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.)
— Shiriâ¤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.
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.