Katherine Rem

I know very little about this week’s historical figure, but what I do know compels me to share! As a student of religious reform, I’m often reminded that the grand narrative of The Reformation is still very powerful. One aspect of this narrative is that Protestantism liberated women from the repressive confines of Catholicism by doing away with nunneries (spoiler alert: Protestant majority and Catholic majority societies alike continue(d) repressing women). Historians in recent decades have challenged this notion, but it remains a prevalent idea that effectively assigns progressiveness to one way of believing and backwardness to another. A fruitful way of complicating this narrative (at least in the academy) has been to consider the words and actions of Catholic nuns in Protestant locales. One such woman was Katherine Rem, an early 16th century nun in Augsburg’s Katherine convent.

A devout Catholic nun from one of the quintessential Lutheran cities, Katherine found herself within a socio-religious climate that was increasingly hostile to Catholicism and its representatives. In 1523, Katherine wrote a letter to her brother that showcases her own perspective. In her letter, Katherine affirmed that, although inhabitants of the town were increasingly adopting Lutheranism, she would not be joining them. She chastised the recipient, her own brother, both for converting to Lutheranism himself, and for encouraging Katherine and her niece (his daughter, one of Katherine’s fellow nuns) to follow suit (which would have meant breaking their vows). Katherine declined to follow the path down which her male kinsman was leading her. The letter is rich in language and metaphor straight from Scripture—Katherine knew her Bible and her own mind, and she was not going to convert. She was certainly not going to abandon her vocation; rather, she defended it, going as far as to denounce her brother’s conversion as wicked folly.

Aside from her correspondence, I am not aware of other sources that offer more insight into Katherine’s life. Nonetheless, it appears that Katherine was a woman with the courage of her convictions. She neither bent to shifting socio-religious mores in her locale, nor obediently complied with the wishes of her close male relative. Her devotion to her vocation reminds us that studying historical change requires that we be suspicious of truths presumed to be self-evident.



Merry Wiesner Hanks and Monica Chojnacka. Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: Sources in European Social History, 1400-1750 (London: Routledge, 2014), 239-243.


Katherine Rem

Anne Askew


[A woodcut of the execution of Anne Askew and other religious dissenters. Accessed 15 January 2016. This image is in the Public Domain.]

This week’s historical hottie is probably familiar to those who know a bit about early modern British history (I’m looking at you, Tudors fans). I’ve found that students in tutorials, especially those interested in gender dynamics, enjoy learning about her, so I’m featuring Anne Askew here today.

Anne was born into a noble family in 1521. In her mid teens, Anne’s father arranged her marriage to the betrothed of her recently deceased sister. Anne, an increasingly radical Protestant, thus found herself married to a Catholic husband. Though Anne’s youth and gender might lead one to believe that she yielded to her father and husband, she and her husband couldn’t reconcile their beliefs and their marriage. They had two children, but then separated, and Anne worked toward a divorce. She was, and remains, known by her maiden name.

In either 1544 or 1545, Anne moved to London. Her unorthodox beliefs led to her investigation by London’s quest (the commission dealing with heresy). This investigation did not end in punishment, but she was interrogated much more seriously by king’s council in 1546. Anne was imprisoned, first in Newgate, and then in the Tower of London. She refused to recant, and was condemned to die.

As if often the case in religious trials (in the early modern Christian context), her interrogators would have preferred that she recant and name names in order to escape execution. In Anne’s case, her family’s close connection to Henry’s court led to her extensive questioning under torture about which women at court held radical beliefs. Anne refused to incriminate any other women, despite the presence of other radicals in Henry’s court, including his wife, Katherine Parr. Normally, Anne’s standing sentence of death and her position in English society would have exempted her from torture. After being tortured, Anne was allowed time to convalesce and recant. She did not, and was subsequently burned as a heretic. She was twenty-five.

People who die for their beliefs tend to inspire, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But we must be cautious when reading about such figures. In Anne’s case, authors John Bale and John Foxe both adopted her as a Protestant martyr. Now, both of these authors were male, and their individual views and agendas informed their respecting framing of Anne. For Bale, Anne was a physically weak and pious woman who exemplified femininised virtues like chastity and obedience. For Foxe, she was more rebellious, but since she was driven by Protestant piety, this was laudable. In either depiction, Anne’s words and actions are mediated by men. Even recent scholarship, which casts doubt on the factual accuracy of these accounts (especially Bale’s), is necessarily informed by them. This is equally true of this post.

