Rolandina Ronchaia


In 1355, Rolandino Ronchaia was burned alive in Venice for sodomy.

The Lords of the Night (Signori della Notte), the magistrates who condemned Rolandino, kept meticulous notes, and those notes proved a rich quarry for Guido Ruggiero, when he wrote one of his first books, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice. An enjoyable and challenging book.

The sex crimes prosecuted in Venice—fornication and adultery and sodomy—tell us a lot about how Venetians saw the proper role of gender and sex and sexuality in a society. They tells us a lot about the clash between the traditional enforcement of norms in a mediaeval village, and the new government structures using the rule of law to enforce public morality (hesitantly). And they tell us a lot about how homosexuality, then as later, was seen as a threat to social stability, and was the reason for a moral panic in the 15th century, when prosecution of sodomy passed from the Lords of the Night to the feared Council of Ten.

But Ruggiero’s book was written in 1985. And it doesn’t tell us that much about gender fluidity, because that was not Ruggiero’s particular concern. In fact, he brings up Rolandino’s case as an aside, to make an argument I didn’t even find convincing.

If you google, you’ll find that Rolandino’s case has attracted a lot of scholarly attention since. But don’t google Rolandino. Google Rolandina. Because she passed as female for seven years, before being arrested and executed.

The secondary literature draws on Ruggiero’s summary treatment of Rolandina’s case, and the secondary literature situates Rolandina as an antecedent of contemporary struggles of transgender and intersex people. In fact, I learned of Rolandina from Shiri—to whom my thanks—who is herself transgender (tweet embedded, with Ruggiero’s passage as picture). (Shiri’s twitter feed is NSFW.)

In my research I also found this account of a trans or intersex person in Venice the 1350s. Medieval traps confirmed! #spoiler sad ending…

— Shiri․xxx (@shiritrap) October 12, 2016

Ruggiero’s conclusion was that the flourishing gay underground in the 15th century (which the records point to—hence the moral panic) could have shielded Rolandina better as a transvestite prostitute. I was not convinced by his conclusion. But what particularly struck me was how little attention Ruggiero paid to her gender fluidity, how it was incidental to him. It wasn’t a hot topic in 1985, it’s fair to say.

That did not remain the case. As early as 1999, Rolandina inspired a queer-theory analysis of the parallel case in 1394 of John/Eleanor Rykener: Queer Relations Carolyn Dinshaw. But note that in the bibliography, the source she draws on, written in 1995, speaks of both Rykener and Rolandina as transvestites: the language and the distinctions in how to talk about gender fluidity were clearly still evolving.

  • David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras, “The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,” GLQ 1 (1995), 459-65.
  • Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd, “‘Ut cum muliere’: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,” Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York and London, 1996), pp. 101-16.

I have my own misgivings about activist history, which Dinshaw is doing:

I want to think with you about what we can do with this information. What kinds of histories, and what kinds of communities, can we create with it? […] My most general concern here will be to argue for a use of historical relations in our current projects of queer self-fashioning and community building. […] let’s imagine the widest possible usable field of others with whom to make such relations and fashion selves and communities. I want to imagine relational processes that engage many kinds of cultural differences (though not all in the same ways): racial, ethnic, national, sexual, gender, class differences, and even (I’m arguing) temporal differences. Thus the medieval, as well as other dank stretches of time, becomes itself–in all its incommensurability–a resource for self- and community formation.

Are those communities Rolandina would have recognised herself in? Presumably not. But then, it’s not really about her, is it. It’s about the living.

But the living have an agenda; and in fashioning community with Rolandina, they’ll enhance the bits about Rolandina that resonate with them, and efface the bits that don’t. It was ever thus in history writing, true. It still makes me uneasy.

I’m not accusing Shiri of such appropriation; Shiri’s winking description of Rolandina as a “medieval trap” is pretty accurate in the original slang meaning of “trap” [Traps]. It’s likely also accurate in the contemporary reappropriation of the term (which Shiri herself uses): as Shiri reminds me, “there are contemporary traps that are intersex too”.

But is Rolandina part of Shiri’s history? How closesly did Boyd & Karras read Ruggiero, if they concluded Rolandina was a transvestite and not intersex (or, as they would likely have written at the time, hermaphrodite)? There are differences as well as commonalities to be traced in history, not least between realisations of gender.

