Catalina de Erauso (ca. 1592-1650)

Historia de la monja Alferez

Edition, Translation, Annotation, and Introduction by Daniel Harvey Pedrick.

Introduction to the Work

Doña Catalina de Erauso, better known to history as La Monja Alférez (The Nun Ensign), was an unlikely heroine of Spain's Golden Age who left a confusing blend of historical and legendary footprints in the Peninsula as well as in Spain's American colonies. The nature of her character and of her alleged exploits caused no small amount of consternation and embarrassment to officials of Church and state at the time of her career. But doña Catalina's story of rebellion represents perhaps the only successful challenge by a woman to the male-dominated social system of Counter-Reformation Spain for, in the end, doña Catalina had her way, openly rejecting the ability of a powerful global empire to subjugate her because of her gender.

The first documented edition of Erauso's purported autobiography still extant was printed in Spanish in 1829, the work of Joaquín María de Ferrer. Ferrer had copied his manuscript from another, itself copied from the original in the Archive of the Indies in 1784 by Juan Bautista Muñoz.[1] Not surprisingly, the authenticity of the autobiography has been unable to completely emerge from the shadow of doubt, remaining in the nether world of quasi-fiction and historical apocrypha as far as modern academic study is concerned. [2]

The work did not appear in English until 1908 when Sir James Fitzmaurice-Kelly published a faithful translation of Ferrer's. Both historians included many footnotes and corroborating documentation which prove that Erauso really did exist and that many—if not all—of the more bizarre aspects of her story are true. [3]

That Erauso was a transvestite is well established. It is also true that she served in Spanish military forces in Chile and Peru. [4] Her purported skill at sword fighting and inclination towards violence perfectly suited the milieu of the latter days of the conquest of Spanish America. In her successful petition to Philip IV she admits to a “particular inclination to take up arms in defense of the Catholic faith and be of service to Your Majesty.” [5] Her sexual non-conformity and lovemaking with women apparently escaped most of her male contemporaries, although a careful reading of her autobiography and related chronicles seems to suggest those very things.

Erauso became a legend in her own time with at least two editions of her story published shortly after her return from the Americas to Spain in 1624 as well as a popular play. [6] Within three years of her death in Mexico in 1650 a version of her exploits was printed there that historian Lesley Bird Simpson termed the first novel ever published on the American Continent. [7]

As to the authenticity of Erauso's authorship of any of these accounts, there is no real proof of it. Certainly she may have participated in their preparation, as early editions made much of the phrases "escrita por ella misma" or "dicho por su mesma voca". [8]

The first-person narrative in Ferrer's book consists of a series of exciting picaresque episodes—some obviously pure fantasy and bordering on the spectacular. These episodes seem to have been based on the ones that originally appeared in the first Relaciones with the addition of more entertaining details. But the narrative, apart from its obviously fictitious sections and often faulty historical accuracy (some incorrect dates may be attributable to typographical errors), corresponds to many of the details and circumstances of Erauso's petitions to the Crown. [9] Furthermore, the work's writing style, if not its content, is distinctly prosaic and as such does not suggest the talents of a professional ghostwriter or forger. Finally, in spite of this dearth of literary style and the possibility of generous editorial assistance, a personal touch is perceptible throughout. Therefore, after a careful examination of this literary and historical evidence it seems reasonable to allow that many of the passages in the work translated here are, at the very least, inspired by Erauso's own exploits and adventures. [10]


Synopsis of the autobiography of Catalina de Erauso

In the year 1600, in the Spanish Basque town of San Sebastián, the fifteen year old novice Catalina de Erauso dwells in a Dominican convent of nuns. She has been raised there since the age of four by her mother's sister, the prioress doña Ursula.

On the eve of taking her final vows, enraged by a beating from a professed nun, she seizes an opportunity to escape. Taking scissors, needle, thread, and some coins, she bolts and hides herself in a nearby grove where she quickly transforms her habit into the outfit of a typical young lad. Cutting off her hair, she sets off down the road to seek her fortune.