It’s also important to remember Anne’s status in society. Although it did not protect her from investigation, torture and execution, the degree to which contemporaries seem to have accepted her separation from her husband, as well as her reputation for piety and learning, were almost certainly informed by assumptions about status.

Despite these issues, Anne Askew knew her own mind. She refused to live with the husband chosen by her father. She held fast to her radical beliefs, even when it led her to the rack and the stake. In short, those parts of her life about which we are the most certain demonstrate that she was, to a greater or lesser degree, a rebel. 



Thomas S. Freeman and Sarah Elizabeth Wall, “Racking the Body, Shaping the Text: The Account of Anne Askew in Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs,” Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 1165-1196.

Diane Watt, “Askew , Anne (c.1521–1546),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/798, accessed 15 Jan 2016, accessed 15 January 2015.


Anne Askew

Elizabeth Caton

In 1732, Elizabeth Caton was tried for stealing a watch from a gentleman identified as C. B. Caton’s trial is typical of contemporary English pickpocketing cases. To begin, the defendant was a woman and the prosecutor (who, in the contemporary criminal justice system, was also the victim) was a man. In addition, although the charge was for theft and not soliciting sex (which was not strictly illegal at the time), sex nonetheless featured most prominently in the testimonies. C. B. alleged that Caton had lured him into a pub under the guise of sharing her company, all the while intending to filch whatever she could. In her defence, Caton testifed that C. B. took her to a private room, offered her money for sex (to which she admitted to acquiescing out of financial necessity) and asked that she “go and fetch some Rods to whip him.” C. B. denied this, but the judge was sceptical. He asked C. B. outright if he was in the habit of “pick[ing] up Women, and carry[ing] them into a private Room without any Design?” The jury was equally unimpressed; the record shows that Caton was acquitted despite having been discovered with the stolen watch concealed on her person.

Caton’s crime was a capital one.* Considering the gravity of the situation, it initially seems surprising that Caton chose to discuss sex unabashedly in her defence. As a poor, early eighteenth-century English woman, Caton’s character (her credibility, her employability) hinged on her reputation for chastity. Yet she did talk about selling sex, and it is this choice, not her theft, that gives her some features of a historical hottie.

Eighteenth-century England had jury trials. And, since there were property restrictions controlling jury eligibility, juries were comprised mostly of men of the middling sort. Like today, most defendants came from the working classes, and were thus tried by their “social superiors.” Certainly, this was the case with Caton, who discussed her poverty openly. Within this judicial system, Caton’s options were: 1) to convince the jury that she was reputable, or 2) that C. B. was even less reputable than she. Caton recognised this and worked the system to her advantage by giving testimony that cast doubt on C. B.’s sexual reputation. She accused him outright of harbouring sadomasochisitic desires. Or, in the eyes of contemporaries, of outlandishly subverting the social order by allowing a woman, especially a “socially inferior” one, to dominate him.

It is important to be mindful that, although Caton benefitted in the courtroom by defaming the sexual morality of C.B., she was also tarnished by the mutual sexual defamation. Nevertheless, she played a patriarchal and deeply status-based judicial system against itself. By convincing a jury of her “social superiors” that a gentleman—a man with the responsibility to exemplify goodly morality to his social inferiors—had fostered this kind of disorderly behaviour, she used repressive tropes to her own advantage and saved her life.


*Judicial discretion in this era was notorious, however women thieves were sometimes hanged, imprisoned or transported to penal colonies, so it was by no means a foregone conclusion that a pardon, full or otherwise would be forthcoming.


OBPO, 14 January 1732, trial of Elizabeth Caton, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17320114-39-defend363&div=t17320114-39#highlight (accessed 4 December 2015).

John M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 35.

Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Early Modern Europe (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 267-269.

John H. Langbein, “The Criminal Trial Before the Lawyers,” University of Chicago Law Review 45, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 305.

