Catalina de Erauso

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Portrait attributed to Juan van der Hamen

Catalina de Erauso (in Spanish) or Katalina Erauso (in Basque), also known in Spanish as La Monja Alférez (English, The Nun Lieutenant) (San Sebastián, Spain, 10 February 1592[1]Cuetlaxtla (near Orizaba), New Spain, 1650),[2] was a personality of the Basque Country, Spain and Spanish America in the first half of the 17th century. For nearly 400 years, Catalina Erauso's story has remained alive through historical studies, biographical stories, novels, movies and comics.[3]

Early years[edit]

Some sources claim Erauso was born in 1585 including her alleged autobiography of 1626.[4] However her baptismal certificate dates her birth in February 10, 1592.[5] Her parents were Captain Miguel de Erauso and Maria Pérez de Arce Gallarraga, both of whom had been born and lived in San Sebastián. Her father was an important military commander of the Basque province under the orders of King Philip III of Spain. From an early age she took part with her father and brothers in the arts of warfare.[4]

Life at the Convent[edit]

Around the year 1589, when she was 4 years old, she entered the Dominican convent of her hometown (San Sebastian), with her sisters Isabel and Maria.[6] Erauso's mother's cousin, Ursula de Uriza and Sarasti, held the position of prioress in the convent. It was normal at that time for girls to be placed in convents at a young age to be educated according to Catholic tradition, promoting the learning of tasks appropriate to their sex to be subsequently to be betrothed "as God intended". Because of her explosive character and the difficulty the nuns faced to control her, she was transferred to the Convent of San Bartolome de San Sebastian until she was 15, where the rules were much stricter. She realized that she had no religious vocation, and as a result she felt imprisoned and refused to take her vows. Catalina de Erauso was detained in her cell because of the constant fights she had with a widowed novice named Catalina de Alirli. For this reason, on the night of March 18, 1600, the eve of San Jose, she found the keys of the convent hanging in a corner and used them to escape. She fabricated men's clothing with the materials at her disposal, cut her hair and hid her habit.

Fugitive status in Spain[edit]

From this moment, she began the life of a fugitive. Later, she narrated this in her autobiography, which gave her great fame. She ate what she found on the way walking through different villages, this is how she reached Vitoria, a city 20 miles from San Sebastian. There she met a doctor and professor Mr. Francisco de Cerralta, who gave her clothes and took her in without recognising her. He was married to her mother's cousin. She stayed with him for 3 months, during which she learnt some Latin. After having forced her to continue studying and attempted sexual abuse, Catalina took money from the doctor and met a mule driver and went to Valladolid with him. In which the court of King Philip III resided, widely influenced by the Duke of Lerma, "Valido del Rey". Catalina, disguised as a man, by the name of Francisco de Loyola, served in the court as a page of the secretary of King Juan de Idiaquez for seven months. She had to flee from Valladolid when she met her father, who came looking for his good friend Mr. Juan de Idiáquez. Her father asked for information to find her, describing her physical appearance and the way she escaped from the convent. Surprisingly, her father did not recognise her despite having spoken with her. However, she decided to run away again. This time, she took the longest route towards Bilbao. When she arrived, she was not as lucky as before, she did not find a place to sleep nor a patron. In addition, she had a fight with some young men who tried to assault her, so she took a stone and wounded one of them. Thus, she was arrested and stayed in prison for a month. Once released from prison she went to Estella de Navarra and managed to settle herself as a page of an important lord of the town called Alonso de Arellano. Catalina was his servant for two years, always well treated and well dressed. Between 1602 and 1603, after her years of service to Arellano, she returned to San Sebastián, her hometown, where she lived as a man, taking care of her relatives, whom she saw frequently. She also attended mass in her old convent with her former colleagues. It's said that she has also served her aunt without ever being recognized. After some time, she came to Puerto de Pasajes, where she met Captain Miguel de Berróiz, who took her to Seville. They were there for only two days. She later returned to Sanlucar de Barrameda, where she found a job as a cabin boy on a ship. Captain Esteban Eguiño, who was a cousin of her mother, owned the galleon. According to her memoirs, she embarked on Holy Monday, 1603 to America.[citation needed] According to the website, "Erauso apparently felt the same way as many Basques of her time: the calling of the Indies."[7]

