Spain’s Nuns Come Full Circle


Portrait of Catalina de Erauso by Juan van der Hamen, from the Wikipedia page dedicated to Erauso

Some 400 years ago, a novice from a convent in the remote reaches of the Basque province of Spain cut her hair, fashioned her robes into a rough suit, and ran away to join the forces conquering America. Her name was Catalina de Erauso, but she changed that to fit in undetected amongst the all-male troops, and later became known under the moniker she shared with her autobiography: La monja alférez (the Lieutenant Nun). Catalina was not your typical cloistered sister, much preferring her life as a violent, gambling, womanizing, cross-dressing soldier. She has been called “Spain’s only true mujer guerrera [woman warrior]” (McKendrick 213), and spent her time outside of the convent subduing the indigenous peoples of Peru, Chile, and Argentina. At the end of her escapades she returns to Spain where she demands equal pay for equal work, and when denied that by the crown, travels to Rome where she (according to her own autobiography, in any case) asks and receives dispensation from the Pope to continue living her life the way she truly desires:

Partí de Génova a Roma. Besé el pie a la santidad de Urbano VIII, refiríle en breve, y lo mejor que supe, mi vida y corridas, mi sexo y virginidad; y mostró su santidad extrañar tal caso, y con afabilidad me concedió licencia para proseguir mi vida en hábito de hombre, encargándome la prosecución honesta en adelante, y la abstinencia en offender al prójimo…

(Erauso 173)

I left from Genova to go to Rome. I kissed the feet of his holiness Urban VIII, gave him a brief account, the best that I could, of my life and actions, my sex and virginity; and his holiness was shocked by such things, and with affability he gave me permission to proceed with my life in men’s clothing, charging me to be honest in future endeavors and abstain from offending others…

(Translation mine)

Basically Catalina was a bad-ass. One of the first accepted female cross-dressers, by the Pope no less, she surpasses all previous—and many later—attempts by women to live out their lives as men. Most women who chose to cross-dress in the early modern period did so for protection while they traveled alone, or to follow a lover into battle, or to make decent money for their families without having to turn to prostitution. Most of these reasons lead to short lived stints of cross-dressing, and if caught, most women argued that they were only doing it to preserve their chastity, an argument that was generally acceptable to both the courts and church, as long as the woman in question promised that it would not happen again. (See Dekker and van de Pol The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe.)

So, how has all of this come full circle, you might ask… it has nothing to do with Catalina’s cross-dressing, unfortunately (but All about my mother by Almodovar has some great nun/transvestite interaction, if you need a fix of queer Spanish culture, I highly recommend it), but rather her warrior side. Yesterday, All Things Considered on NPR ran a story about another Spanish nun, Teresa Forcades, who is about as unusual a nun as the original Catalina. Born into an atheist family, Forcades only went into the convent as she looked for a quiet place to study when taking her medical exams. She’s a doctor with an MA from Harvard and a feminist who has had run-ins with the Vatican… but if you’ve read the article or listened to the story, you know all that. My interest with her lies in the intersections of her life and that of Catalina. Specifically in her ideas about Catalonian independence, which she makes clear in the NPR piece:

Forcades’ latest crusade is for Catalan independence. She has become one of the most prominent faces of the secessionist movement in Catalonia, which seeks to break away from Spain and form its own country in Europe.

“I am in favor of the independence of my country, because I do believe that for true democracy to be real or possible, you need small political units,” she says, offering the example of the U.S., in which many powers are devolved to the state rather than federal level.

“I want to avoid what unfortunately has been so prevalent for the Catalans. We complain to our local government, the Catalan government, and the local government says, ‘Yeah, you are right, but you know what? It’s Madrid’s fault.’ OK, so we go to Madrid, and Madrid says, ‘Yes, you’re right, but you know what? It’s Brussels’ fault,’ ” she says. “I don’t like growing huge empirelike structures that are removed from the people.”

Spain was, at the time of Catalina’s life, quite possibly the biggest empire the world has ever seen. The King of Spain was also the Holy Roman Emperor, which meant that just within Europe Spain controlled much of the area that is now southern Germany and Austria, Flanders and other Northern parts of Europe, not to mention the vastly unexplored South American continent and the Caribbean. Now, this new, outspoken nun, Forcades, is speaking out against precisely the sort of thing for which Erauso fought and killed. But Erauso did not join the Spanish troops for political reasons. She didn’t necessarily believe in the expansion of Spain’s empire to an unwieldy size. She did it to escape a life she hated, and to live as her true self. Forcades found her calling by entering a convent, in spite of the difficulties of living within the church as an ex-atheist feminist. Erauso found hers by leaving, in spite of the dangers of living both in disguise and in full view of those who might harm her. Although they might appear to fight for the opposite thing, I see them as having far more in common.


Rudolf M. Dekker, and Lotte C. van de Pol,  The Tradition of Female Transvestism inEarly Modern Europe.  London: Macmillan Press, 1989.

Catalina de Erauso, Historia de la Monja Alférez, Catalina de Erauso, escrita por ella misma, Ángel Esteban, ed.  Madrid: Catedra, 2002.

Lauren Frayer, The Outspoken Spanish Nun Who’s Made Herself a Political Force. NPR “All Things Considered”. September 24, 2014. Web:

Melveena McKendrick, Woman and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden  Age. New York: Cambridge UP, 1974.

2 thoughts on “Spain’s Nuns Come Full Circle

  1. Years ago I taught English at a small language school in Donostia/San Sebastian (another region struggling for independence from Madrid), located in a street called Catalina de Erauso Kalea. To my shame I never explored the provenance of the name; thanks to your post I now do. What an extraordinary woman! Thanks for the story, and that of Forcades.

    • Her story is fascinating! I would definitely recommend her autobiography (which is available in both Spanish and English), and if you also read Spanish, there is a 17th-century play about her as well. (The play is totally inaccurate hisstorically, but a lot of fun.)

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