Hildegard wrote elsewhere, the devil cannot sing or produce mellifluous speech, music being thoroughly permeated by the divine.

And speaking of divine melody…Hildegard’s liturgical music has a soaring beauty that is clearly inspired by her visions of the heavens.  As you might expect from so accomplished a master, Hildegard’s work stands head and shoulders above traditional chant or plainsong–almost literally.  Just listen to how the voices swoop up to the heavens:

Her musical compositions must have appealed to the generations that came after her as well; the only medieval composer for whom we have as complete a canon of works is the famous 12th century monk (and legendary lover) Peter Abelard.

Her poetry, written on religious themes common to the middle ages, likewise reveals her unique way of looking at the world.  As with many 12th century thinkers, Mary plays a pivotal role.  But we also hear Sophia, Divine Wisdom, extolled in feminine form; and Love herself is rendered in the feminine and assigned a high place in Heaven.  Here’s a sample of one of my favorite verses:

Hildegard's depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias.  Source.

Hildegard’s depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias. Source.

O power of Wisdom!

You encompassed the cosmos,

encircling and embracing all

in one living orbit

with your three wings:

one soars on high,

one distills the earth’s essence,

and the third hovers everywhere.

Praise to you Wisdom, fitting praise! (4)

Hildegard, the Wrestler

Of course, life was not always sweetness and light for Hildegard, even once she’d achieved great fame.  She struggled several times with the church authorities over issues related to her convent.  In fact, the initial move of her convent from one town to another was over the objections of the monks associated with the establishment.  She also argued (this time, unsuccessfully) with an archbishop over the appointment of his sister, one of her favorite nuns, as Abbess of a different convent.  But her greatest challenge came in the last year of her life, when she decided to bury a patron of hers whom she had judged repentant in consecrated ground.  The man (whose name we do not know) had been excommunicated, possibly as a heretic.  Hildegard believed the man had changed his ways, but the authorities stood firm: until he was disinterred and reburied in unholy ground, her entire convent would remain under interdict–unable to say the daily offices or celebrate Mass.

This was a huge blow for Hildegard, and she didn’t take it lying down.  Instead, she fired back letters to the Archbishop and his prelates, arguing that she had had a vision that forewarned a “terrible and lamentable danger” would come down like a “dark cloud” upon those who forced the removal of the body.  She went on to give a very sly defense of her actions that contrasted the “upright men” who had ordered the interdict with the potential “feminine harshness [and] injustice to the sacraments of Christ” her nuns would be engaging in if they were to follow through with the orders to disinter the body.  In other words, she was not going to give an inch.  Eventually, the Archbishop relented, and six months before Hildegard’s death, lifted the interdict.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow--Hildegard beat her by about 750 years.  (But didn't take a dog along with her.) Source.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow–Hildegard beat her by about 750 years. (But didn’t take a dog along with her.) Source.

Hildegard passed away at the age of 81, having previously told her nuns that her life was nearing its close.  When she died, wrote her faithful monk admirers, two rainbows appeared in the sky over her room.  They widened and reached up to the four corners of the earth, and a full moon illumined the point where the two arcs crossed.  A red cross appeared there, surrounded by multicolored circles of light, in each of which a small cross reposed.  He wrote: “It is worthy of belief that by this sign God was showing how bright was the splendor with which he was illumining his beloved one in heaven.” (5)

That seems as good as any a place to leave off this post.  Next time, I’ll try my best to encapsulate some of the major themes of Hildegard’s work, as well as give suggestions for teaching, and a brief look at her significance for Waldorf teachers and students of Rudolf Steiner.  (Phew!  Wish me luck!)



(1) Gottfried of Disibodenberg and Theodoric of Echternach, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, quoted in Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p. 145.  When she says that she “heard this said of no other human being,” Hildegard is probably referring to the fact that many of the most famous visionaries lost normal consciousness when they saw their visions, whereas she retained full awareness of what was going on around her, “seeing” her visions inwardly, in her soul.

(2) Hildegard, “Letter to King Henry II of England,” quoted in Fiona Bowie & Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995.  p. 140.

(3) To give you an idea of the timeline here, Hildegard very slightly predates her rough contemporary Averroës, who helped popularize the work of Avicenna and other Muslim Aristotelian scholars.  This means that in all likelihood she had other sources for her Aristotelian understanding of the elements and their relation to the human body.

(4) Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Univ. of California Press, 1978, p. 64.