She spent all this time disguised as a man, with short hair and using different names such as Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and Antonio de Erauso. Apparently her physique was not feminine, which helped her with her deception. Specifically, Catalina once confessed that she "dried her breasts" with a secret ointment.[8]

Travels in America[edit]

The first place in the Americas where she landed was Punta de Araya, now part of Venezuela, where she had a confrontation with a Dutch pirate fleet which she defeated. From there they left for Cartagena and Nombre de Dios, where they stayed for nine days. Several sailors died there because of the weather. They boarded the silver and once ready to return to Spain, Catalina shot and killed her uncle and stole 500 pesos. She told to the sailors that her uncle had sent her on an errand. An hour later, the ship returned to Spain without her. From there she went with an usher to Panama, where she spent three months. In Panama she started working with Juan de Urquiza, merchant of Trujillo with whom she went to the port of Paita (now Peru ), where the trader had a large shipment. In the port of Manta (now Ecuador ), a strong wind destroyed the ship and she had to swim to save herself and her master. The rest of the crew perished. After a brief time in Paita, she went to Zana. A place full of cattle, grains, fruits and tobacco from Peru . There, her master happily accommodated her. He gave her a home, clothing and a large amount of money, as well as three black slaves. In Saña she had a fight with a young man who threatened her in a comedy theater. She ended up cutting off the face of the boy who challenged her. She was taken to jail again and through efforts of her master Juan de Urquiza, and the bishop of that place, she was released on the condition that she married Dona Beatriz de Cardenas, lady of her master and aunt of the man who had his face cut. Not wanting to be discovered, she refused to marry. Then she went to the city of Trujillo, where her master opened a store. However, the man who was wounded in the face, came to challenge her again accompanied by two friends. She went to the fight with another person, and in the fight the man's friend was killed. She was again imprisoned, and after her master saved her again, he gave her money and a letter of recommendation and sent her to Lima, which was the capital of the then Viceroyalty of Peru. She gave the letter of recommendation to Diego de Solarte, a very rich merchant and greater consul of Lima, and after a few days she was given his shop. She was responsible for the business for nine months, but was fired when discovered fondling a woman, the sister of her masters wife. After being dismissed, she found a company recruiting, whose aim was the conquest of Chile and, beset by the need to find a new job, she enlisted under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. She was accompanied by 1600 men from Lima to the city of Concepción.

Military exploits[edit]

After marching with her company to Chile in 1619, her army swept through the lands and property of the Mapuches, showing her aggressive side as conqueror, massacring many Indians. In Chile she was welcomed by the secretary of the governor, who was her brother, Don Miguel de Erauso, but did not recognize her.[9] She remained there for three years and because of a dispute with her brother, (possibly because of another woman) was banished to Paicabí, the land of Indians. There she fought in the service of the crown in the War of Arauco against the Mapuches in today's Chile, earning a reputation for being brave and skillful with weapons and without revealing that she was a woman.[citation needed]

In the battle of Valdivia she received the rank of second lieutenant. In the next battle of Puren her captain died and she took command, winning the battle. However, due to the many complaints that existed against her for her cruelty against the Indians, she was not promoted to the next military rank. This frustration led to a period devoted to vandalizing, killing as many people as she met on the road, causing extensive damage and burning entire crops. In Conception she assassinated the chief auditor of the city, for which she was locked in a church for six months. After being released, she killed her brother Don Miguel de Erausco in another duel and was again imprisoned eight months. She later fled to Argentina across the Andes, through a difficult transition path. She was saved at the brink of death by a villager and taken to Tucumán, where she promised marriage to two young women, the daughter of an Indian widow (which had hosted Catalina on his farm during her convalescence) and the niece of a canon. She ended up fleeing from there without marrying any of them, but kept the money and clothing from Holland, given by the niece of the canon as a sign of love. Then she went to Potosí, where she became the assistant to a sergeant, and returned again to fight against the Indians, participating in mass killings in Chuncos. In la Plata (Chuquisaca) she was accused of a crime she did not commit, she was tortured and finally set free again (without revealing her identity). Once out of prison, she devoted herself to smuggle wheat and cattle on the orders of Juan Lopez de Arquijo. A new lawsuit forced her to take refuge in a church. In Piscobamba, by quarreling, she killed another individual. This time she was sentenced to death, but was saved at the last minute by the deposition of another prisoner sentenced to death. Then she remained in a holy asylum for five months in a church due to a duel with a jealous husband. When she moved to La Paz, she was sentenced again to death for another offense. To escape, she pretended to confess and, after seizing a consecrated host fled to Cuzco[10] and returned to Peru.

