Sinconía Spring 2007

‘The Lieutenant Nun: Violence, Gender and Power’


Soraya García Sánchez

University of Queensland,




Violence is an aggression that affects places, animals and people. In Spanish colonial time, violence was abusive in the destruction of the land and in the crimes against aboriginal people. When dealing with the Lieutenant Nun, violence is a representation and a reaction to the patriarchal system. As a man, she has to fight back, in order to defend her position in society. She imitates the masculine role and becomes cruel with the American natives during the conquest, and also with Spaniards who challenge her position. This violent behaviour confers her power. Power implies control, authority, change. In the case of The Lieutenant Nun, power and gender are performative abilities that convince the others of a transformation. As a result, Erauso controls her image and her outcomes. Power and her dual gender correspond to each other.

Catalina de Erauso’s life and achievements in a world dominated by the male voice and action, not only in Spain but also in the conquest of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have brought about a line of investigation in my studies. In this essay, I stage a relationship among the three concepts that are headed in this title, violence, gender and power, and how they become an inspiration for the glorious evolution of the Lieutenant Nun. Violence, in this sense, will be considered to be a tool of power in her life as a man. It will esteem her position in society as she achieves recognition, independence and authority. How could a novice perform a vicious, furious, religious, social and cunning role as a man in the seventeenth century? The principal text considered for this study is Catalina de Erauso’s autobiography: Historia de la Monja Alférez, written in her way back to Spain once she declared she was not only a woman but also virgin. Although her memoirs were written in 1625 with the intention to be in print by Bernardino de Guzmán in Madrid, the first known publication took place in Paris in 1829 by Don Joaquín María de Ferrer[1]. With this exciting life, I will focus my observation on how Erauso’s gender transformation generated a change in her persona from an anxious passive woman to an active brave male that gained the power to be admired and then to be recognised to continue living as a man.

Erauso entered the convent of San Sebastián when she was 4 years old and after 11 years of limited and reflexive life in a convent, she decided to get out and transform herself into a bodily person admired by society: a man. She changed her clothes and started to live as a man. When Erauso was 18, in 1603, she departed to the New World with the captain Estebán Eguiño, her uncle. He did not recognise her, neither her father nor her mother in previous circumstances. Erauso encountered all the possible obstacles of being discovered but she always succeeded under her mask even with her family. In Chile and in Perú, Erauso started a new life as a man of the time characterized by being a brave and adventurous soldier and conquistador. Her maleness was accepted and never discovered until she was determined to reveal her identity in order to survive the death penalty for having put to death another man. Once this happened and she returned to Spain, where she was praised by both the King and the Pope to continue living in male clothes, the Lieutenant Nun maintained her masculine conditions and all possibilities of ‘liberty’ and choice of her 'transgender identity'. She was even honoured for being an exemplary soldier and a man in combat.

Catalina de Erauso’s autobiography has attracted many scholars who have considered aspects of authorship, gender, sexuality and identity as it is the case of Mary Elizabeth Perry and Camacho Platero, to name a few. Victor Rocha has also studied the connection between the body and the self in the sense of becoming transvestite, and how her identity has evolved. Sherry Velasco has published a comprehensive study with her book The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire & Catalina de Erauso. Yet, I have not seen a line of investigation that has related her male body to the seventeenth century masculine violence and consequently, to the achievement of power.

Desire of becoming a man in order to acquire status in a male dominant society is one of the perceptions that I will develop when referring to the Lieutenant Nun. Moreover, desire is connected to her possibility of identity whether it is personal and/or sexual. At a time of colonial Spanish Empire, Erauso, as a cross-dresser, has transformed her conduct into masculine manners, some of them violent, in order to persuade and become successful, accepted and powerful. Even though the nun-soldier’s history implies too many changes for a traditional society of the seventeenth century to understand her attitude and her strangeness, her deeds and destinations in Spain and in the colonies made of this heroine a complex and exciting being with a diversity of features and numerous possibilities of independence. The indoors life of the convent is replaced for the outdoors adventurous days.