After some initial blunders which cause her to become more acquainted with the ways of the world, she secures employment with certain eminent men as a page. Within a few years she has developed a full-blown masculine persona and succumbs to the irresistible lure of the Indies. After one last incognito visit to her hometown, during which she is taken by almost everyone she meets for a gallant young man, she departs for the Indies as the cabin boy to the captain of a royal galleon. [11]

Arriving in Panama, she steals five hundred pesos from her master and jumps ship, heading off to the Pacific coast and Peru. There she secures employment managing a mercer's store in the town of Trujillo. All goes well until she becomes entangled in an intrigue involving her employer and his mistress. Subjected to public humiliation, she purchases weapons and attacks her foe with bloody effect.

Obliged to slink away from Trujillo, she attempts to start again in Lima but soon is undone by a growing appetite for the company of young women. This time she escapes her troubles by enlisting with the forces being recruited to put down the Indian uprising in Chile. She marches off to Concepción where she finds herself in the company of Captain Miguel de Erauso, her beloved eldest brother.

Attached as an aide to the trusting captain Erauso (who is not aware of her true identity), she soon loses her comfortable posting through another indiscretion and is sent off to the front where she experiences the bitter reality of combat. Distinguishing herself in battle, she is commissioned a lieutenant. When the commander of her cavalry company is killed she is given a temporary captaincy. As the cruel campaign against the Araucano rebels continues, she incurs the wrath of her superiors when she brutally slays a charismatic Indian leader whom the governor wanted taken alive. Passed over for a permanent promotion, she is returned to Concepción and placed on half-pay.

Depressed and suffering from battle fatigue, she begins a pattern of compulsive gambling and brawling. When she seriously wounds an opponent in a disagreement, she seeks sanctuary in a Franciscan monastery to avoid military justice. One night a fellow officer comes in and asks her to act as his second in a duel at midnight. She sneaks out of the convent with her friend and they meet their adversaries in a very dark alley. When the duelists kill each other, she defends herself against the other man's second. As her sword pierces her opponent's chest, she recognizes by his dying cries the voice of her brother Miguel. She runs back to the convent and watches from the choir with anguish as her brother's body is laid out in the chapel. [12]

Insane with grief, she escapes from the convent and takes up with two other deserters heading back up the coast towards Peru. Turning inland, they ascend the escarpment and soon are lost in the barren Andean highlands. Her starving companions dead, she finally falls, exhausted, ready to give up the ghost. Two mestizo ranch hands from the eastern slope discover her nearly lifeless form and take her to the house of their employer where she is cared for and restored. There the unmarried daughter of the family takes a liking to Catalina, who once again is wearing the bloom of health. The family, prosperous owners of land and herds, offers a handsome dowry for the marriage which Catalina accepts. But, when in the town of Tucumán, she manages to get her hands on the greater part of the money and absconds with it.

Wandering from town to town, she soon gambles away the money while earning a reputation as a con artist, a bad loser, and a dangerous outlaw. Arrested and charged with a capital crime in La Paz, she cleverly plays church against state and escapes the gallows. [13]

She travels on to Cuzco and before long crosses swords with a fellow rascal known as the "New Cid". A bloody street fight results in his death and her serious injury. At death's door, she receives the Last Rites and confesses her whole story to a priest. To everyone's surprise she recovers and is quietly taken into a monastery to avoid the law, which by now pursues her diligently.

Her secret out, she flees once again for Lima but is intercepted at the bridge of the Apurimac by a posse. After a bloody fight she gets away to Guamanga but is cornered again after being recognized by the posters which are now being circulated. Hopelessly surrounded, the Bishop of Guamanga intercedes and persuades her to surrender to him. She confesses all to the Bishop, even submitting to an examination by midwives who pronounce her indubitably female and a virgin to boot. [14] Catalina is placed in a convent in Lima until word comes from Spain that she was never a professed nun. Released back into the world, she discards her nun's habit once again and sets out for Spain. Disembarking in Cádiz in 1624, she finds herself hailed by crowds everywhere. She is immediately arrested by Church authorities, but then mysteriously released by order of the Count Duke of Olivares. After an aborted trip to Rome during which she is arrested in France for a Spanish spy, she returns to Spain and appears before Philip IV where she boldly presents the king with a petition outlining her military service and seeking compensation. [15] The king refers her to the Council of the Indies with the result that she receives an annual pension of 800 escudos.