Return to Spain and audience with Pope Urban VIII[edit]

In 1623 she was arrested in Huamanga, Peru, because of a dispute. To prevent her execution she begged for mercy to Bishop Agustin de Carvajal, and confessed that she was actually a woman who had been in a convent. Following a review by a group of matrons, they determined it was true that she was a woman and a virgin, the bishop protected her and she was sent to Spain.

In 1625–1626, she petitioned the Spanish Crown for financial reward for her services as a soldier in the New World. She did this in her relación de méritos y servicios (Account of Merits and Services). In addition to seeking reward for her time at war, she also sought compensation for money she lost while spent traveling to Rome. This document includes accounts from "witnesses" or others who knew Erauso. However, many of the accounts are contradictory in nature and some do not know what to make of Erauso's predicament. The reason that their accounts are different is for a few reasons. Firstly, they all knew Erauso by different names and different accomplishments. They may have known Alonso Díaz de Guzmán, the name Erauso used while dressing as a man, but they did not know Catalina.[11]

Scholars are conflicted as to whether or not this visit between Erauso and Pope Urban VIII actually occurred, but her Account of Merits and Services can be found in the Archivo General de Indias and the Real Academia de la Historia de Madrid and it was filed between 1625 and 1626, which would match up with the accounts of her being in Rome at that time.[11]

Return to America and death[edit]

In 1630 she settled in the New Spain, probably in the city of Orizaba in the state of Veracruz, where she established a business as a mule skinner between Mexico City and Veracruz. Locals state that she died carrying a load on a boat, although some argue that her death occurred at the top of Orizaba, alone among their asses cargo. The most plausible is that she died in the village of Cotaxtla. According to the historian Joaquin Arroniz, her remains rest in the Church of the Royal Hospital of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of the Juaninos Brothers, which today is popularly known as the Church of San Juan de Dios city of Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico. Although there is no solid evidence to support it, some postulate that Bishop Juan de Palafox tried to move her remains to the city of Puebla, home to the bishopric, but failed. Instead, according to other historians, the remains of Catalina de Erauso rest in the same place where it is believed she died, in the village of Cotaxtla.[12] However, there is no documentation that can demonstrate the exact date and place of death.[13]

Autobiography and controversy over its authorship[edit]

Catalina wrote or dictated an autobiography which was first published in Paris in 1829 at the request of Joaquin Maria Ferrer, a second time in Barcelona in 1838 and for the third time (1894) in Paris, with illustrations by Spanish artist Daniel Vierge . Then they were translated into several languages and versions of the theme, as idealized by Thomas De Quincey, entitled The Ensign Nun in English.

In addition to these editions, a series of reprints of her autobiography after 1894, and about her return to Spain, a comedy was released by Juan Pérez de Montalbán, Comedia famosa de la Monja Alferez (1625). Currently, it has generated a new debate among researchers of her life around the authorship of this autobiography, which some researchers have branded as apocryphal and without any basis for engaging in some chronological inaccuracies and contradictions.[14][15] However, given the existence of baptism certificates and testimonies from others about her life and works, it is impossible to deny the historical existence of this woman.[16]

Some have wanted to see a relationship between her extraordinary life, and the Baroque taste for portraying marginal and / or deformed or abnormal characters, as the main reason for the fame she gained throughout the Hispanic world on her return from America.[17]

Questions of gender and sexual identity[edit]

New scholarship has questioned Erauso's sexual orientation and gender identity. While Erauso never mentions specifically in her memoir being attracted to a man, there are numerous instances of relationships with other women. There was an encounter with the sister-in-law of a Lima merchant, a quarrel with Erauso's brother over his mistress and other occasions of Erauso being betrothed to women in the New World.[18] Those betrothals, however, usually ended after Erauso exploited the situation and rode off with gifts and dowry money.[19] Catalina also mentions a lesbian encounter when a hostess surprises her by "touching between her legs," and also acknowledges having taken advantage twice of her disguise as a man to get gifts from her future fiancée who didn't know her true identity.[18]