(5) Gottfried and Theodoric, Vita, quoted in Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of her Age.  New York: Doubleday, 2001.  p. 249.

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This post is dedicated to Devon, who, at the end of reading Wolfram’s Parzifal, tossed her book on the table in frustration and asked, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property?”  

Marie de France, as depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Source)

Name: Marie de France

Birthplace/Dates:  France–possibly the Vexin region (between the Ile de France and Normandy), roughly 1140-1215?

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  The first person to write what we would now call “chivalric tales.”  She was author of several texts (including one translation): most famously, a collection of 12 Lais, brief poetic tales that were forerunners to works like Wolfram’s Parzifal and the Roman de la Rose.  Marie also produced a collection of Fables (based on Aesop and other classical sources), and a religious text called The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick (based on a Latin document of the same name).  She has also tentatively been identified as the author of a (previously unattributed) saint’s life as well.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Marie de France is one of the earliest authors who wrote about courtly love, standing at the root of a lineage that leads directly to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal.  Given the central role Parzifal plays in the Waldorf curriculum, it’s important to understand how courtly love was understood (and experienced) by women, and Marie is a wonderful way into that question.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Parzival block (her Lais); 6th grade Medieval History; 2nd grade Fables (her Fables).

If you read only one thing by Marie de France, read: Her Lais. (1)  Many translations of Marie’s work try to preserve some semblance of the original rhyme scheme, but this can lead to a slightly stilted, archaic feeling in English. If you want an easy-to-read prose version with an excellent introduction, I’d recommend the Penguin edition of the Lais.  As far as which particular lais to read: if you’re thinking of using them alongside Parzifal, I’d recommend “Guigemar” or “Yonec.”  If you’re using them in a history unit on courtly love, then you may want to read “Lanval” or “Chaitivel.”  (My next post will focus on these four lais, including suggestions for how to use them in class.)  

Marie de France and Her Place in History

Celtic bards like the legendary Merlin were the source of the stories behind Marie’s lais. (Source)

Marie de France is most famous for her Lais, which are among the earliest examples of chivalric writing we have.  In fact, as far as we can tell, they are the oldest written chivalric poetry.  (2)  Marie drew on the earlier oral poetry (also called “lais”) sung by Celtic bards as a source for her own work, though she writes that she adjusted these oral lais, “putting them into verse, making poems from them, and working on them late into the night.” (3)  I just love that last bit–“working late into the night”–can’t you just see her sitting there, candle burning low, waiting for her kids to finally get to sleep already so she can get down to work?

But to get back to business:  As the first written chivalric poetry we have on record, Marie’s work therefore stands at the beginning of a long line of important medieval works–Chretien de Troyes’ early Arthurian tales, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the Roman de la Rose–the list goes on and on.  Of course, her Lais are worthy of study in their own right–not only as the first productions in an incredibly important genre (chivalric literature), but as complex and beautiful literary works in and of themselves.  And if that weren’t enough to recommend them, they have the distinct advantage of giving us a glimpse into the world of chivalric love as experienced and written by a woman.  For all those students of courtly love who may have wondered what the women in the stories felt like (or what a tale of courtly love would look like if written from a female point of view), Marie’s Lais offer us a wonderful “window” in.  There are just so many good reasons to study Marie–and best of all (from the perspective of a busy teacher trying to fit just one more thing into limited class time), each lai is only 3-8 pages long (the longest is about 16): the perfect length for a one-night reading assignment.

The few depictions we have of Marie de France (none of which are contemporary) always show her writing at a desk, which is how she probably would have wanted it. (Source)

But before we jump into her work, let’s back up for a moment.  Who was Marie de France, anyway?

How do you Solve a Problem like Marie?

We must face the facts squarely: we don’t actually know that much about Marie’s identity, which is frustrating, given how important and popular her works were during the 12th and 13th centuries.  (But it’s not surprising, given the fate of many other early female authors.)  Aside from her self-description in the Fables, where she writes, “My name is Marie, and I am from France,” we have only a few other clues–none of them definitive.  She dedicates her Lais to a “noble king” (which many have thought might be King Henry II of England), and her Fables to “count William” (which has been attributed to a whole variety of Williams). (4)  Based on these references (and an analysis of her language, which includes many loan-words from English), most scholars have assumed that while she was born in France, she spent time at the court of Henry II, where she probably composed her works.

