Let’s delve into the story of one of my favorite historical women-loving women: Catalina de Erauso. She hasn’t, as far as I know, had any sort of far-reaching impact on today’s LGBTQ+ community…. but her story’s really fun…
Most of what we know about Catalina comes from her autobiography “The Lieutenant Nun” (so take a lot of this with a grain of salt), which claims she was born in 1585 — however, her baptismal certificate states she was born in 1592. I’m more inclined to believe her on this one because otherwise — well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, nevermind. She was born into a large noble family — her brothers were all sent to the New World to participate in its conquest, her sisters were all sent to convents until a suitable husband could be found. (Only one of her sisters ever married. Ouch.)
At four years old (so, 1589 or 1596 depending who you want to believe) she was placed in a convent to be raised by nuns, just like her sisters. This was not exactly the lifestyle for someone with Catalina’s adventurous nature, so on March 18, 1600 she cut her hair, put together some men’s clothing made out of her own undergarments, gave herself the name “Francisco de Loyola“, and fled — well, fled is a strong word — casually strolled out of the convent. This made Catalina a fugitive — a status she would maintain (with great effort and enthusiasm) for many many years. (If her baptismal certificate is right, she was eight years old at this point. If she’s right, she was fifteen. That’s kind of why I believe her on this.)
She traveled for twenty miles on foot, eating what she could find as she passed through villages, until she reached the town of Vitoria, where she encountered a doctor who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin. (Her travels through Spain involved frequent near-run-ins with her family.) He took her in, without recognizing her, and gave her clothes. She stayed with him for three months, but he sexually abused her during that time so ultimately, she fled again — this time stealing money before she left. (He kinda had it coming.) She met up with a mule driver, who took her with him to the court of King Juan de Iqiaquez. Dressed as Francisco once again, Catalina serve the king as a court page for seven months until her father — who was an important military leader for the king — showed up, so she fled once again and ended up in Bilbao. This time, she was unable to find work or a patron — but she did find a bar fight (this will become a common theme for her) and she was arrested. She spent a month in jail, and decided that being arrested was awful and if she was going to continue her life as a fugitive she was going to need to avoid it in the future. (The idea of not committing crimes apparently did not occur to her.)
She spent the next two years disguised as a man, working throughout Spain, although mostly staying close to her hometown and the convent that she had been raised in. She did not have a feminine build, and — apparently — had used an ointment to “dry her breasts”. On Holy Monday in the year 1603, she embarked on a ship for the New World. The first place she landed was Punta de Araya (which is now Venezuela) where, apparently, she was attacked by Dutch pirates who she defeated. From there, she and the crew she traveled with (which included one of her uncles, who did not recognize her) sailed to Nombre de Dios, where they stayed for nine days. Several members of the crew died due to the weather, so the crew determined to return to Spain.
Instead of going back to Spain, Catalina murdered her uncle, stole 500 pesos, told the rest of the sailors her uncle was on an errand and then she — you guessed it — fled. Still in men’s clothing, she found work as a sailor for a wealthy merchant. The large shipment she was transporting got caught in a terrible windstorm, the ship sank. Catalina managed to save herself and her master. Her master, grateful to be alive, rewarded Catalina with a house, money, and three slaves.
But Catalina’s penchant for violence would catch up to her soon. While attending the theater in Sana, a young man threatened her. She was not having any of that, so she took a whetstone, made herself a saw-tooth blade, and cut open his face. She was taken to jail, but through the efforts of her master and the bishop of the area she was soon released. One condition of her release was that she marry the aunt of the man who’s face she’d cut open. Fearful of her secret being discovered or of being tied down in a serious relationship, she refused to marry and left for Trujillo instead, where her master was opening a store.
The man who’s faced she’d sliced up tracked her there with two friends and challenged her. She killed him, she killed his friend, and then she took refuge in a church — declaring sanctuary until things died down. Around this time, Catalina began courting her master’s mistress — to the point where the mistress demanded they sleep together. Catalina wasn’t having that either — but this was also her master’s last straw, no matter how grateful he was for being saved from drowning. He gave her some money, a letter of recommendation for work in Lima, and kicked her to the curb.
Catalina presented her letter of recommendation to Diego de Solarte, a rich merchant who gave Catalina a store in just a matter of days. This new career was not destined to last long, however, as just nine months later she was caught fondling her new master’s sister-in-law and was fired. With few other career options available, Catalina joined the army and was placed under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. They marched to Chile, where she was greeted by the governor — her brother Don Miguel de Erauso, although he did not recognize her. She served in the military there for three years, earning the rank of Lieutenant. However, she was too violent and cruel towards the Native people and complaints from her fellow military officers about this prevented her from achieving any higher ranks. (And, like, I’m sorry, but having read what was the norm for the way the native people were treated at the time, I can’t *imagine* what sick, bloody things Catalina was doing to those poor people. Holy crap.)