It’s best to let people speak for themselves. We will never know more about Rolandina than what her executioners wrote; but that’s more than Ruggiero says, and much more than secondary literature cites from Ruggiero. Ruggiero cites the case from the records of the Lords of the Night; it turns out that the case was published in Italian, around the time Ruggiero would have been poring through the archives in Venice.

  • Carlo Marcandalli & Giovanni Dall’Orto: Arsi finché morte ne segua, Lotta Continua, April 10, 1982, pp. 11-13.

That does not look like the kind of periodical it would be easy to get hold of; fortunately, Dall’Orto put a translation up on his Facebook page much more recently, with commentary. I’m pasting it here, and then appending my own comments, so that people can make up their own minds about her—and so that people can Google everything we know about her, rather than just rely on Ruggiero’s summary. Translation from Italian my own.

Giovanni Dall’Orto

A transsexual of 1354.(1)

I have neither the time nor the desire to go about putting up a page for my site about this Venetian case which I’ve just discarded from my book (TOO MUCH material!). Therefore I offer it here to anyone who could possibly be interested / curious. (From the series: Never throw anything away!).

1354, (2) seventh indiction, on 20 March. (3)

Rolandino Roncaglia, who went around the Rialto selling this and that (4), suspected of the sin of sodomy, was brought in before the Lords of Night in the torture chamber and questioned in order to tell the truth about the evils committed by him with regard to performing that sin, did at once, without any torture, say and confess that it has been ten years and more that he took to his wife and married a young woman with whom he stayed for a while, and yet he never knew her (neither her nor any other woman) carnally, because he has never had any carnal appetite and was never able to have an erection of his male organ; and that his wife left him, and she died at the time of the plague. (5)

He went to live in Padua, hosted by his relative Massone, and because he had the looks, voice and gestures of a woman (though admittedly he did not have a female orifice and he has member and testicles in the fashion of men), many believed him to be female, from what appears outwardly, and he often heard many saying: “this one is female,” making mention of the same Rolandino.

Finally, on a certain night, while he was in bed at the home of the same Massone, a man who was staying in the same house, believing that he was female, got into bed next to him with the intention of knowing him carnally as a female, embracing him, and he started to kiss and hug and squeeze his breasts (which he has in the manner of women) and mounted his body.

Then Rolandino, assuming the role of the female, and wanting to be considered female, hid his member and took the member of that man and placed it in his posterior, where the said man ejaculated sperm and, this being done, let him go. And in the same way in Padua he went with two other men, who took him for a female.

After that he came to Venice and, as he had already been with men like a female, taking on the role of the female, the rumour spread abroad that everybody believed that he was female, including through outwardly apparent female gestures, and many called him Rolandina.

And he always frequented the prostitutes of the Rialto in bed and went to the public baths with them, and he hid his member on both sides so that none ever saw it and all very clearly thought he was female.

And because of this fact he was requested for carnal acts by many and countless men here in Venice, and lay with many for carnal acts at home, and with many elsewhere at their request who thought he was female.

He deceived them as follows: when they had mounted his body, he would conceal his member as far as he could, and he would take the member of the man who lay with him and place it in his posterior, and would be with them until they ejaculated sperm, granting them all pleasure as the prostitutes do with men, and he persisted in this sin for seven years, more or less.

Asked if anyone, being with him in the act, saw his member, he said no.

Asked if his member became erect while he was with them, he said no.

Asked about the reason why he committed this sin, he said to earn a little money.

After that, the said Rolandino was put to the torture on the orders of the same lords and interrogated in order to tell the truth better, and not saying anything other than what he had said above, he was given a sackful [?], and that is why he did not say anything but the things that they are spoken and written above.

Then on March 28 the said Rolandino was presented to the illustrious lords, and here after they were read in his presence, everything written above, he persevered in his confession, ratifying what he had said, as said above and is written.

Note that in 1354, (6) the seventh indiction, on March 28, by Master Giovan-Nicola Rosso, and Master Daniele Cornaro Judges of Justice, in the absence of the third judge, the said Rolandino was condemned to be burned to death. (7)


1. Archivo di Stato di Venezia, Lords of the Night criminal, register 6, page 64r.

A transsexual: well then! But haven’t American Gay Historians “taught” us, that before the nineteenth century, no personal identity could be based on a sexual practice? Yet here he is, a man who based on his sexual predilections defined himself as a woman, as blatant as a whale sideways on a highway. Isn’t that a perfect reversal, anticipating by half a millennium those doctors who, according to academic theses currently all the rage, claim to have “invented” homosexuality in 1869 (sic)? Maybe those fashionable arguments won’t last long.