To start my analysis, I have organised the perceptions of violence, power and gender in different headings. I wish to concentrate on Erauso’s epic descriptions in order to explore the strategies that she takes to perform her voice and body. Historia de la Monja Alférez presents a woman-man with courage and bravery to succeed no matter what she has to do for it, even if she has to express herself by being the man of the time. In the first episode, Erauso describes her escape from the convent and how, on her own, for the first time, she can see the world: “me salí a la calle, que nunca había visto”.[2] Presented as an innocent young woman, she decided to challenge the world with her adventures. The brave nun is talking under a feminine “I” that describes her first impressions of the Spanish world and the surroundings of the convent where she has lived for eleven years. Kathleen Ann Myers manifests that the first person memoirs “allowed a woman [Erauso] to step outside of convention, to create a new identity that reflected the reality of a woman who wanted to see the world” (184). In only two pages, Catalina de Erauso displays her family origins and how she spent three years going from one place to the other in Spain and dressed as a man. These adventurous events are seen with exalting surprise of what her eyes and emotions can feel in a boundless space. The female “I” transforms into masculine not only in her voice, but also in her performance and behaviour. Her initial action will have the same reaction in society as she will be considered a “he”, without the probable fears of a solitary woman of the time.


Violence in Catalina de Erauso

Violence is the origin of Erauso’s escape from the convent, a hostile quarrel with another more mature widow-nun. Consequently, Erauso starts to develop her new life of difficulties with the outer world but with fewer restrictions. This self-determination is not that simple and she is early provoked by other young males to turn out to be cruel. The Lieutenant Nun demonstrates that she can behave, sooner or later, as a man of the time and violence will be a fundamental tool of masculine self-defence and representation. In this example, she describes herself as a victim because these boys were inciting her. She acted in response by taking some peddles that injured one of the young men. At this moment of transformation, between a victim and an instigator and protester of the world around her, she goes to prison for the first time and stays there for a month until the wounded youngster feels better. Her first brawl as a male leaves her in another different prison to that of the convent. As the majority of the examples in her memoirs, this initial quarrel with other men can be described as epic if it is considered that she was attacked not by one young man but a group of boys. Erauso became, on her own, triumphant over it. Being in prison for a month is not regarded as a failure but a victorious beginning for Erauso who, in spite of being a woman, crosses swords, injures and starts developing her position as a man: “Entretanto dieron allí unos muchachos en reparar en mí y cercarme, hasta que viéndome fastidiado, hube de hallar unas piedras y hube de lastimar a uno, no sé por dónde porque no lo vi. Prendiéronme y me tuvieron en la cárcel por un largo mes”.[3]

In chapter three, Catalina de Erauso improves her temperament and has the first real confrontation with another man, Reyes. This disagreement is represented as irritating to her as she did not start it. The society makes her, as a man in disguise, to act violently. The physical and verbal violence are not only ways of expression among the protagonists, but also symbols of superiority and power. Erauso was obliged to leave as she did not have any weapon: “díjome que me fuera de allí o me cortaría la cara. Yo me hallé sin armas, solo una daga, y me salí de allí con sentimiento”.[4] However, Erauso’s honour will seek revenge. She plans a coincidental and victorious situation where she not only injures Mr Reyes but also his friend:


A la mañana siguiente, lunes, estando yo en mi tienda vendiendo, pasó por la puerta el Reyes y volvió a pasar… me fui a él diciendo por detrás: «¡Ah, señor Reyes!» Volviose él, y dijo: «¿Qué quiere?» Dije yo: «Esta es la cara que se corta», y dile con un cuchillo  un refilón que le valió diez puntos. El acudió con las manos a la herida; su amigo sacó la espada y vino a mí y yo a él con la mía. Tiramos los dos, y yo le entré una punta por el lado izquierdo, que le pasó y cayó.[5]


            When Catalina narrates the events that took place in Potosí and the Chuncos, she puts across more violent accounts but this time, she adds racist and scornful language in relation to the native inhabitants. I cannot be certain if the use of this discriminator vocabulary would have been the same on her role as a female. As there is no any other record on her writing than this autobiography, it is not straightforward to see if she speaks under a masculine dress and voice or whether she would have done the same as a woman of that historical period. Erauso does not show any compassion for the child that bravely uses his arrows to injury the oppressors, and to be more specific to Bartolomé de Alba, who was wounded in his eye and as a result, died three days later. It is not hard to imagine the brutal consequences for the boy. Our protagonist is very eloquent in her report and one can envision the torture of the conquest. The young native is seen as a devil and is finally killed. Antonio de Erauso is performing as a man and does not show any kind of consideration for these offensive situations: “… un demonio de un muchacho como de doce años, que estaba enfrente a la salida encaramado en un árbol, le disparó una flecha y se la entró en un ojo y lo derribó, lastimado de tal suerte que expiró al tercer día. Hicimos al muchacho diez añicos”.[6]