She was extremely frustrated by this, and so took out her frustration on literally anyone she met on the road. She killed people, she burned crops, she was generally a menace. She murdered the chief auditor of the city of Conception — and declared sanctuary in a church where she stayed for six months. She left the church after six months to serve as the second in a friend’s duel. (She did have friends! Which is kind of amazing all things considered.) In the course of the night time duel, she killed the other man’s second — only to discover that he was her brother Don Miguel.
This is the only event in the entire autobiography that makes Catalina even come close to being introspective. It left her depressed (and in prison) for almost a year. Then, I guess, she just got over it and left for Argentina. The journey across the Andes almost killed her, but she was saved by a villager, who nursed her back to health but somehow never noticed that Catalina was a woman. While she was recovering, she ended up engaged to two women at the same time. Hey, y’know, it happens. Still unwilling to settle down with either of them, she skipped town right before the first of the two weddings.
She made her way to Potosi, where she took a job as an assistant to a sergeant and joined in with his mass murders of the natives. Some time after that she was accused of a crime that she did not commit (for a change) and imprisoned, where she was tortured (and yet, they still never noticed that she was a woman). After she was released from prison, she devoted herself to smuggling — but soon a lawsuit forced her to seek sanctuary in a church once again. After leaving the church, she got into a fight with a man and killed him, and was sentenced to death. Through fortunate events for her, her execution was postponed, she escaped and — spoiler alert, this is not going to surprise you — sought sanctuary in a church.
After escaping from that, she got into an argument with a sheriff’s servant and, of course, murdered him. (In broad daylight. In front of the sheriff. Not her finest moment.) She was sentenced to death again — and this time, she was unable to evade capture. She was clever though — more clever than she’d been when she murdered the sheriff’s servant right in front of him — and demanded that she be allowed to confess her sins to a priest. She was brought to a church — where she declared sanctuary. (Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Anyone?)
She fled from the church and returned to Peru, where it did not take long for her to get into another violent dispute and get arrested. With the death sentence hanging over her head and not going away in the foreseeable future, Catalina confessed to the bishop that she was actually a woman and a nun. The bishop had her examined by nuns, who determined that she was still a virgin. This, apparently, made her some sort of miracle and she became an overnight celebrity. She was basically given the choice of facing execution for her crimes, or writing down a confession and returning to Spain. That confession ultimately became her autobiography, the number one source for all things Catalina de Erauso. (Pretty much the only source for most of this.)
Once back in Europe, she petitioned the king to give her a pension due to her military service (and her celebrity status). Later, she traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Urban VIII who gave her special leave to continue to wear men’s clothing if she so desired — but reminded her that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. Returning to Spain, Catalina petitioned the crown for compensation for money she lost traveling to Spain and for a reward for her military service.
One of the last events recounted in her autobiography, which ends in the year 1626 (four years before her estimated date of death), she encountered a cardinal who told her that her “only fault is that [she was] a Spaniard.” She replied, “With all due respect, that is my only virtue.” At least she had one virtue.
Eventually, Catalina returned to the New World and then pretty much disappeared from history until her death in 1630.
Now, there’s a lot of discussion with Catalina about her sexuality and gender identity. And that’s a worthwhile discussion given that basically none of the terms we used to describe these things existed back then. Of course, as with pretty much any LGBTQ+ historical figure, there are those who are try to claim that she was straight and cisgender, and she only pursued women to keep her disguise intact. Some of these historians — and I use that term loosely — have invented romantic relationships with men that do not appear anywhere in her autobiography. In fact, she does not discuss any romantic anything towards men in her autobiography (or any other writings), despite there being several romantic and sexual encounters with other women. The autobiography, in my opinion, is not at all unclear about her exclusive attraction to women. She never expresses any interest in men, and virtually every woman who isn’t related to her is a potential love interest.
The only case that can really, justifiably be made for Catalina being straight, is if she’s transgender rather than cisgender. And that is totally a possibility. The only reason I’ve discussed her in the context of being a lesbian rather than being a transgender man is because — in my opinion (she’s not still around to ask) — it seems like she’s always aware she’s a woman disguised as a man. It doesn’t seem — to me — like she identifies as a man at all. I could be totally wrong on that, especially given that she continued to dress like a man even after her secret became public knowledge.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)