She departs for Rome again, this time by sea. There, Pope Urban VIII indulges her and grants her dispensation to continue dressing as a man, ignoring the criticism his action provokes from scandalized conservatives.





[1]Unfortunately this copy has been lost. The original Relaciones that appeared in Madrid and Seville very soon after Erauso's return to Spain and the submission of her petition to the Crown in 1624 are more coincident with the details of that petition and less replete with the kind of fabulous details appearing in later versions. No original copies of these survive and historians have had to make do with such re-edited versions as have appeared in other histories. I have used the reprinted versions that appear in J.Ignacio Tellechea I., Doña Catalina de Erauso - La Monja Alférez. San Sebastián: Gráficas ESET, 1992.


[2]This is possibly due to the denigrating opinion of R. Menendez-Pelayo who, apparently without seeing any of the supporting documentation, dismissed the Erauso autobiography as patently false (See Tellechea, 263).


[3]See Ferrer, Joaquín María de, Historia de la Monja Alférez (Doña catalina de Erauso), Madrid: Tipo Renovación. 1918. See also Fitzmaurice-Kelly, James, The Nun Ensign, Translated from the Spanish with introduction and notes by James Fitzmaurice Kelly ... Also La Monja Alférez, a play in the original Spanish by J.P. de Montalván, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908. For the most recent published translation of Erauso's autobiography see Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto, trans., Lieutenant Nun - Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World - Catalina de Erauso, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). As a source for translating the text, the authors employed the mentioned Tipo Renovación edition, as I did when I first took on the project in 1982.


[4]Ministerio de Cultura, Archivo General de Indias, Contratación, 5408, No. 41. Also, Tellechea, 89-96.


[1]See Appendix B.


[6]José Berruezo, Catalina de Erauso - La Monja Alférez, San Sebastián: Gráficas Izarra, 1975, 43-59. The original Relaciones were the first published offerings of Erauso's story to a public whose appetite for more information had been stimulated by sensational rumors that had accompanied her back to Spain in 1624. They are brief and to the point and no doubt formed the basis for the many versions of the "autobiographies" that followed. From a historical standpoint these earlier accounts are probably the more reliable. The Relaciones mention, for example, the historical likelihood that she was in company with her brother Miguel de Erauso in Chile without his being aware of her identity, but do not portray the ironic and tragic event of her killing him by mistake that is one of the colorful but doubtless fanciful episodes of later versions.


[7]Lesley Bird Simpson, Many Mexicos, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, 168.


[8]Berruezo, 45-47, and Tellechea, 74.


[9]Ministerio, No. 41.


[10]The line between the legendary and the historical has almost always been blurred in works about Erauso, from her own purported autobiographies up until the most recent versions. In Stepto (1996) the reliability of the all the details of Erauso's story seems to be accepted without question. If this were so, Erauso would have certainly been defamed for the number of capital crimes she is portrayed as having committed, but these alleged incidents are without any historical documentation. For a convincing attempt to separate fact from fiction in the life of Erauso see Tellechea, 1992.


[11]Interestingly, Erauso hints that she was recognized by some of the sisters in her former convent (see last paragraph, Chapter I).


[12]This episode, like some others in the autobiography, has no historical basis in fact.


[13]The details of this episode (whether or not it is another of the work's fictitious embellishments) are especially interesting as they underline the conflicting jurisdiction of Church and secular authorities in criminal cases in Counter Reformation Spain and its territories. Before Erauso's scheduled execution, her confessor arrives and suggests that she might cheat the gallows if, when she receives communion, she spit the Host back out into her hand and shout, "I am the Church!", which she does. The officiating priest orders no one to approach her and, upon finishing the Mass, summons the bishop to the jail. The bishop orders her brought to the cathedral under guard where she is subjected to an arcane cleansing ritual. Once inside, she claims sanctuary and is beyond the reach of the law.


[14]Erauso's certified virgin status was another boon to her credibility, especially when she stood before the Pope.


[15]Ministerio, 41.

EADA Entries:

The Autobiography of doña Catalina de Erauso

Other Sources

Historia de la monja Alferez (at Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes Página principal; free access)