The palace of Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne are reputed to have first held their famous “courts of love.” (Source)

This working assumption makes a good deal of sense, since Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and her daughter Marie de Champagne) were instrumental in bringing the southern French culture of courtly love to more northern climes.  It also places Marie at the beginning of a courtly lineage that stretches from the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus (the Moorish kingdoms of Spain), to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who popularized courtly ideals in the Christian south and then brought them north when she married Henry II), to Marie de Champagne (Eleanor’s daughter), to Chretien de Troyes (whose patroness was Marie de Champagne), to Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parzifal (and who used Chretien de Troyes as one of his main sources).  (5)  How’s that for some Waldorf credentials?  I’d argue that anyone who stands at the root of a lineage leading to Parzifal needs to be included in the curriculum.

And if Marie’s connection to later courtly literature weren’t enough to recommend her to us, her connection to the earlier oral traditions of the Celts should be–it’s through Marie that European literature comes to enfold the tales of the Welsh and Breton bards (including stories of fairies and King Arthur) into Islamic-influenced poetry of courtly love.  In Marie, the two hitherto separate streams combined, eventually forming the mightly confluence we know as medieval romance. (6)

Marie wasn’t about to let some man steal her work. (Source)

What else do we know about Marie beyond her importance to the courtly lineage?  We know that she stayed up late to write, indicating that she probably had other duties (either courtly, or domestic, or both) that kept her busy during the day.  We know that she was fluent in several languages: she says she considered translating Latin works into French before taking up the task of relating Breton lais.  (7) We also know that she thought highly of her own authorial abilities, and had a defiant attitude towards critics who disparaged her as a female writer.  She writes,

Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told.   Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. Those who gain a good reputation should be commended, but when there exists in a country a man or woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation….But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up.  They have a right to make slanderous remarks.  (8)

Marie’s cleverness was much like that of the Cock in her fable, whose well-timed crowing outwits the rather dim Fox who has stolen him.  (Source)

And later, in the epilogue of the Fables, in the same passage where she names herself, she worries that credit for her work will be stolen by a man:

To end these tales I’ve narrated
And into Romance tongue translated,
I’ll give my name, for memory:
I am from France, my name’s Marie.
And it may hap that many a clerk
Will claim as his what is my work
But such pronouncements I want not!
It’s folly to become forgot! (9)

All in all, the picture that emerges is one that, though hazy on the details of time and location, is actually fairly clear in certain regards.  Marie was a well-born, well-educated writer who worked hard at her craft, was proud of her work, was recognized by kings and courtiers for her efforts, and who, nonetheless, was worried that because of her gender, her stories might be mis-attributed to a man for all of posterity.  Clever to the end, she therefore embedded her name in several of her texts so that any excision would result in a distortion of the poetic meter.  Would that all the women writers of history had had such foresight and crafty wiles!

So, having established Marie’s basic authorial persona and the importance of her work in the lineage of courtly literature, we can move on.  What do her Lais tell us about women of the period in general, and about her own “take” on courtly culture in particular?

Getting “Lai”d: Women, Marriage, and Adultery in Marie de France

(Forgive the terrible pun, but that heading title was too good to resist!)

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse (1893). The Victorians found much to love in medieval courtly depictions of women: passive, beautiful, inspirational, but often entangling or treacherous.

Seriously, now…Marie’s work provides us with an interesting counterpoint to the later male writers’ portrayals of women, love, and marriage.  First, many scholars have noted that the female characters in her stories are, on the whole, stronger than the men.  In other courtly stories, written for the most part by men, women are certainly prominently featured, but they are often idealized and held up as (rather passive) “inspiration” for men’s heroic deeds.  Or worse still, denigrated as faithless and the source of perpetual strife, as in the case of the Roman de la Rose.  So while women are definitely front and center in most courtly texts, it’s sometimes tough to find a positive female character who is not just an inspiration for manly deeds, but a protagonist in her own right.  If you share my frustration as a reader, Marie delivers the goods.  Her women are real.

On the whole, Marie’s female characters are deeply drawn, and more often than not, they take center stage in the story.  This is not to say that Marie’s women live in some feminist paradise.  The basic mise en scène of courtly love remains the same:  beautiful young ladies locked in towers by jealous husbands (more on that below), men who love these ladies and wear their colors into tournaments, mysterious fairy lovers (male and female) who can change shape at will, equally mysterious exotic creatures (hermaphroditic deer, for example) who lead knights on unexpected quests–all the tropes of medieval romance we know and love. (And really, what’s not to love about albino, intersex deer?)  But in Marie’s hands, these basic literary themes (which we should remember, she’s the first to write down in poetry) are given a subtle woman-centered twist.  Marie shows us how women struggled with and sometimes found ways around the constrictions of upper-class medieval life.

