Elena aka Eleno de Céspedes 1545- c.1588 Spain
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
In the collection of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Elena, also known as 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, so Elena had brand marks on both sides of her face to indicate her status as the offspring of a slave. She was married at age sixteen 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,” all of whom confirmed that he was indeed male, and 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 professed to be a “hermaphrodite” and to have both male and female natures. Céspedes argued that at the time of his marriage to Maria, he had been 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 two hundred lashes and was ordered to serve ten years in a public hospital, dressed as a woman.


Burshatin, Israel. “Written on the Body: Slave or Hermaphrodite in Sixteenth-Century Spain.” In Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, ed. Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson, 427. Durham, NC: 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.