Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Military Labour and Martial Honour in the Vida De la Monja Alférez, Catalina De Erauso

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Military Labour and Martial Honour in the Vida De la Monja Alférez, Catalina De Erauso

Article excerpt

Described by one of her contemporaries as 'an extraordinary person of our times', the Basque soldier Catalina de Erauso (71592-1650) cuts a compelling figure against the backdrop of an age of interminable war (qtd in Vallbona 1992: 128).1 By 1626, Erauso was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic; her fame rested on her singular status as a cross-dressed novice who had served the Spanish Crown with distinction in the ongoing conflicts on the Chilean frontier. News of Erauso's exploits - from her convent escape as a young girl to her peripatetic adventures in the Americas - circulated among the colonies, through the transatlantic trade routes and within Europe. The narratives surrounding Erauso took a variety of forms, including published news dispatches, a purported autobiography, her petition addressed to King Philip IV, the play loosely based upon the story of her life, and in the private correspondence of members of the ruling classes, who flocked to salons in Madrid and Rome to see and speak with the legendary Lieutenant Nun.

Among these documents, the autobiographical text known in its earliest incarnation as the Vida i sucesos de la Monja Alférez has generated a significant bibliography reflecting a range of critical approaches. As the only first-person narrative to be attributed to a cross-dressed officer of the Habsburg Crown, the Vida's singularity - and possibly apocryphal nature - requires contextualization and interpretation. To that end, current historical and bibliographical scholarship has uncovered evidence relating to Catalina de Erauso's birth, military service and pension, in addition to having traced the earliest extant manuscript of the Vida to a copy from the latter half of the seventeenth century (Rubio Merino 1995: 17-18).2 Literary and cultural scholars have interpreted the text in a variety of ways, particularly in light of the insights of feminist theory, queer theory, and media studies, and in connection with the multiple discourses contributing to the Lieutenant Nun's renown, including the Baroque taste for the bizarre (Merrim 1994), the cultural significance of female virginity (Perry 1999), the sexual and ideological indeterminacy of Erauso's transgender persona (Velasco 2000), and the importance of the New World frontier as a stage for gendered self fashioning (Myers 2002). Likewise, scholars have attended to the generic properties of the Vida, relating it to textual forms including the New World chronicle, the comedia, the confession, and the picaresque novel (Juárez Almendros 2006; Kark 2012; Pérez-Villanueva 2014). Acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding the Vida's authorship, most scholars have focused on the text's literary and cultural resonances, emphasizing the multiplicity of ways in which, in the words of Marcia Ochoa, the Lieutenant Nun 'became a message that circulated and still circulates' (2007: 56).

Although it has been little studied in this regard, the seventeenth-century military milieu that facilitated Catalina de Erauso's fame is a crucial context for understanding Erauso's transformation into the Lieutenant Nun, particularly as that transformation is imagined within the Vida. From the opening words of the text, in which Erauso lays claim to her family's military-aristocratic privilege, to the final scene, in which the heroine violently rebukes a band of picaresque interlopers, it is Erauso's status as an officer of the Spanish Crown that expands her sphere of experience beyond the limitations of her birth gender. The present article analyses the Vida's construction of Erauso as a soldier and surveys the discourses of labour and reward that converge on both the Vida and the military memoirs that it recalls. At stake in this recontextualization is a more nuanced grasp of the underlying coherence between the Vida's criminal episodes and heroic scenes, as well as a more capacious understanding of evolving concepts of martial honour, in light of the changing nature of military service in the period. …

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