Other scholars, such as Sherry Velasco, have also written on the subject of gender and sexual identity.[20] In Velasco's case, she argues for Erauso's lesbianism and transgenderism. She argues that, throughout the years since the first printings of Erauso's memoirs, there have been a lot of different retellings and exaggerations. In those retellings of Erauso's story, she says that there has been an effort to "de-lesbianize" Erauso through the invention of different heterosexual relationships as well as downplaying her relationships and behavior with other women.[19][20] This happened mostly in versions of the story told and published in the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century, Velasco argues, there was actually a "re-lesbianization" of Erauso. This happened originally in heterosexual, femme-fatale in the 1940s to appeal to younger women as glamorous. Then, later in the 1980s, she appeared as a "melancholy lesbian whose lover dies and a voyeuristic lesbian whose narrative ends with the optimistic image of the protagonist accompanied by the object of her sexual desire."[20]

Other scholars, such as Matthew Goldmark, also argue for Erauso's sexual orientation and identity. However, he takes the approach of examining her Accounts of Merits and Services document. In particular, Goldmark examines the "hábitos" or "habits" section of the document. This section gives accounts from witnesses or other people that knew Erauso and could speak to her demeanor in her petition of the King and the Pope. This section also was an intersection of not only gender, but also class and profession. The accounts in Erauso's document support and show how Erauso and others navigated ideas of gender and identity at that time.[11]

Regardless of how Erauso identified, researchers are still divided into different camps on the reason for Erauso's grand story of adventures. Some argue that Erauso had to pretend to be attracted to women in order to keep her identity a secret and to blend in with her fellow Spanish soldiers. Others argue that Erauso was actually a lesbian who used dress as a way to not attract attention from church authorities and to continue to be attracted to women. Still others fall into the third camp that Erauso actually did identify as a man. Those in this school of thought therefore conclude that Erauso was merely expressing their sexual identity through transgenderism.[19][21]


Despite the existence of her own memoirs, probably written around 1626, Catalina de Erauso ended up disappearing from most known historical records, specifically in the period running between her return to Spain in 1624 and her return to the Indies, until the eighteenth century. At the end of the century, states Sonia Perez-Villanueva, on a certain Sunday Urbirú she had in her possession a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which was duplicated by a friend, the poet and playwright Candido Maria Trigueros One of the copies made by Trigueros ended up in the hands of the academic Juan Bautista Muñoz, who was writing the History of the New World and included a mention of Catalina in his work. Eventually, the copy was used as a reference by Muñoz finished in the hands of the Royal Academy of History in 1784, and later was rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by the political Felipe Bauza, who persuaded his friend, the astronomer and merchant Joaquin Maria Ferrer for publish it. Finally, the manuscript was published in 1829 in Paris by Julio Didot with the title story of The Nun Lieutenant, written by herself, and a few decades later was republished by Heredia in 1894, marking this version of her autobiography the revival of interest and research into her life.[22][23]

The character of The Nun Lieutenant was, and remains today, a source of inspiration for writers, playwrights, filmmakers and artists (most notably her 1630 portrait, attributed to Juan van der Hamen). In the nineteenth century highlights the work of Thomas De Quincey, who turns Erausco into a typically romantic character, victim of fate and immersed in a series of adventures.[24] Also in the nineteenth century is the novel by Eduardo Blasco Del claustro al campamento o la Monja Alferez. And similarly it has been a source of inspiration for many analysis and academic papers trying to explain her complex personality. In the twentieth century the Monja Alferez hit the screens and became more popular through several film versions, as in La Monja Alferez, directed by Mexican Emilio Gómez Muriel (1947). At present, this character is attractive to the poststructuralist critique because she is a clear example of instability and relativity of the notion of gender in the construction of the identity of an individual.

Further reading[edit]

  • Catalina de Erauso, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Boston: Beacon Press 1996.