            Even though Erauso presents her autobiography with a full account of cruel images that characterized the man of the time, when it refers to violence against women, Erauso appears to convey concern until the point of saving a woman who could have been assassinated by her husband for having committed adultery: “me dice doña María Dávalos desde la ventana: «¡Señor capitán, lléveme usted consigo, que quiere matarme mi marido!» … y me dijeron: «Llévala usted, que la hallo su marido con don Antonio Calderón, sobrino del obispo, y lo ha muerto, y a ella la quiere matar y la tiene encerrada».[7] In these circumstances, Erauso could have chosen to support the male chauvinist character by allowing him to kill his wife and do whatever it was necessary to refine his name, honour and reputation. Yet, Erauso takes action by rescuing this woman and runs away with her, maybe because there is an erotic interest or maybe because she acts as a feminist with the pursuit of helping other unprotected women as Mrs Dávalos. In such masculine circumstances, she becomes a hero because after having been followed by the impulsive husband, Erauso will have to defeat him in order to come to Mrs Dávalos’s rescue of murder: “Entramos en la iglesia con la brega, y allí me entró dos puntas por los pechos … Chavarría se estuvo también curando de sus heridas por muchos días”.[8] The Lieutenant Nun’s contribution to protect this exposed woman of masculine violence is demonstrated with Mrs María Dávalos’s example as she will finally enter a convent with her mother to continue living in safety. After her marriage, the convent is the only place for Dávalos’s assurance. Despite her husband claimed the right to have his wife returned, the society is on Dávalos’s side. Erauso endangers her life in order to save Mrs Dávalos. Her action is fundamental in the society’s position. She reveals how her deed saved a woman’s life and consequently she will be honoured by the convent. Not only Dávalos and her mother will express gratitude but also other ladies in the convent who felt appreciation for her care to women’s injustices: “… no había más que haber socorrido repentinamente a aquella mujer que se me arrojó, huyendo de la muerte, pasándola a convento con su madre, como ella pidió … Salí de la reclusión, ajusté mis cuentas, visité muchas veces a mi monja y a su madre y a otras señoras de allí, agradecidas, me regalaron mucho”.[9]

Another instance of violent behaviour presented in her highly-coloured portrays Erauso not only surrounded by the political and brutal world of the time but also by religion. Her descriptive vocabulary evokes a violent vision for the reader:


«Perro, ¿todavía vives» Tirome una estocada y apartela con la daga y tirele otra, de tal suerte, que se la entré por la boca del estómago, atravesándolo, y cayó pidiendo confesión. Yo caí también; al ruido acudió gente y algunos frailes y el corregidor, don Pedro de Córdoba, del hábito de Santiago, el cual, viendo a los ministros asirme, les dijo: «Aquí qué hay que hacer sino confesarlo?» El otro luego. Lleváronme caritativos a casa del tesorero, donde yo paraba; acostáronme; no se atrevió un cirujano a curarme hasta que confesara, por recelo de que expirase.[10]


As a Catholic woman-man, she did not stop believing in God and having the Christian religion as an important tenet in her daily life, as she expresses later, once her health is recovered: “… aquel santo padre Ferrer no se apartó de mí. Dios se lo pague”.[11] These heroic stories present a woman of courage who after having fought, been in prison and being paid for her heroism and braveness, gets the value and recognition of the historical Spanish Golden Age. Once Erauso confesses her gender and returns to the Indies, she does not even deliberate for one moment to change her appearance as she will continue to be known as a man with all the chances and possibilities that being male implies at that period of time. I argue here how the Americas gave her this successful freedom. With violence as a strategic tool, she had to move to different towns and maintained her hidden identity as a must “to live the life of a fugitive” (Goetz 103).