Marie empathized with the proverbial damsel in distress, but she preferred birds to mice when it came to animal liberators. (Source)

A good example is the aforementioned “damsel in distress” scenario.  In two lais (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) a young woman has been married off by her family to a man over twice her age, who keeps her imprisoned and comes to visit only long enough to subject her to what we would call marital rape.  Marie’s own opinion of the situation seems to be much in accord with contemporary views, for she makes it abundantly clear that the young woman in question is miserable to the point of contemplating suicide.  And she depicts this despair as a perfectly reasonable response to the character’s terrible predicament, rejoicing with the reader when a young, handsome, tender man unexpectedly appears at the lady’s tower to offer her comfort and the possibility of escape.  Unlike many other courtly authors who seem to take the “lady locked in a tower” scenario for granted, Marie stops long enough to ponder the situation from the woman’s point of view.

Unlike Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney), Marie does not have her heroine leave her possessive husband and run off to join a lesbian free-love commune. (Source)

Indeed, Marie seems interested in much the same question as my teenage friend Devon: What happens to the poor girls traded among men like so many pieces of property?  The lady in Marie’s lai “Yonec,” gives voice to the countless damsels in distress whose fate is passed over mutely in so many medieval tales:

Alas…that ever I was born!  My destiny is hard indeed.  I am a prisoner in this tower and death alone will free me.  What is this jealous old man afraid of, to keep me so securely imprisoned?  He is extremely stupid and foolish, always fearing that he will be betrayed.

Marie here not only depicts her protagonist’s plight empathetically, but also questions the misogynist assumptions underlying the whole “damsel in distress” predicament.  However, ultimately, Marie is not a radical feminist.  (For that, you’ll have to wait for my post on another medieval female writer, the fabulous Christine de Pizan.)  None of Marie’s heroines, for instance, escapes from her tower to join an all-“womyn” commune in the woods.  For both Marie and her characters, a complete break with the system was impossible.  However, Marie’s contribution to women’s history is the way in which, while keeping more or less within the confines of the courtly system, she opened up a space for women’s self-expression and personal fulfillment.  Where did she carve out this space?  In the realm of adulterous courtly love.

In many of Marie’s Lais, the protagonists enjoy extra-marital affairs without blame.

Marie is certainly not the only medieval author to portray adultery as an opportunity for personal fulfillment.  Indeed, intense, often long-lasting extra-marital affairs are a running theme throughout later courtly literature.  But Marie is the first person to draw out this theme in writing.  In fact, it makes me wonder whether Marie’s rather laissez-faire stance towards extra-marital liaisons is something she inherited from the Celtic oral tradition, or if, rather, she gave the whole subsequent genre of courtly poetry a twist by her early empathetic “take” on the plight of women in forced marriages. (10)  In other words: was Marie’s clear sympathy for love outside marriage “picked up” by later authors, thereby becoming one of the staples of courtly literature?  I think it’s fair to say that even if Marie herself was not the originator of this relatively woman-friendly trope, she was certainly one of its most important popularizers. (11)  For that reason alone, it’s worth reading her in any class dealing with courtly love, Arthurian romance, or medieval social history.  We might not have our later stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Iseult in the particular forms that we know them without Marie’s first, wildly popular tales of adulterous love. (12)

Personal or Political? The question still resonates today. The college students who created this banner have posted a song that I think Marie might like. Click here for a link.

For modern readers, including high school students, her tales raise interesting moral questions: if you are trapped within a fundamentally unjust system, what is your duty to uphold the ethical norm as defined by the dominant class?  Would we, for instance, condemn a woman in Taliban-held Afghanistan who searched for love outside her arranged marriage to a man twice her age?  Marie clearly wouldn’t.  But she does judge women and men who go the next step, towards violence, quite harshly.  (As in her lais “Equitan” or “Bisclavret.”) Where do we draw the line in modern times?  When does “civil disobedience” become insurrection?  When is the personal political?  And is there a clear line between the two?  The possibilities for classroom debate seem fruitful indeed.