I do not want to say, mind you, that everything Rolandina says needs to be taken at face value. It is not credible that she has “deceived” hundreds of people for years simply by hiding her genitals, mincing and taking on the look of a “perfect” woman: the experience with transsexuals of today teaches us that in their self-perception the “femininity” of their body is usually overstated. The deception of Rolandina would therefore not have worked if those around her had not wanted to be deceived: Rolandina herself tells us that it was others who start calling her feminine, that is, to treat her as a woman.

If for seven years shameless Rolandina managed to get away with it, it is clear that some space of social tolerance towards transsexuality must have existed.

2) By the Venetian Calendar, ie 1355.

3) This case, together with that in Nicoletto Marmagna and Giovanni Braganza (on which see below), has already been published by Carlo Marcandalli and myself as: Arsi finché morte ne segua, “Lotta Continua”, April 10, 1982, pp. 11-13. The translation was Marcandalli’s But here I have retranslated the texts to make it linguistically uniform with other cases.

4) In Latin: vendendo ona et alia.

5) Probably of the Black Death of 1348.

6) By the Venetian Calendar, i.e. 1355.

7) The last line is faded, but will have contained the usual closing: “And Master ….. did carry out the sentence.”

My own remarks:

Burning to death was the prescribed punishment in 14th century Venice for sodomy, which was understood to include anal sex with women, anal or intercrural sex with men, and bestiality. In Venice, unlike many other parts of the world, the condemnation was of tops rather than bottoms: as Ruggiero argues, this was because Venetians had just developed a notion of criminal intent, and criminal intent was clear from the actions of a top. A bottom could be considered a victim, especially if they were a minor or a woman. In fact, Ruggiero records at least one instance where female prostitutes arrested for sodomy were let go.

Rolandina speaks about her circumstances willingly, before there is any need for torture. I don’t know how common that was for those accused of sodomy and hauled before the Lords of the Night; but I suspect that Rolandina expected to be treated as any other female prostitute, and let go. The Lords of the Night, of course, had no such flexibility in their views of either gender or sexuality.

Why is the splashing sweat emoji associated with semen?

For obvious iconic reasons. It is the Emoji that looks the most like ejaculate. Even if it takes some imagination.

And food dye.


What I find amusing, and of course semiotically inevitable, is how thoroughly this secondary meaning has become conventionalized. You’ll see the Emoji used to refer to ejaculate, without it being disambiguated through additional emoji. Such as, say, the eggplant.

Why is the West so open about sex?

This answer is an antithesis of Franklin Veaux’s answer, which I find unhelpful. I find his answer boils down to “because the West is right about sex”. And that’s not an explanation of “Why is the West so open about sex?”:

Because, through long experience, we have learned that societies are healthier, more egalitarian, safer, more fair, and more just when their members are open about sex.

(Who’s we? The contemporary West has, and South Asia or East Asia has not? Because what, the West is better? Wiser? More experienced? And yes, the West cares whether a society is more egalitarian or safe; that is not a universal value.)

Being closed about sex cloaks sex behind a veil of secrecy and shame. And when you treat sex with secrecy and shame, people suffer.

(The West has been an exemplar of treating people well, without secrecy and shame? The West has attained the pinnacle of righteousness, that the rest of the world strives for?)

I mean, you can believe all that. Hell, most of the time, *I* believe all that. But that’s hardly an answer to the question. Why the West?

Well, first of all, it was not ever thus. The West has waxed and waned about how open it has been about sex: the Elizabethans more than the mediaeval, the Victorians less. The Sexual revolution was foundational to the current Western openness about sex; and it was not a divine spark of inspiration that favoured only the West, it was an outcome of particular social pressures that converged by accident in the West.