Erauso’s descriptions honour the victories of her deeds as it is demonstrated in the following instance. The fight is provoked by a previous violent situation that causes the revenge of Erauso on the minister. The soldier woman can feel her enemies around but she does not stop before them. Yet she continues demonstrating her courage: “… llegué al Puente de Apurimac, donde topé a la justicia con amigos del muerto Cid, que me estaban esperando… y de un pistoletazo derribé al ministro”.[12]

Drawing on the work of the Lieutenant Nun and the numerous examples of violent and heroic events that she narrates, I must consider the historical period in which these actions came to pass. In Harry Vélez Quiñones’s words, “The Spanish military in the Golden Age became the most visible fighting force in Europe since Roman times”.[13] If these historical facts are considered and Erauso’s narration is examined, it can be stated that her descriptions are pertinent and fully brutally descriptive of the time. Her account was a heroic approval since she was described as courageous and fearless by many, after her declaration of being a secreted woman. The seventeenth century in the Spanish Colonial world is also a time and a space of new opportunities for women like the principal character in this story. Erauso started a new life and took the advantages of these unsettled placesfor an opportunity of autonomy under the manly disguise, appearance and behaviour. Considering both, the political and the religious conventions, Erauso travelled to the New World as a warrior and a fighter to play a part in the occupation of New Spain. In this regard, she changed her quiet, religious and passive life of the convent for another life of violence, action and power in the appropriation of the unknown continent. The Nun’s strategies were developed during a period of great power in Spain. The Golden Age praised the opportunities for ‘brave, violent’ conquistadores. The possibilities for the female sex were limited to be married to God or to another man. As a contributor of the powerful Spanish Empire, the nun-soldier heroine has the courage to protect herself and her king. She not only develops her identity, but she also plays a part in the expansion of the Catholic and political ideals.[14]


Power in Catalina de Erauso

Erauso’s use of violence in her role as a soldier, lieutenant and conquistador transformed her condition into powerful. At first, Erauso briefly conveys her life as a woman in the convent, and only her admiring accounts as a male are expressed in her memoirs and as such are celebrated. This 'masculine violence' and social life will be threatened by Erauso’s sexuality and gender. However, it is at the difficult time of her death penalty, when the Lieutenant Nun is determined to acknowledge that she is in fact a woman. In so doing, she uses cunning techniques considering the religious authority of the time. She confesses as a decisive factor how she has remained chaste and she offers herself for examination to prove her virginity. This perspicacious and objective achievement will allow her to continue living as a man, option that she will finally take, considering all the chances and possibilities of her masculine identity. The Catholic religion during this historical period in the Americas was as powerful as the Military institutions. Erauso uses both organizations in order to develop her objectives and become powerfully recognised as a man. If the religious institution is considered first, it is comprehensible to analyse Catalina de Erauso’s state of virgo intacta as an agent of power and independence. I agree with Mary Elizabeth Perry when she declares that “Catalina de Erauso renounced her femaleness. She used her virginity to win a special status under the law that ensured her survival. In so doing, however, she not only supported the gender prescription of “purity” for unmarried women; she also demonstrated a renunciation of traditional forms of female sexuality”.[15] Erauso probably maintained her virginity as an immaculate tool of endurance considering that for the Catholic Church, a sexually uncorrupted woman is more respectful than any other women and even some men. The division between sexual purity in the virgin against sexual impurity in the prostitute have been shaped by the Christian-Catholic society that has opposed The Virgin Mary to Mary Magdalene. Both share a similar name under the commonly spread ‘Mary’ but the perceptions of both saints have been observed with contrasting eyes. On the one hand, the Virgin Mary is the female subordinated to society as she follows the tradition of becoming wife, mother and, miraculously, virgin, characteristic that turns out as powerful for the pilgrims. Sex is not thinkable or related to this character. On the other side, Mary Magdalene is the woman that has been described as a prostitute who uses her body and becomes a sinner. These two women form part of this divergent dichotomy between the angel/monster (virgin/whore). In the case of Catalina de Erauso, it is possible to perceive a combination of both oppositions as she remains chaste, thus powerful if the seventeenth century is considered a remarkable period of colonialism where religion and militarism walked together. We can only imagine her other life. We will never know what her sexual life was like unless that an undiscovered document comes out. Moreover, even though Erauso possesses that positive attraction exalted by Catholicism, she also implies activity and not passivity as she forms part of the conquest of the colonies and becomes an honorary soldier and lieutenant. As Julie Wheelwright states prostitution was the only alternative for independent women, as it was also the case with Mary Magdalene.[16] Wheelwright asserts in her declaration on how “[f]emale soldiers in this context advocated change, not revolution and served to clarify the importance of sexual difference.[17] Erauso ties opposite characteristics of this western cultural dichotomy and successfully live with them. She is virgin, active, nun, soldier, woman, man and accepted.