And that, dear readers, is where we’ll leave Marie for today, having given you a tiny taste of the sorts of pedagogical questions I’ll raise in Part 2 of my consideration of her work.  Next time, we’ll take a closer look at a few of her Lais, including brief summaries of the four I mentioned back towards the beginning of this post (in the “Notable Woman Stats” section).  I’ll also provide suggestions for how to use these four lais in class, either alongside Parzifal or in a block on medieval history.  Till then, worthy gentlewomen and -men, adieu!



(1) There are several versions of Marie’s Lais available online, though not all of these sites include all the lais.  The Gutenberg site contains a prose translation of all the lais, there’s a rhyming translation by Judith Shoaf that’s good, but not all the lais are included.  The Penguin print edition also contains the original Old French for one lai in the back of the book; for anyone with a background in modern French, it’s easy to follow the rhyme scheme and get the gist, so it might be fun to use if some of your students take French.  (Here’s a link to an online edition of the French originals.)

(2) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (which contains chapters on King Arthur) is about 30 years older than Marie’s work, but it’s a prose history, albeit a fanciful one.  And there were earlier oral poetic compositions–legends and poetry told by bards in Wales and Brittany–circulating in Marie’s day, but nothing written until Marie.   There is a much-later manuscript (the Book of Taliesin) that claims to preserve the poems of the early Welsh bard Taliesin, who dates to the 6th c. CE.  However, it is not at all clear that the poems in question actually do belong to Taliesin, and it’s certainly highly questionable whether they date to as early as the 6th c. CE.  (Most recent scholars put them somewhere in the 10th-12th centuries.)  Still, there’s no question that Marie drew heavily on Celtic oral sources, as she herself attests.

(3) Marie de France, “Prologue.” The Lais of Marie de France, London: Penguin Books, 1999.  Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. p. 41.

(4) An incredible diversity of opinions circulate about Marie’s true identity.  Some scholars place her squarely in the court of King Henry II, or possibly his son, Henry III.  However, others have suggested Philip II of France as a possibility, though this is definitely a minority view.  As far as Marie’s relationship with other courtly writers, there’s no proof that Marie and Chretien de Troyes knew of each other, but most scholars are agreed that Chretien’s sources included Breton lais like the ones Marie recorded, so we can’t rule it out either.  (Another suggestive piece of evidence is Chretien’s mention of Guigemar, a character from one of Marie’s Lais, in his tale “Erec et Enide.”) Even Marie’s self-identity as “from France” is contested–some scholars arguing that it doesn’t mean “France as opposed to England,” but rather, “Ile de France as opposed to Brittany or Normandy.”  All these competing theories, including one that places her in France (as opposed to England) during her period of authorship, are well-represented in Dinah Hazell’s online paper: “Rethinking Marie.” Medieval Forum, Vol 2, 2003.  There’s also an interesting connection between Marie and Chaucer–her fable of the cock and the fox is not found in Aesop, and is the only written source that pre-dates Chaucer’s version of the same tale.  Here’s a nice one-page translation of Marie’s version.

(5) It’s potentially a pretty tight connection, but there’s no way to be absolutely sure of Marie’s position at Henry’s court, so it has to remain at the level of conjecture.  At the very least, though, we can say that if the “noble king” to which Marie refers was someone other than Henry II, we can still be sure that said king was part of the rapidly spreading courtly culture of northern Europe, and that Marie was an important early link in bringing this courtly tradition into written literary form.  The more I read about her and the other early courtly authors, the more I feel that she was the central node point from which the other literature sprang.  (Her only true competitor to the position, the Norman poet Béroul, did not write what most scholars describe as “courtly” literature.) That her importance should be often overlooked is sad, but not surprising.  See notes 6 and 12 for more on the difficulties of reconstructing the lineage.

(6)  A little more on Marie’s relation to other early courtly writers:  Chretien de Troyes, the most famous early chivalric writer, is roughly contemporary with Marie, but he appears to have written about 15-25 years after her (depending on how early you date Marie).  Marie even predates the earliest written compositions by troubadours, the first of whom was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1126).  This is not to say, of course, that there wasn’t an oral form of courtly poetry that circulated in the courts of Provence and Aquitaine before Marie–but it does appear that Marie was the first to have composed courtly poems in written form.

