Elena de Céspedes was born female and mulata (mixed race) in Alhama de Granada, Spain. She inherited her slave status from her mother, who was captured into chattel slavery in sub-Saharan Africa and taken to Andalusia where she was in domestic bondage in the Medina-Céspedes household. Elena's father was a so-called Old Christian, a high-caste Spaniard with bloodlines untainted by Jewish or Muslim ancestry. Elena shared with her mother the life of a household slave until her early adolescent years, when the mistress of the house died and the child won manumission.
At age 16 Elena's body was transformed into that of a hermaphrodite, as she would declare more than 20 years later before the tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Toledo, where in July 1587 she faced several charges: impersonating a man, female sodomy, witchcraft, and, most serious, scorn for (sentir mal) the sacrament of marriage. An old acquaintance from the time of Elena's army service—when she was living as a man—denounced the mulata cross-dresser on learning of her recent marriage to another woman, María del Caño.
Two decades earlier she had married a man, a stonemason from Jaén, with whom she lived for only three months, long enough to conceive a child. As she recounted in the hearing room of the Toledo Inquisition, it was during the birth of her son that she first exhibited male sexual characteristics. Her body was under so much strain that as she was pushing out her baby son, Christóval, a penis and testicles also emerged. The evidence of gender dissidence adduced by her accusers was, she argued, traceable to a perfectly natural genital mutation that female bodies were known to undergo.
It was only after the birth of her penis that she altered her dress and social persona and began to feel erotic desire for other women. She also rewrote her female name, discarding the feminine ending of Elena and replacing it with the final o of masculine nouns, thereby crafting Eleno, an unfamiliar name in Castilian but one appropriate to the persona of a hermaphrodite who privileged masculine styles.
Eleno's social position improved after that time. In her female life she had worked in lower positions associated with cloth and clothing manufacturing (hose maker, weaver). However, after the metamorphosis, Eleno rose to a series of male-identified professions: tailor, soldier, and eventually licensed surgeon.
The extensive dossier of Eleno's Inquisition case demonstrates his familiarity with the literature of sex change associated with Galenic medicine, the Plinian concept of races, and early modern physiology. Those discourses enabled an informed, if unpersuasive, defense in which a transgender body expressed not heretical beliefs or female political disorder but the wonders of natura artifex, the variety and playfulness of nature authorized by classical texts of natural history.
After several tribunal-appointed physicians concluded that Eleno's body bore no physical evidence of hermaphroditism, Eleno was sentenced for bigamy and received the typical punishment accorded to male bigamists: two hundred lashes and 10 years of confinement. That sentence was to be carried out while Eleno was serving as a surgeon curing indigent sick and injured patients in a Toledo hospital.
The actual punishment went beyond the narrow ruling (Eleno gave a false oath in representing himself as an unmarried male) by referencing the crime of sodomy. Originally the charge was leveled against Eleno by the secular court in Castile, before the Inquisition's intervention in the prosecution. Although in Castile the Holy Office never acquired formal jurisdiction over sodomy offenses, Eleno's inquisitors pursued their investigations as if that were their mulata prisoner's principal offense. They interrogated Eleno's wife and a former mistress about the specifics of their positions during sexual intercourse and the nature of Eleno's penis; they wanted to know whether Eleno had ever used a stiff and smooth instrument or other machinations and inventions that might have facilitated penetration and pollution as a man does with his penis.
At the end of the trial they concluded that "como hombre ha tratado y comunicado carnalmente con muchas mugeres" [as a man she sexually dealt with many women]. In other words Eleno was a female sodomite. The sentence, nevertheless, hewed closely to the inquisitors' legal competence in matters involving the marriage sacrament. Although sodomy cases were not for the Castile Inquisition to decide upon—only for tribunals in Aragon, Barcelona, and Valencia—inquisitorial interest in sodomy, usually in the context of racial or ethnic differences, spread through other tribunals. Thus, the Toledo inquisitors buttressed the case against Eleno by documenting again and again, in prurient detail, the techniques of seduction and penetration employed by the accused, who was deemed by the tribunal's medical experts to be unambiguously female in her sex and, despite her early manumission and subsequent medical training, little more than a slave.
The tribunal's investigations also revealed an underlying anxiety that erotic relations between women might have occurred openly in forms other than the parody of heterosexuality that furnished the legal definition of female sodomy endorsed by the Supreme Council of Inquisition (la Suprema). Eleno's lashing was accompanied by a public reading of a summary of the sentence (pregón). That text, which was prepared by the Inquisition to be recited along the streets of Toledo, included a stern warning to a specifically female audience: Women should guard against other burladoras (female tricksters) who might prey on them sexually and emotionally and even walk them down the aisle in same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Burshatin, Israel. 1999. "Written on the Body: Slave or Hermaphrodite in 16th-Century Spain." In Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, eds. Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kagan, Richard L., and Abigail Dyer, eds. and trans. 2004. Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Vollendorf, Lisa. 2005. The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitional Spain. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.