On the other hand, it is difficult not to think how Erauso did not break her state of purity. It is clear that when she became to be considered a man, she accepted it as true as she did not have many chances of living in the same conditions if she were regarded as a woman. Her freedom would have been reduced again to the convent life if the feminine option was considered. That’s why she not only resisted her female sexual identity, in which case, she would have lost her power, but also her male sexual identity as she could have also been discovered of her real sex in situations where she was required to be naked. I understand that according to the protagonist’s descriptions, she was never obliged to be completely naked as that would have been a fact of bringing to light her sexuality. Her male and female gender have been constrained: “… un buen hombre compadecido de nuestra desnudez, nos vistió, nos encaminó y avió a Lima, y vinimos”.[18] Even though she was proposed to get married in more than one occasion, she was not the prime mover in the offer but the receiver, thus she was very subtle in her strategies. The interesting point of view will be to see if we can ever find any records that can identify Erauso’s heterosexual or homosexual life after she was approved to continue her life as a male.[19] Now that the Pope, the King and the society acknowledge and honour her as a transsexual being, it will be an analysis of future references to see what her sexual options were. Some critics have assured that her decision of continuing being male indicates her rejection to her female gender as she has been considered lesbian.[20] However, my postmodern point of view also see Erauso as a controlling woman who renounces the life of the convent and the life of the housewife but, possibly and probably, not her sexual life either as a heterosexual or as a homosexual. It is clear that her male appearance was not the most important issue but the way, in which she thought, acted and spoke like a man. Behind her figure, her identity is hidden as there is not certainty behind this mask. I coincide with Julie Wheelwright when she suggests that “the female warrior’s acceptance was often based on denial of her sexuality and great emphasis was placed on her virginity or sexlessness in popular representations”.[21] This denial is a mechanism of power. Erauso desires to become male as her social condition and options are enriched. The soldier female protagonist accomplishes an acknowledged position in society by not being a woman of the time but the example of masculinity. She did not follow the established patterns. Virginity is the main canon that she did not break as Perry declared.[22]


Gender in Catalina de Erauso

Why Catalina de Erauso, as some other discovered and undiscovered women of the time, decided to become the masculine stereotype is my next point of analysis. To explore this quest, I will consider, Stephen Whitehead’s work Men and masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions and especially the chapters focused on “masculine ontology” and “desire to be a man” in order to compare Whitehead’s analysis to Erauso’s body. Masculine ontology, according to Whitehead is “the pursuit of being and becoming masculine by the masculine subject”.[23] Erauso cannot be included in this perception as she is not a masculine subject but a woman in male costumes. On the other hand and following Whitehead’s explanation, if she is distinguished as a transgender, the Lieutenant Nun is a man trapped in a woman’s body. Whitehead, however, refers to the case of being masculine for female beings as “a form of femininity”.[24] If both sentences are related to Erauso’s life, I will support Whitehead’s definition of masculine ontology. Nevertheless, it is possible to see a significant difference in our soldier-nun protagonist as nobody knew that she was really a woman until she decided to tell. On the other hand, it is not acceptable for the time to think of a form of femininity in Erauso’s case. The adequate chances for feminine subjects during the seventeenth century were to be nuns or wives, and Erauso rejected both of them by living as a man.