Another question is the possibility of an Islamic influence:  did an earlier 9th c. form of courtesie exist in the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus?  It appears that in Spain, both Muslim and Jewish poets composed Sufi-inspired love poetry during the 9th-11th centuries.  One of the main theories of courtly love traces this poetry as it travels from Al-Andalus to Aquitaine via captured Muslim singers/dancers (male and female) as a result of the early reconquista.  While there’s no evidence that Marie read Islamic poetry per se, she clearly was familiar with the tenets of courtly love as defined and propagated by the courts of the Christian southwest.  As far as I can tell, Marie seems to be the first to wed the early form of courtesie found in Aquitaine with the Celtic oral tradition–a combination that gave rise to the distinctive features of medieval courtly love as we know it.

(7) Marie de France, “Prologue.” Lais. We know this is not a vain boast because she did, in fact, translate another work from the Latin–The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick.  Her texts are also sprinkled with English words, and it is possible when she mentions “lais that I heard,” she is referring to hearing them in the original Breton, which she may have understood.  (Elsewhere she refers explicitly to Breton lais.)  All in all, she seems to have been well-educated and multi-lingual–not unusual traits for women in court society at this time.

(8) Marie de France, “Guigemar.” The Lais of Marie de France.  London: Penguin Books, 1999. p. 43.

(9) Marie de France, “Epilogue.” Fables.  Quoted in Dinah Hazell, who took the passage from Harriet Spiegel’s edition of the Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

(10) Because Marie stands at the beginning of the literary courtly tradition, it’s difficult to tell if she is simply representing in print a widespread attitude of the bardic oral tradition (or nascent oral poetry of courtly love), or if indeed, Marie initiated this more female-friendly stance towards adultery.  My inclination is to think that while there may, indeed, have been an oral tradition of tales of extra-marital love, Marie’s emphasis on the plight of young women in forced marriages is specific to her own perspective as a woman.  After all, she does take pains to make it clear that she hasn’t simply transcribed the tales as she heard them, but rather has made them her own.  In the introduction to the lai “Milun,” she writes, “Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.”  I’d suggest that Marie’s “new way” included a more female-centered “take” on the stories.  Of course, it’s important to note that not all of her characters’ extra-marital affairs end well.  However, the few times in her tales when adulterers are given their comeuppance, it’s because they’ve moved from simply enjoying their adulterous love (which Marie seems to condone) to plotting to kill or otherwise endanger the cuckolded spouse.

(9) I should point out that I do think Parzifal offers some instances of strong female characters.  However, I think that you have to read a little more deeply to get at them, and that some of the most obvious examples (Sigune, whose love causes her to literally waste away on her lover’s tomb, or Orgeluse, who comes off at least at first as a bitch) are initially hard for students to relate to.  That’s not to say that with good teaching and close reading, we can’t tease out positive messages about gender from the text; but you certainly have to work harder to find female characters to relate to, I think.  Perhaps that’s because the women in Parizifal tend to be so completely invested in the gender/courtly system–something that contemporary readers might find difficult to fully embrace.  Marie’s characters tend to stand at one remove from the system–girls who are married off but are deeply unhappy; knights who are approached by the queen for sex and turn her down, thus imperiling their career, etc.

(11) It’s interesting that the most likely “originators” of the idea of adultery as a perfectly acceptable pastime for women were themselves women–Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne, who were the two main “early adopters” and promoters of courtly discourse.  So it may not be that Marie de France’s view was particularly unique among mid-twelfth-century noblewomen; but she was the first to make it into a literary trope, as far as I can tell.

(12) Tristan and Iseult is a particularly fascinating example of how difficult it is to trace the origins of a story.  A Norman poet, Béroul, writing at approximately the same time as Marie, wrote down a version of the Tristan and Iseult tale.  It’s unclear whether his version, which was quite lengthy, or Marie’s Tristan tale, “Chevrefoil” (which covers only one episode from the longer Tristan tale) was first.  Interestingly, both he and Marie may have been writing in Henry II’s court at the same time, for his patron is believed to be Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It’s also presumed he was drawing on the same sort of Celtic sources as Marie.  Shortly after he and Marie wrote their versions, the tale was picked up by the German Eilhart von Oberge, who may or may not have read Béroul and Marie’s works.  From there, the story enters the canon of German medieval literature through the work of Gottfried von Strassburgh.  However, both whereas modern scholars consider von Strassburgh’s tale “courtly” (in the sense of framing the story in terms of courtly ideals), Béroul and von Oberge’s versions are described by scholars are “vulgar” (meaning that the courtly elements are lacking).  Marie’s version, on the other hand, is squarely within the courtly tradition, so could be said to be the first courtly rendition of the Tristan tale.  But in this, as in so many things, it depends on how you define your terms.

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