When Medieval Badass Ladies Had
to Crossdress to Survive the Times
It’s unlikely that they’ve ever heard of each other. Or imagined they’ll be featured together on an obscure blog post of the future. Yet, these remarkable women left a mark for their sheer independence and fiery personalities. (And for being luckier than doomed heroine Joana D’Arc.)
Ching Shih ruled the Chinese waters. Caterina Sforza almost killed a pope. As a man, Catalina de Erauzo was a warrior. But like Chevalier d’Eon, she was actually a lady. These fab four may have had to kill or bed many men. Some did it both. But none owed their outstanding reputation to any of them, or had to take what they didn’t choose.
Gender does say something about the foursome, but not all. Yes, they all led bloody lives, and many perished on their wake. But the odds they’ve faced for not being male, and having to conceal that fact, turned them into formidable characters who rose high above the fray.
Besides the ever present foes of women’s right to independence, such as religious zealotry, class barriers, and society prejudice, they had to survive typical Middle Ages threats, such as the Inquisition and burning at the stake. No wonder they were all sharp fencers (swordswomen?).
They’ve achieved more than most, and their lives did rewrite the rules of was expected from women, then or at any time, regardless the body count. Theirs were partial paybacks for what many of their gender didn’t live long enough to collect, despite earning and deserving it.
THE PIRATE WHO RULED CHINA’S SEAS
History books tell that Ching Shih was a prostitute before reaching command of the Red Flag Fleet. That she only climbed to the top through murdering the powerful pirate Zhèng Yi, who kidnapped her as a whore and made her his wife. Only to be betrayed, etc. History books were probably written by a man.
In fact, she expanded the fleet and redefined how it’d manage its riches, and did so out of a keen business and strategy acumen. And unlike most male pirates we’ve know of, she negotiated a pardon for her and her charges, who all retired with a comfortable keep. She died at the ripe age of 69.
THE HUSBAND & WOULD-BE POPE KILLER
Much briefer, if no less intense, was Caterina Sforza‘s life. Infamous too, thanks to no other but Machiavelli himself. He wrote Cesare Borgia-based ‘The Prince,’ so it’s not hard to guess whose pope she had a rift with, and came out singed by history. Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo de Borgia, was Cesare’s dad and his own patron.
She did bury a few husbands, but the anecdote that survived Sforza was that she exposed her pregnant belly to the sword of an enemy: Go ahead, she said, slay my baby. I can make more. Whether (more)
* The Flow
* First Ladies
* The Other Half of the Sky
apocryphal tale or mere Machiavellian in its origins, is besides the point. It’s now stuck forever to her biography.
THE BAD LIEUTENANT NUN WHO WASN’T
Caterina almost killed a pope; Catalina de Erauzo was sheltered by another. Urban VIII took her under his wings, despite the trail of killings in South America she committed as a man. Yes, they knew it but not even the Inquisition was a match for Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán’s con.
Close to being executed, she was inexplicably pardoned by confessing she was a woman, and a virgin at that, and retired with a military pension in Spain, where she’d been born to nobility. Lucky Lieutenant Nun got all her murders, including that of her own brother, erased from the record.
THE MALE SPY WHO CAME OUT AS WOMAN
It’s possible that Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont‘s gender, even if undefined at the time, was known within the Luis XVI court confines. But as an official (male) spy, that and other er details were conveniently kept obscure to everyone outside it.
The truth is that the king’s agent Chevalier D’Eon lived as a nobleman for 49 years, and for the last 33, dressed and became known as a woman, and a celebrity at it. But besides being a pioneer transgender hero, d’Eon served the crown with honor and earned a lifetime of gratitude and respect from France.
THE TALL TELLTALE OF GENDER AS FATE
It’s not whether you live or die, some say, but how and when. Even today, it’s easier to find massive literature about one gender, and not so much about the other (or others?). It’s been a long way but not nearly far enough. Little girls are still being told that they can’t, and expected to do just that.
Those who’d like women to be ‘virtuous,’ love ‘their’ men despicable, with massive literature about them to boot. They’re called hero tales while women stories are branded ‘chick lit.’ Even the word bitch had to be re-appropriated so to set the record straight. The bottom line is, no, they’re not here to serve you, thank you very much.
Some of this quartet’s DNA exists in everyone of us, and survivors owe a lot to their rebellion. Each one succeed by doing what they’d been told not to. But while they did land on history, others were not so driven. Or lucky. Here’s to these daring queens and the deeds of blood they’ve left behind.