What is the essential persona of Catalina de Erauso and how did she use it to achieve power? Is it possible to use her male/female gender as an accepted duality? Erauso is an example of uncertainty, of ambiguity. The idea of a fundamental nature is difficult in her ‘self’ as she embodies multiple characteristics that have been traditionally opposed to each other but that have been embraced in her example. Her identity reflects oppositions and she uses cross-dressing to mask herself, instead of occulting herself. She never denied that she wasn’t a woman rather she confessed her hidden identity. This ambiguity allows the reader, the interpreter to fantasy and play as it does postmodernism. New possible meanings can survive out of the imposed boundaries. Their predominance will put an end to dichotomies and a beginning to plurality. The uncertainty of the Baroque and the multiplicity of Postmodernism are relevant notions in Erauso’s identity and successful power. Whitehead adds how “women cannot be masculine in any essential sense. Certainly, they can take up those practices, languages and behaviours that are considered masculine, but that is not the same as being a masculine subject”.[25] In Erauso’s example, once she declares that she is in fact a woman and once the political and religious institutions encourage her to continue living with a masculine name, the society accepts and praises her as a man of honour, but ‘her masculine being’ is also parodied by women of the historical time as it is illustrated in her autobiography: “… reparé en las risotadas de dos damiselas … Me miraban, y mirándolas, me dijo una: «Señora Catalina, ¿adónde se camina?»Respondí: «Señoras p…, a darles a ustedes cien pescozones y cien cuchilladas a quien las quiera defender.» Callaron y se fueron de allí”.[26] The Lieutenant Nun’s reaction is violent but in search of protecting her status and respect as a super masculine man. As Julie Wheelwright declares in her study of Amazons and Military Maids:


Often the only way for women to cope with the contradiction of being both female and a soldier was to actively deny their connection with the feminine world. Disguised as men they engaged in acts of imitation love-making, flirted, teased, abused and insulted other women to secure their own position (10).


Erauso was allowed by the King and by the Pope to continue living under her male manners but it is relevant to bear in mind the society’s reaction upon these facts exemplified with these ladies laughing. I would like to imagine that those who knew the Lieutenant Nun appreciated her courage in one sense or the other, as it is recorded in some descriptions about her.[27] To be in the position of such a traditional society must have accomplished Erauso’s circumstances as the unacceptable example. In Whitehead’s study, the seventeenth century heroine can be considered a ‘he’ as that was her election. Her feminine virgin body was necessarily and cunningly disposed and, as Whitehead suggests, “the masculine subject is not innately male/man, it can only become this through being positioned in and positioning itself within those discourses that speak of and suggest maleness/masculinity”.[28] Erauso’s power and control start when the subject and the body interact and become masculine not only for her, but for the world’s eyes that observe her making astute use of her male clothes and manners. “[T]he body is sexed and gendered at point of entry into the social” and this was Erauso’s main quest.[29]

What is the seventeenth century nun-soldier’s gender and identity? In my opinion, she has not rejected her body. For some scholars such as Velasco or Perry, Erauso is the example of successful homosexuality. I will argue that her sexual orientation is never stated in her account. She wrote or dictated these notes under restricted conditions. If she had a sexual life as a heterosexual or a homosexual woman, would she have survived the Inquisition? The lack of data leaves us open to imagination. One can imagine another hidden life that discovers her sexuall life. With imagination, we can think that maybe she had a partner and children. If she covered her identity once, she could have lived under another cover to protect her sexuality. Of course that society knows her as a man but it could be possible to think that she chose a masculine role into the social world under a female body, only for the positive options that it implies. Erauso desires to become male but I cannot be sure of all her intentions and implications. As Whitehead describes “desire to be, to become and to exist as a social actor” could have been Erauso’s main pursuit.[30] She was not an intellectual woman who used her words to be heard as it is the case of her posterior contemporary Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The nun-soldier, however, uses her body and her appearance to become someone popular, free and finally recognised for her deeds which are reflected and exalted in her memoirs.



In this study, I have attempted to examine the adventurous and epic narratives of the historical female character Catalina de Erauso. In so doing, I have analysed how by means of cross-dressing she became ‘he’, a new being with a prestigious role in a society that, on occasions, defined men in terms of brutality and violence. Erauso’s acceptance and development of her new position as a male offers her a state of control and power for a woman of the time. Once she observes the possibilities of her new recognised self, she does not consider for a minute to return to her previous condition as a woman. Her disguises and masculine manners concede her the power to put out of sight any signs of womanhood, and the power to survive in a world dominated by men. From a restless novice to an active, brave and honoured man who left behind any representation of fear-provoking conditions, Catalina-Antonio de Erauso found the opportunity to live a very different time for a woman of the seventeenth century. Her performance and her intentions make her one of our first feminist models who challenged appearance and masculine disguise in order to gain respect and liberation. Erauso’s transvestism generates power as she has been praised by her violent performance as a combatant and as a brave man.[31] The perceptions of desire, her ambiguous sexual identity, the power of cross-dressing and violence construct the nun-soldier who is admired and respected by society as she finally gathers together the notions of being, emancipation and power.




