Elena aka Eleno de Céspedes 15-45- c.1588 Spain
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
2011

Elena aka Eleno de Céspedes was a freed slave born in Alhama, Spain in 1545. Her father was a Castilian peasant and her mother an African slave.  She had brand marks on both sides of her face to indicate her status as “offspring of a slave.” She was married at age 16 to a man who left her shortly after she became pregnant. According to her testimony before the Spanish Inquisition in 1587, while giving birth to her son, she grew a penis. She gave the baby to another family and proceeded to live sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a man. Céspedes moved from town to town working as a tailor, a hosier, a soldier and finally a licensed surgeon using whichever gender suited the occasion.     

Céspedes had many affairs with women, but in 1586 he became engaged to Maria del Caño. When he asked the vicar for a marriage license, the vicar became suspicious of Céspedes’ hairless physique and had him examined by his associates. The vicar’s men testified that all was intact. However, before the marriage could occur someone came forward and claimed that Céspedes was both male and female so the vicar wanted them examined again. Céspedes was examined multiple times by doctors, surgeons, lawyers, the Secretary of the Inquisition and other people of “good repute” and finally they confirmed that he was indeed male. The wedding was finally allowed to proceed. However, a year later, after a tip from a neighbor, the couple was arrested and charged with sodomy, sorcery and disrespect for the marriage sacrament. 

When testifying before the Tribunal of Toledo Céspedes said that they were a hermaphrodite and had both male and female natures. Céspedes argued that at the time of his marriage to Maria he was of the male nature and had therefore committed no wrong. However, his male member had recently withered and fallen off due to a serious accident. After more examinations by court doctors and midwives Céspedes was found to be a woman and was sentenced for bigamy, fakery, perjury, and mockery of the sacrament of marriage. Céspedes received 200 lashes and was ordered to serve ten years in a public hospital, dressed as a woman.


Sources:


Blackmore, Josiah and Gregory S. Hutcheson.  Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  Duke University Press, 1999.

Kagan, Richard L. and Abigail Dyer. Inquisitorial Iinquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Rupp, Leila J.  Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women.  New York University Press, 2009.

Velasco, Sherry.  Lesbians in Early Modern Spain.  Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011.