———. The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Robert B. Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex, c. 1660-1725 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991),

Elizabeth Caton

Chavela Vargas


[A photograph of Chavela Vargas in later years]

The name Chavela Vargas is an instantly recognizable one across much of Latin America and amongst admirers of the ranchera genre of music most commonly associated with México. Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela Vargas left her home country at the age of fourteen to live in México, her adopted home where she stayed for the next eight decades of her life.

To those who do not know much about rancheras, a woman singing them might not stick out as anything remarkable. Yet rancheras are a genre that is traditionally supposed to be sung only by men, for an audience of mostly other men. These songs are spaces where men were customarily allowed to express themselves emotionally, albeit so long as they were confined to particular patriarchal rules of behaviour with an assumed heterosexuality. Therefore to have a woman, and moreover a lesbian woman, sing these songs was a radical and subversive act.

Chavela Vargas was known the world over for not only her singing talents, but also for her affairs with women (including the likes of Frida Kahlo, María Félix, and Lola Beltrán) and her alcohol-fueled partying. She often dressed in “men’s” clothing, smoked cigars (a supposedly “masculine” past time), and partied harder than you can imagine. For a period of fifteen years, Vargas disappeared almost completely, leading some to believe she had even died. She was, however, recovering from alcoholism. Although many people knew she was a lesbian, she did not publicly affirm this until the age of 81 in her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (2002).

Vargas continues to be a treasured cultural icon across the Americas, and is a key figure in queer Mexican and Central American history. She is important in broader queer history as often queer people of colour, and especially queer people of colour from outside of Canada and the United States, are marginalized or entirely erased from the broader study of queer history. Chavela Vargas passed away at the age of 93 in 2012. Her last words were “I leave with México in my heart.”

~ M


Garsd, Jasmine. “Chavela Vargas, Legendary Ranchera Singer, Dies.” NPR, August 5, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/08/06/158166344/chavela-vargas-legendary-ranchera-singer-has-died

Moser, Benjamin. “Postscript: Mexico’s Majestic Lesbian Chanteuse, Chavela Vargas.” The New Yorker, August 17, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-mexicos-majestic-lesbian-chanteuse-chavela-vargas

Vargas, Chavela. Y si quieres saber de mi pasado. Madrid: Aguilar, 2002.

Chavela Vargas

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, English missionaries from the Society of Friends (colloquially called Quakers), were gaoled by the Roman Inquisition on Malta from 1558-1662/3. Like many of the early modern people I come across in my research, no images survive of these women, so I must look elsewhere for traces of their hotness. Let’s start with gender.

For those not familiar with the Society of Friends, one of its primary tenets is equality–between the sexes, between races–and this was the case even in the seventeenth century. While many Christians had long subscribed to the notion that all Christians were equal at a soul level, the Friends considered this true in the earthly realm as well. Although some English women in radical dissenting (non-Anglican) Protestant sects took to preaching in the seventeenth century, to leave England without the company of one’s father, husband or other male guardian was in itself a radical act. To do so with the express intention of missionising for one of the most radical sects of the day was nothing short of brazen. Evans and Cheevers, neither spinsters, nor widows (the two groups of non-elite women with the most social flexibility) left their husbands at home to care for their children while they went abroad to spread their message, thereby inverting the gender norms of the period that generally tasked women with domestic management. Moreover, contemporaries also considered religious direction of the family/household the purview of the husband and/or father, so these women (and their spouses) were really pushing the envelope on multiple levels and in various ways.

Several accounts that claim to document Cheevers and Evans’s time as prisoners of the Roman Inquisition survive today, and they make very interesting reading. While Cheevers, Evans and their Quaker supporters were by no means without their own prejudices (virulent anti-Catholicism pervades these relations), their unwavering commitment to their radical religious beliefs is powerful. Indeed, their interrogations by the inquisitors, who constantly try in vain to get them to recant their beliefs, read like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For subverting, inverting and outright challenging contemporary social norms and religious authority, Cheevers and Evans are historical hotties.


For those unfamiliar with early modern print sources, enjoy these long and phonetically-spelled titles!