  • (in Spanish) Historia de la monja alférez escrita por ella misma. Presentación y epílogo de Jesús Munárriz. Madrid, Ediciones Hiperión,2000. ISBN 978-84-7517-652-9
  • (in Spanish) Historia de la monja alférez. Amigos del Libro Vasco, Echevarri,1986.
  • (in Spanish) Historia de la monja alférez D.ª Catalina de Erauso. Catalina de Erauso. Barcelona : Imp. de José Tauló, 1838
  • (in Spanish) Miguel de Erauso (senior), el abuelo de la Monja Alférez: una inmersión en la vida donostiarra (1592). José Ignacio Tellechea Idigoras. En: Boletín de estudios históricos sobre San Sebastián. n. 39 (2005), p. 81-154
  • (in Spanish) Doña Catalina de Erauso: la monja alférez: IV centenario de su nacimiento. José Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras. ISBN 84-7173-205-X
  • (in Spanish) Historia del Nuevo Mundo. Juan Bautista Muñoz. Madrid, 1794
  • (in Spanish) La historia de la Monja Alférez, escrita por ella misma. Catalina de Erauso. Comentada y editada por Joaquín María Ferrer. París: Imp. de Julio Didot, 1829
  • (in Spanish) La historia de la monja Alférez, escrita por ella misma. Catalina de Erauso. Traducción de José María de Heredia. París, 1894


  1. ^ 1592 according to the record of her baptism; 1585, according to her supposed autobiography. See Stepto 1996, p. xxvi.
  2. ^ Robert Aldrich; Garry Wotherspoon. (Eds.) (2002). Who's who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II (2nd ed.). London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-415-15983-8.
  3. ^ "María Asunción Gómez: El problemático feminismo de La Monja Alférez, de Domingo Miras nº 41 Espéculo (UCM)". (in Spanish). Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  4. ^ a b de Erauso, Catalina. "Historia de la Monja Alférez" (in Spanish). Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
  5. ^ Tellechea Idígoras, José Ignacio (2018). "Catalina de Erauso". Diccionario Biográfico Español. Real Academia de la Historia.
  6. ^ "Catalina de Erauso. La monja". Euskomedia (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 July 2013.
  7. ^ "Catalina de Erauso. El primer aire de libertad". Euskomedia (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 July 2013.
  8. ^ ARTEHISTORIA. "Monja alférez. Catalina de Erauso – Personajes – ARTEHISTORIA V2". ARTEHISTORIA (in Spanish). Retrieved 19 February 2016.
  9. ^ "Catalina de Erauso. Soldado en Chile". Euskomedia (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 July 2013.
  10. ^ "Catalina de Erauso en Bolivia". Euskomedia (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 July 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Goldmark, Matthew (2015-04-03). "Reading Habits: Catalina de Erauso and the Subjects of Early Modern Spanish Gender and Sexuality". Colonial Latin American Review. 24 (2): 215–235. doi:10.1080/10609164.2015.1040278. ISSN 1060-9164.
  12. ^ "Historia, cultura y turismo en Orizaba". Agustín García Márquez. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
  13. ^ VILLATORO, MANUEL P. "Catalina de Erauso, la monja española que se disfrazó de hombre y combatió como soldado en América". Retrieved 19 February 2016.
  14. ^ Pérez-Villanueva, Sonia (2014). The Life of Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun: An Early Modern Autobiography. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-61147-661-3.
  15. ^ "Historia de la Monja Alférez: ¿escrita por ella misma?" (PDF). Sonia Pérez-Villanueva. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  16. ^ Valcárcel, Isabel. Mujeres de armas tomar. EDAF. ISBN 9788496107564.
  17. ^ "María Asunción Gómez: El problemático feminismo de La Monja Alférez, de Domingo Miras nº 41 Espéculo (UCM)". Retrieved 19 February 2016.
  18. ^ a b "The Autobiography of doña Catalina de Erauso, by Catalina de Erauso 1592–1650". Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  19. ^ a b c Rapp, Linda. "Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca1650)" (PDF). Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  20. ^ a b c Velasco, Sherry (2000-01-01). The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire, and Catalina de Erauso. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-78746-9.
  21. ^ Haggerty, George; Zimmerman, Bonnie (2003). Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-135-57870-1.
  22. ^ "From Spain to the Americas, from the convent to the front: Catalina de Erauso's shifting identities – Isabel Hernández". Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  23. ^ Guadalupe Sánchez Rodríguez, Sandra. "Análisis histórico y literario de Vida i sucesos de la monja alférez, doña Catalina de Erauso" (PDF). Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Iztapalapa. Retrieved July 2004. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  24. ^ "María Asunción Gómez: El problemático feminismo de La Monja Alférez, de Domingo Miras nº 41 Espéculo (UCM)". Retrieved 16 March 2016.