At her execution in 1565 in the German town of Nördlingen, seventeen-year-old Eva Barbiererin insisted that she die like a man. After all, for years she had "lived as a man," wearing men's clothing. Her appearance was so convincingly masculine, she boasted to her interrogators, she once managed to pass as a man even in a bathhouse. Posing as a man, Eva even married a woman, the warden of the hospital where the young transvestite stayed while being treated for epilepsy. The apparently unsuspecting wife didn't realize until she "lay with" her new "husband" after the wedding. Afterward, the shocked wife told local authorities, and Eva was banished from the city. At her next stop, the charade was ended once and for all. A judge convicted her of fraud -- though it's unclear from historical documents if cross-dressing was her capital crime -- and sentenced her to death. In the end, the executioner granted Eva her wish and killed her as he would a man, decapitating her with his sword. In those times, condemned women were typically drowned or buried alive. An illustration of the execution shows Eva topless, wearing only pants -- like a man.
The sensational story of this ill-fated 16th-century tranny is among the earliest recorded cases of lesbianism in modern Western history, preceding by decades that of the lustful 17th-century Italian nun featured in the groundbreaking 1986 historical book, Immodest Acts. Eva's strange tale was only recently rediscovered by historical sleuth Kathy Stuart, a Berkeley resident and associate professor of history at UC Davis.
Stuart is part of a growing school of historians, inspired by the late French post-modernist historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, who are preoccupied with criminal justice, deviance, and the fringes of society. Her award-winning 1999 book, Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts, published by Cambridge University Press as part of a series on early modern history, examines the lives and roles of social pariahs such as executioners, who made more money for doing European society's dirty work than many reputable tradesmen. "Looking at the margins and the outer boundaries of society is another way of getting at the core values," Stuart explains. "It's very illuminating about social structure in general and it reveals some of the paradoxes about how social structures work."
Sometimes her case studies defy not only the conventional wisdom of the period she is studying, but also how we think about things now. Then, as now, women were typically viewed as inherently nonviolent and nurturing. Of course, reality sometimes flings a shocking curveball, as when Houston's Andrea Yates confessed in 2001 to drowning her five young children.
To date, Stuart has found thirty or so cases of child-murder committed by German women during the 18th century. These cases involved suicidal women who feared they wouldn't go to heaven if they killed themselves. So they killed children instead, usually someone else's, knowing that if they repented, a priest would absolve them of the sin prior to their execution. Their victims were sometimes randomly chosen, Stuart says, and sometimes the murderesses engaged in overkill, perhaps to ensure their own fate. "These murders, not only are they murders; they are excessively violent so that violence used goes beyond what is really needed to kill someone," she calmly explains. "In one case, the woman chops a child so many times with an axe that its head flies off."
Stuart, who lives in Berkeley's Westbrae neighborhood with her two cats, is a pint-sized, 39-year-old woman with a sensible blonde bob and eyeglasses. She lives next door to the occasionally outlandish performance artist, Frank Moore, who jokingly refers to her as his "wacky neighbor." She grew up in Germany -- hence her interest in early modern Germany -- and moved to the United States at age seventeen but speaks with no detectable accent.
The young prof traces her pursuit of the weird back to her doctoral days at Yale in the '80s. "I was reading a really boring book about the family, and it mentioned something about marriage prohibitions: You're not allowed to marry shepherds, and I thought, 'What the hell is that?'" she says. "That got me on the track of deviants, and once you've got a taste of it you just stick with it."
Tracking cases at the margins of society requires an understanding, Stuart says, of the lives of regular folk from the Renaissance on -- the often illiterate urban commoners and middle classes. It's a challenge for one key reason: scant documentation. Western historical literature has traditionally focused on the lives of the elite -- royalty, artists, and clergy -- because there was plenty written about them and by them. But to reconstruct the extraordinary lives of ordinary people such as Eva Barbiererin, daughter of a plebian court clerk from Prague, historians seek out the one place their deeds are recorded at length: police and court documents.
"That's one of the only sources where they speak," Stuart explains. "You have other sources like tax records and marriage records, birth and death records, property ownership records. But where they speak and explain themselves are typically within these [police] records. ... Of course, this is a coercive environment. They're being interrogated, so you have to take this into account. It's not an unsolicited speech."
Such records are where Stuart ultimately found Barbiererin's story and her demand that she die like a man. Despite the racy subject, the research, she admits, can be painstakingly slow and frustrating. The first obstacle is deciphering the idiosyncratic handwriting of the times. Stuart says it took her six months to get comfortable reading the strange script of earlier stenographers. She challenges her interviewer to decipher a word from Eva's final judgment.
Hmm. Looks like ... V-I-R-M-I-L?
Way off, Stuart says. The word is "Dieweil." It means "meanwhile."
Stuart first stumbled across Eva's case in an obscure German historical journal from the '50s. The annotation led her to the archive in Nördlingen, the town where Eva was executed, where the historical detective found a bounty of written testimony. But when she went to another city to track down Eva's earlier travails there, an archivist informed her that all the records from the 16th century had been destroyed.
As for what she calls the "indirect suicides," the gruesome cases of the suicidal child-killers, Stuart began with so-called "execution pamphlets." These were the tabloids of the time, she says, sometimes fabricating confessions of the condemned to entertain onlookers. But the pamphlets gave her names, dates, and places she could use to find better information in historical archives and books of judgments, which are crime indexes of sorts. "Whenever there was a child victim," she says, "I ordered it immediately."
When she completes her research, Stuart plans to combine the stories of Eva and the child-murderers in a write-up for an academic journal. She's off to Vienna this summer to fill in some gaps of Eva's life -- so far, for instance, the records have yet to reveal the name Eva used as a man. The cross-dresser's strange story is the kind of pulp that could make a good historical book á la The Return of Martin Guerre, a stranger-than-fiction account -- later made into a feature film -- of an impostor who comes to a town posing as a French peasant who left the village, and his wife there, ten years earlier.
But Stuart isn't planning to turn Eva's story into a book. No, she says slyly, she's got another idea in mind. It involves a 17th-century serial sodomite whose case created such a scandal that it generated a pile of court transcripts and police records two feet deep. Stuart won't say much more than that about the case. You'll just have to read the book when it comes out.
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