Lesbianism on trial

The Spanish Inquisition persecuted a female homosexual couple in the 17th century A US historian's study offers a detailed account of the incident

Goya's The Inquisition Tribunal (1812-1819), part of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando's collection.
Goya's The Inquisition Tribunal (1812-1819), part of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando's collection.

It sounds like a drama worthy of a movie or a novel, filled with cruelty, passionate love and the long shadow of the Inquisition. But it is a story firmly rooted in history. Las Cañitas, a book by the US historian Federico Garza Carvajal, explores a lengthy lesbianism trial held in the early 17th century in Valladolid and Salamanca, recounting the unimaginable hardships endured by two women who loved each other against all odds, who fought to remain together, and who defended themselves as best they could during a dark and hostile period in history.

In June 1603, Inés de Santa Cruz, a woman who was a "nun-lay sister-prioress," and her companion Catalina Ledesma, were arrested and tried in Salamanca on charges of being "bujarronas" (all the terms in quotes are taken from a rigorous transcription of historical documents). According to the fragile, yellowing legal document written over 400 years ago, "they treated one another with a cane-like appliance shaped like a man's genitals." In their own way, Inés and Catalina came up with (and manufactured) a kind of dildo, an object so ancient that archeologists have found some over 25,000 years old. During the time of Las Cañitas, such objects were very popular.

The description of the couple's intimate relationship gets extremely detailed, as in the following excerpt referring to Inés: "With her hands she opened up Catalina's genitals until she spilled the seeds from her body into the other woman's genitals, which is why they were known as Las Cañitas and this is public knowledge among the people who know them [...] There was a great scandal and murmuring in the neighborhood."

That was the most sordid and painful part of the story, but Inés and Catalina's battle had begun long before. As Garza Carvajal notes, it was not the first time the pair had been detained for having lesbian relations: both women had undergone a similar trial in Valladolid in 1601.

They treated each other with a cane- like appliance shaped like a man's genitals"

Garza Carvajal, who was born in Laredo, Texas and hails from a family of Sephardic Jews, found an unexplored treasure trove in Simancas, a small town in Valladolid province. "I had started to investigate male sodomy after earning my PhD in Amsterdam in 2000. I spent two years reading and transcribing the trial, and I first wrote my book in English, then did a second book in Spanish that is getting published first. The English edition will come out in late summer."

"There is a lot left to explore in Spanish archives, and even though I divide my time between Paris and Valladolid, I don't want to stray too far from Simancas. I have also conducted research in archives in Seville, Burgos, Madrid and Toledo. My life is in the archives and I thank Isabel Aguirre [head of the reading room at the Simancas Archive], who has helped me a lot."

While it is impossible to assert that the 142-page document is unique, right now it is the only documentary record on lesbianism trials to have come to light. Garza Carvajal admits, however, that there is a relative abundance of material in Spanish and other European archives on the subject of trials on male sodomy. "I think this is unique archival material," he says. "Some scholars have written about lesbianism in the 17th century, but fundamentally based on literary material."

The carefully prepared book includes information about the three trials - two in Valladolid and one in Salamanca - against Inés and Catalina between 1603 and 1606. Since then, the nickname of Las Cañitas (from the Spanish for cane, the material with which they made their sex toys) assumed near-legendary status, only to lapse into obscurity.

Garza Carvajal explored both women's biographies and placed them in their proper historical context, adding details about the stormy circumstances and vicissitudes that led to the drastic separation of the lovers despite numerous appeals. Catalina Ledesma and Inés Santa Cruz were flogged and sent to exile. Years later, a royal pardon was issued.

As for the women themselves, they were as different as any two characters in a novel: Inés de Santa Cruz came from a good family and even had some influence in the Royal Chancery of Valladolid, while Catalina Ledesma was an illiterate servant who also happened to be married.

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