[1] See Rima de Vallbona, Vida I sucesos de la monja alférez: autobiografía atribuida a Doña Catalina de Erauso.


[2] Catalina de Erauso, Historia de La Monja Alférez, Biblioteca Digital Andina de la Biblioteca Municipal de Perú, p. 3. Also see the English version by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto: ‘… I shook off my veil and went out into a street I had never seen” (4).


[3] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 4. See also Stepto’s version: ‘Before long, I managed to attract the attention of some of the town’s youths, who encircled me, edging up closer and closer, until finally I had had enough and picked up some stones and let one of them have it –where I cannot say because I didn’t see. I was arrested and thrown in jail, and there I remained for one long month’ (6).


[4] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 8. See also Stepto’s version: ‘Then he told me I’d best disappear, or he’d be forced to cut my face wide open. Seeing as how I was weapon-less, except for a short dagger, I made my exit, more than a little enraged’ (12).


[5] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 8. See also Stepto’s version: ‘The next morning, a Monday, I was in the shop doing business as usual when I saw Reyes walk past the door, first one way and then the other. I closed the shop, grabbed up a knife, and went looking for a barber to grind the blade to a sawtoothed edge, and then, throwing on my sword –it was the first I ever wore –I went looking for Reyes and found him where he was strolling by the church with a friend. I approached him from behind and said, “Ah, señor Reyes!” He turned and asked, “What do you want?” I said, “This is the face you were thinking of cutting up, and gave him a slash worth ten stitches. He clutched at the wound with both hands, his friend drew his sword and came at me, and I went at him with my own. We met, I thrust the blade through his left side, and down he went’ (12).


[6] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 20. Also see Stepto’s version: ‘… a devil of a boy of about twelve years old fired an arrow at him from where he was perched in a tree beside the road, where it led out of the encampment. The arrow lodged in the fieldmaster’s eye and he went right over, so badly wounded that he died three days later. We carved the boy into ten thousand pieces’ (33-4).


[7] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 26. Also see Stepto’s version: ‘doña María Dávalos stuck her head out of the window and cried, “Take me with you, Señor Capitán –my husband is trying to kill me!”… Two friars hurried up at this point and said to me, “You better take her with you. Her husband caught her with don Antonio Calderón, the bishop’s nephew, and he killed him –now he has doña María locked up, and has a mind to kill her too”’ (44-5).


[8] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 27. See also Stepto’s version: ‘ We clashed swords all the way into the church, and he must have been good, because he poked me twice in the breast before I could get in a single hit … Chavarría was also a long time mending’ (46-7).


[9] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 27. See also Stepto’s version: ‘I had no choice but to help the woman in question, who has thrown herself at the fleeing bloody murder, and how I had delivered her up to her mother as she had begged me to do … I came out of hiding, settled my affairs, and went quite often to visit my little nun and her mother, and some of the other ladies there, all of whom were invariably pleased by my company and made many gifts of this, that, and the other thing’ (47).


[10] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 33. Also see Stepto’s version: ‘“You dog –still alive?” and thrust at me with his blade. I forced the blow off the side with my dagger, and with a bit of luck managed to find the unprotected soft of his belly with my blade, pushed it clear trough him, and he fell to the ground, begging for a priest. I went down as well, and the ruckus brought a flock of people, including two friars and the sheriff don Pedro de Córdoba, a knight of Santiago. When he saw his deputies preparing to arrest me, he said, “What are you thinking? All that remains to be done is their last confessions.” The Cid died right there on the spot. Some goodhearted people took me to the treasure’s house, where I was staying, and they put me to bed, but they wouldn’t allow the surgeon to start in on me until I had made my confession –they were so scared I was going to die right there, from one moment to the next’ (56).


[11] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 34. See also Stepto’s version: ‘… and the whole time that saint, brother Luis Ferrer, never left my side –may God reward him!’ (57).

[12] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 35. See also Stepto’s version: ‘ … as I said, and had gotten as far as the Apurimac Bridge when I ran into the law, along with some friends of The Cid, all waiting there for me … I levelled the constable with a shot from my pistol’ (58).


