Transgressive behavior: when is it celebrated and when is it punished by power?

I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.

The answer is complicated and goes into the way sexuality and gender were viewed in the 1600s1, but this passage from Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso, highlights something interesting:

First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.

In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.

In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)

Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:

You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.

Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.

I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.


  1. See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. 

You get nothing but the wider world

I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.

In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.

I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.

You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!

I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).

So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:

In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.

However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).

Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.

Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.

Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.

Despite your complete lack of distinguishing features, we have decided to hate you

The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.

Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.

They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.

They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).

So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.

Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!

“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”

The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.

Witch hunts

From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.

You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.

A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.

If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.

Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:

“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.

“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”

That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.

And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.





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