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