[13] Harry Vélez Quiñones, ‘Deficient Masculinity: “Mi Puta es el Maestre de Montesa”’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 2:1, 2001, p. 27.


[14] I shall point out here Michel Foucault’s analysis of power and its connection with Catalina de Erauso. The philosopher emphasizes the importance of actions which, at the same time, are linked to freedom and cunning plans: ‘In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future’ (789). The Lieutenant Nun’s strategy was to use heroic and violent actions in a time of conquest and under the mask of her masculine costumes and appearance in order to achieve freedom, power and recognition. As Foucault declares: ‘So strategy is defined by the choice of winning solutions’ (793).


[15] Mary Elizabeth Perry, ‘The Manly Woman: A Historical Case Study’, American Behavioural Scientist, 31:1, September/October 1987, Los Angeles, University of California, pp. 86-100.


[16] Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, London, Pandora, 1989, p. 8.


[17] Julie Wheelwright, Military Maids, p. 8.


[18] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 31. Also see Stepto’s version: ‘… a good man took pity on our naked state, gave us some clothes and gear and pointed us in the direction of Lima, and we finally made it back’ (53).


[19] Vélez Quiñones points out how Erauso’s words ‘jugar y triscar’ and ‘andándole en las piernas’ ‘are left to our fancy’. As he said ‘We must assume that at the very least she was not ‘contraria a su gusto, que fue siempre de buenas caras’ (35). Is it possible to assume with just these few words Erauso’s sexual orientation? I shall state that her condition as a male made her believe it and show it in writing but the facts or records of her lesbianism or heterosexuality are to be found.


[20] Sherry Velasco is a predominant defender of Erauso’s homosexuality expressed in her book The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism Lesbian Desire, and Catalina de Erauso. Austin: University of Texas, 2000.


[21] Wheelright, Military Maids, p. 12. Wheelwright also argues how ‘women expressed a desire not for the physical acquisition of a male body but for a male social identity’ (8).


[22] ‘Virginity helped to explain the strength and bravery of Catalina, and it could preserve her respectability even when she chose to be a man. Catalina may have broken every other rule for women, but she preserved the most important one–virginity’ (Perry, ‘Manly Woman’, p. 95.


[23] Stephen Whitehead, Men and Masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions, Cambridge, Polity, 2002, p. 210.


[24] Stephen Whitehead, Men and Masculinities, p. 210.


[25] Stephen Whitehead, Men and Masculinities, p. 210.


[26] Erauso, Monja Alférez, p. 35. See also Stepto’s version: ‘I was struck by the tittering laughter of two ladies … They looked at me, and I looked at them, and one said, “Señora Catalina, where are you going, all by your lonesome?” “My dear harlots”, I replied, “I have come to deliver one hundred strokes to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this table to the fool who would defend your honor.” The women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off’ (80).


[27] See Pedro de la Valles’s physical description in ‘Transvested Autobiography: Apocrypa and the Monja Alférez’: ‘De rostro no es fea, pero no hermosa, i se la reconoce estar algun tanto maltratada, pero no de mucha edad … Solo en las manos se le puede conocer que es muger, porque las tiene abultadas y carnosas, i robustas y fuertes, bien que las mueve algo como muger’ (459). In the virtual copy of the Andina’s library Historia de la Monja Alférez, others have portrayed the transvestite soldier not in bodily forms but in brave actions as it is the case of Luis Céspedes who knew her for more than eighteen years: ‘Certifico y hago fe a Su Majestad que conozco a Catalina de Erauso de más de diez y ocho años a esta parte que entró por soldado en hábito de hombre, sin que nadie entendiese que era una mujer… la susodicha es digna de que Su Majestad le haga merced por lo bien que ha servido’ (55). Also, Juan Recio de León, by petition of Erauso, writes another official document in which he claims how his discovery of her sexuality was exalted not only by him but by the society who exalted her male braveness (60).


[28] Whitehead, Men and Masculinities, p. 212.


[29] Whitehead, Men and Masculinities, p. 212.


[30] Whitehead, Men and Masculinities, p. 215.


[31] According to Michel Foucault’s concept of power, Catalina de Erauso is an example of power as she acquires this status by means of her clothes, her freedom and her actions and also by means of blending opposites in her self: ‘Power exists only when it is put into action … It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions … Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only in so far as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments may be realized … Basically power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of government’ (82).






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