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  • Lieutenant Nun
  • Written by Catalina De Erauso
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  • Lieutenant Nun
  • Written by Catalina De Erauso
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Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World

Written by Catalina De ErausoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Catalina De Erauso


List Price: $18.00


On Sale: February 07, 2011
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-8070-9566-9
Published by : Beacon Press Beacon Press
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Named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1996

One of the earliest known autobiographies by a woman, this is the extraordinary tale of Catalina de Erauso, who in 1599 escaped from a Basque convent dressed as a man and went on to live one of the most wildly fantastic lives of any woman in history. A soldier in the Spanish army, she traveled to Peru and Chile, became a gambler, and even mistakenly killed her own brother in a duel. During her lifetime she emerged as the adored folkloric hero of the Spanish-speaking world. This delightful translation of Catalina's own work introduces a new audience to her audacious escapades.


It is more than ten years now since an Argentine friend
presented me with a photocopy of the 1918 edition of Catalina
de Erauso’s La Historia de la Monja Alférez, but I remember
her description of the book as if it were yesterday. “It’s
about a nun who fl ed the convent,” she said, “and lived the
life of a bandit for many years, posing as a man, until one day
she was apprehended at a crossroads and given a choice— she
could return to the convent and set down her confession in
writing, or she could be tried and hanged for her crimes. She
chose to confess, and this is the confession she wrote.”
As I read La Historia, I looked in vain for the eloquent details
of my friend’s synopsis— the crossroads, the choice that
was no choice at all, the confession, the resubmersion beneath
the veil— delighted, but also perplexed, to discover in
the book in hand the story of a woman who had lived freely,
given the time and place, and more or less escaped the consequences.
Later, as I learned more about the history of this
woman, I understood that my friend’s version belonged to the
body of lore and legend that had developed around the fi gure
of Catalina de Erauso, and that had taken on a vivid life of its
own in the 150 years during which her memoir remained
For centuries, the Spanish- speaking world has been fascinated
by the story of the Basque girl with the quick temper
who ran away from her convent dressed as a man and became
La Monja Alférez, the Lieutenant Nun. To summarize the
highpoints of her life— as she herself set them down in her
memoir— is to rehearse the tale of a picaro let loose on the
New World: She traveled to the Americas in 1603, became a
soldier, fought in the conquest of Chile. She enjoyed the attentions
of other women, killed her brother in a duel, gambled
and brawled her way through the mining towns of the
Andean highlands. She killed and maimed, spent time in jail,
and more time in the sanctuary of the Church. She claimed
the privilege of nobility to escape torture, and proclaimed
herself a heretic to escape hanging. When fi nally cornered,
after twenty years of masking, she revealed her secret— she
was not only a woman, but an intact virgin, a piece of news
that, far from condemning her, brought her a brief celebrity
in the Baroque world. In 1624, she returned to Eu rope,
where she earned from the Spanish king a military pension,
and from the pope permission to continue her life in men’s
clothing. Then, in 1630, she returned to the new world, and
slipped from the pages of history.
Catalina de Erauso began life in the town of San Sebastian,
on the northern coast of Spain, a middle child and the third
daughter of a large and prosperous Basque family. She gives
1585 as the year of her birth, though rec ords in San Sebastian
indicate she was baptized in 1592. In either case, she was
born into a Spain that was enjoying its fi rst hundred years of
American conquest, and extending that conquest further and
further south along the western coast of South America, a
Spain that had dedicated itself, its sons, its military and commercial
activity to the harvest of riches in lands thousands of
miles away. What ever Catalina may have come to know in the
years before she herself left for the Americas, she must have
been keenly aware of there being another world, a “new”
world. Of those far shores, she must have heard countless
Her father, Captain Miguel de Erauso, had probably
served in the American colonies. Her older brother Miguel
had been there since Catalina was two—“I had had news of
him,” she remembers. Three more brothers, Domingo, Francisco,
and Martín, would follow him there, and all four would
end their lives in South America. But while the Erauso sons
went forth into the expanding world, a different future was
unfolding for the Erauso daughters. Like other prosperous
Basque families, the Erausos gave their sons to the conquest
and their daughters to the convent, thus promoting the family
prestige and protecting its honor. One by one, the girls
entered the convent of San Sebastian the Elder, there to be
reared and educated— for marriage if a likely match presented
itself, for a nun’s life if it did not.
Conventional marriage or the conventual life— these were
the possibilities open to the Erauso daughters, among whom
Mariana eventually married, while Mari Juana, Isabel, and
Jacinta lived out their lives in the town convent. Catalina
alone escaped, and in a way that tells us much about the
freedom available to Spanish men of her class, and much
about her own versatility. She refashioned her undergarments
into a suit of men’s clothes, cut her hair short, and
walked out of San Sebastian. In the neighboring town of Vitoria,
she presented herself as a young servant, and thereafter
as a page to the king’s secretary, as a mysterious young
bachelor in her hometown, and fi nally as ship’s boy to her
unwitting uncle, in whose galleon she crossed the Atlantic.
In Nombre de Dios, as her uncle readied his galleon for the
return voyage to Spain, stowing the gold that was the fruit of
Spanish conquest, Catalina stole what she needed from him
and jumped ship, setting out to make her way alone in the
New World.


A rollicking, swashbuckling tale. -Los Angeles Times

"The frontier nun's rascally tale [is] a fascinating puzzle to decipher." -Angeline Goreau, The New York Times Book Review

"A mesmerizing adventure!" -Tama Janowitz

"[Catalina de Erauso] dared to steal the quest narrative from the roving men of her time and, miraculously, survived to tell the tale. An essential work for recovering the roots of women's autobiography and women's remaking of identity through encounters with otherness, not only in society but in the self." -Ruth Behar, author of The Vulnerable Observer

"The Steptos' translation, without betraying the original, turns this memoir into compelling literature in English." -Roberto González Echevarría, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures, Yale University

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