And it’s not me saying so, it’s Wikipedia:

  • Mitigation of negative consequences of sex
    • Mitigation of sexually transmitted diseases, e.g. syphilis through penicillin
    • Mitigation of risk of pregnancy: the pill
  • Female empowerment: feminism, increased availability of employment and education to women, particularly in the aftermath of WWII
  • Secularism in the West, reduction in the role of the Church in enforcing morality
  • Urbanisation in the West, reduction in the strength of family as an enforcer of values. (When that happened in Venice after the Black Death, their reaction was to empower their Vice Squad to enforce sexual values: see The Boundaries of Eros. The Modern West tried that too, but failed.)
  • Questioning of traditional values prominent in popular culture, e.g. by Freud
  • Demographic change: the Baby Boomers’ strength in numbers
  • The mass media, circulating notions of sexual freedom more effectively than in the past

The Sexual revolution combined with some foundational attributes of Modern Western culture that Franklin presupposes, but that need to be made explicit:

  • Individualism against collectivism
  • Egalitarianism
  • Eudaimonistic notions of the common good as rooted in individual happiness
  • Notions of public health overriding “moral health”: science and medicine rather than morality guiding public policy

Most of these are particular to the West. And it hasn’t gone smoothly and inexorably, and there’s a lot of reaction to it, particularly in America. But the confluence of factors has been a Western confluence, not a global confluence. Hence, the West is more open about sex than other parts of the world.

Why have I reached my limit for making blog posts on Quora?

I’m so sorry I didn’t notice this A2A.

Quora has a time limit on blog posts. I got blocked for ten blog posts in half an hour.

Other answers on Quora asserted that the block was temporary. After 4 or 5 days, my block was not lifted, and I asked for Tatiana’s intervention. Tatiana lifted my block, and said it was a bug. When I asked for some assurance that it would not happen again, she repeated it was a bug.

So. Bug.

Let us know how you go!

Why doesn’t Quora automate the selection of anonymity based on how the question can bring most benefits to our society?

Because Quora may have greater confidence in what its bots can do than most users have, but even Quora does not yet claim it has automated utilitarian ethics.

No need for concern though. We have been assured that all Anonymous questions are being carefully vetted before publication now.


Which are the centers of Hellenism in USA, Canada or Australia. Do they have TV stations in Greek language?

There are Greek Communities in all capital cities of Australia, but the largest communities by a wide margin are in Sydney and Melbourne, and Melbourne is renowned as the main Greek Community.

SBS, the national multicultural broadcaster, has been putting out Greek programming on tv and radio for decades. Radio station 3XY, a rock music mainstay in baby boomer times, has been a Greek only radio station for close to two decades now in Melbourne. There is no homegrown Greek TV channel, but satellite TV and cable TV do a brisk trade in rebroadcasting content from Greece. Antenna has the cable TV channel monopoly.

How much of the Klingon language being spoken today was actually used on the series?

Marc Okrand, who invented the language, was a consultant on all the TOS Star Trek movies. He made sure all the Klingon spoken was canonical, and if the actors flubbed their lines, he retconned them.

Okrand was not involved with the Klingon used on the TV series. As a result, the TV series featured words like wIjjup for “my friend”, where –wIj is supposed to be a possessive suffix. And that’s when the script writers bothered to use the Klingon Dictionary at all.

Be hesitant with TNG for any Klingon utterances you hear that are one word long. Don’t take seriously anything more than one word long.

Answered 2017-04-03 · Upvoted by

Steve Rapaport, Linguistics PhD candidate at Edinburgh. Has lived in USA, Sweden, Italy, UK.

Do you think that answering an “A2A” on Quora that’s late by two weeks or so is meaningless and useless?

Sometimes, being late to answer is doing a disservice to someone, if noone else has stepped up; e.g. Why have I reached my limit for making blog posts on Quora? (noticed and answered one week late).

But I get overwhelmed by my A2A queue. And the only way I can keep my sanity, and keep finding Quora enjoyable, is by acquiescing to the fact that:

  • I don’t have to answer every question.
  • I don’t have to answer every question first.
  • If the question gets answered by other people badly, there is always time to offer your better answer later. I do it with random bad answers I find from three years ago, after all.
  • If anyone wants an aooga aooga, mayday mayday, urgent answer… I’m not sure Quora is the place for them; *I*’m certainly not the answerer for them. My PMs are open if you want to push me along. It can backfire though.

Did Quora add emoji support?

I’ve written on this several other places, but: the Quora editor natively supports Plane 0 Unicode characters, and has a mathematical formatting command, unicode{xHEX}, to allow Plane 1 characters. The majority of characters considered emoji are Plane 1. What you are seeing are the minority that are Plane 0.

With the mathematical formatting command, you can enter any emoji you want in Quora. And you will be reported shortly after, though that may involve a hasty edit to the current formatting policy. As Alexander Lee discovered with his use of red text.