Evans, Katharine. A brief discovery of God’s eternal truth and a way opened to the simple hearted whereby they may come to know Christ and his ministers, from Antichrist and his ministers: with a warning from the Lord to all people that do name the name of Christ, to depart from iniquity / written in the Inquisition of Malta. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

Evans, Katharine and Sarah Cheevers. This Is a Short Relation of Some of the Cruel Sufferings (for the Truths Sake) of Katharine Evans & Sarah Chevers in the Inquisition of the Isle of Malta Who Have Suffered There above Three Years by the Pope’s Authority, There to Be Deteined until They Dye: Which Relation of Their Sufferings Is Come Form Their Own Hands and Mouths as Doth Appear in the Following Treatise… Edited by D. B. London, 1662. Early English Books Online.

———. A True Account of the Great Tryals and Cruel Sufferings Undergone by Those Two Faithful Servants of God, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers in the Time of Their above Three Years and a Halfs Confinement in the Island Malta. Also, How God at Last by His Almighty Power Effected Their Deliverance, and Brought Them Back into the Land of Their Nativity. To Which Is Added, a Short Relation from George Robinson, of the Sufferings That Befel Him in His Journey to Jerusalem; and How God Saved Him from the Hands of Cruelty When the Sentence of Death Was Passed against Him. Edited by D. B. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers

The Publick Universal Friend

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Think challenging social conventions surrounding sex and gender is the province of twentieth and twenty-first-century people? Allow me to introduce you to Jemima Wilkinson/the Publick Universal Friend.

In 1752 Wilkinson was born in the colony of Rhode Island, the traditional land of the Narragansett, Niantic and Wampanoag peoples* (listed alphabetically), into a family of strict Quakers (the colloquial name for the Society of Friends). In 1776, Wilkinson took ill and apparently succumbed to some mystery sickness. While Jemima Wilkinson was no more, her body remained alive, but it was become host to a new spirit sent by God. The Publick Universal Friend emerged from her sick/death bed.**

Despite occupying Wilkinson’s body, the Friend did not affiliate with any sex or gender. To enforce this, the Friend eschewed the use of gendered pronouns and wore voluminous, black, gender-neutralising clothing, garments which also suited the Friend’s vocation as a preacher. Indeed, the Friend had not entered Wilkinson’s vacated body simply to upset conventions around sex and gender. The Friend’s mission was a religious one: to preach adherence to a very strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments, apocalypticism, perfect friendship among all human beings and complete sexual abstinence. This last message challenged the traditional Protestant view that marriage and procreation were highly important, since celibacy was the precursor to sins of the flesh wrought by repression of human carnality.

It is worthwhile here to note that the Friend enjoyed a position of relative privilege when it came to self-comportment and to spreading God’s message. In essence, the Friend used Jemima’s body and her social standing among New England’s more radical Christians (i.e., colonisers) to espouse a religious message that was not indigenous to the continent’s original peoples. Indeed, the Friend effectively preached equality to audiences whose very presence in New England came at the expense of the territory’s indigenous peoples. This is not to suggest that The Friend’s message was disingenuous, nor that it was wholeheartedly welcomed.

Predictably, the notion of a “woman” preaching and directing the religious lives of others ruffled the feathers of many contemporaries. However, the Publick Universal Friend did not become persona non grata; the Friend remained in the embrace of Wilkinson’s family (despite regarding them no more as relations than any other human beings) and quickly developed a considerable following. Many attended The Friend’s public sermons and sought out the Friend for religious direction. Pamphlets that contained print-versions of the Friend’s sermons were also very popular, though, it should be noted, these pamphlets also highlighted the Friend’s unconventional genderlessness. The Friend, rich in followers, ultimately founded a religious settlement in the state of New York (originally home to the Abenaki, Cayuga, Erie, Laurentian, Mohawk, Mohican, Mohegan, Munsee Delaware, Oneida, Onondaga, Poospatuck/Unkechaug and Seneca peoples*).

The Publick Universal Friend openly flouted—indeed, transcended—late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conceptions of gender. For this, and for preaching ceaselessly the message of perfect friendship among all human beings, the Publick Universal Friend definitely qualifies as a historical hottie.

~ Spirit

*According to native-languages.org

**There is controversy around Wilkinson’s illness and death (spiritual and physically), but this piece adheres to the Friend’s version of events.


Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

Wisbey Jr., Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965.

The Publick Universal Friend