Eleanor Rykener and Queer History

The internet informs me that this week is Bisexual Awareness Week (consider: is your cat aware of the bisexual movement? and then, make time to learn some awesome bisexual facts! Oh, and on a serious note, visibility matters). Allow me, then, to raise some questions about the way medieval studies has handled and assimilated the fascinating case of John Rykener, a male-cross dressing prostitute (link goes to the text and translation at the Internet History Sourcebook). If you took a gender-oriented medieval studies course in the last decade or so, or if you’ve read Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe textbook, you’ve probably met John Rykener’s story in one form or another.

in ur history emphasizin ur wimmenzAllow me to tell you about Eleanor Rykener: assigned male at birth, she fell in with a woman named Elizabeth Broderer, who gave her women’s clothing and called her Eleanor. We do not know if Eleanor sought out Elizabeth, or if Elizabeth identified something in the young man she knew as John Ryknener that she could exploit: but as far as we know, it was with Elizabeth that Eleanor first lived as a woman.

Elizabeth was conducting a complicated and exploitative business, in which her daughter substituted for Eleanor in bed with men who believed they were sleeping with Eleanor. It is not recorded whether money was involved, but that seems likely. The court record says that Elizabeth’s daughter Alice did this ‘for lust’, but I would not be willing to take that as a given: it seems plausible to me that Eleanor and Alice worked together, willing or unwilling, in a scenario which allowed Elizabeth to maintain her daughter’s public respectability while Eleanor accrued the ill repute of a prostitute.

Somehow, from there, Eleanor met a woman named Anna, who is referred to by the court transcript as “meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount” (the whore of a former servant of Thomas Blount). It is possible that Anna was a prostitute regularly frequented by this former servant of Thomas Blount, but the various evidence assembled by Karras, in Unmarriages, on the varied roles and statuses of unmarried couples, leads me to think Anna might just as easily have been the mistress or even domestic partner (eg, if the said servant were already married and separated) of this unnamed gentleman. For reasons not given in the record, she taught Eleanor how she might have sex with men ‘in the manner of a woman’: for which we can read, in a receptive position.

We do not know why Eleanor sought out this information, or why she acted on it. Perhaps she desired a sexual relationship with a man. Perhaps she wished to extract more substantial benefits, material or otherwise, from her work as a prostitute – since she was socially stuck as a prostitute anyway. It seems she was still living with Elizabeth Broderer, and – for one reason or another, bear in mind we do not know her motivations – an individual named Phillip, the rector of Theydon Garnon, would seem to have been her first client. (Or perhaps her non-commercial lover? Bear in mind this is entirely possible: People do sleep with trans women because they like them!) Eleanor seems to have been of limited resources at this time, because she took (was given? stole?) some garments from Phillip. When Phillip demanded their return, she convinced him to back off by asserting that she had a husband who would defend her in court.

Women weaving (15c french). I couldn't find any images of embroidery in progress.

Women weaving (15c French). I couldn’t find any images of embroidery in progress.

Next, Eleanor seems to have made a break for it: she moved to Oxford, and tried – for five weeks – to establish herself as an independent women in a women’s trade, that of embroidery. She continued to sleep with men (in a marsh, the court record says). Once again, we cannot say whether she sought their company for pleasure or for money. Something may have gone wrong, though, because Eleanor next moved to Burford to work as a tapster. In Burford she continued to sleep with men, but here the court records that only four of her eight lovers paid her. Did she expect payment from the others and not receive it? Perhaps. But it’s equally plausible that she enjoyed and desired sex with men. This possibility I have seen raised in discussion of John (Eleanor) Rykener as a male homosexual.

Next, in Beaconsfield, Eleanor had sex with two men “as a woman” and one woman, Joan, “as a man”. Now, here I want to stress some things we DO know and some things we DON’T. We DO know that when the medieval record speaks of “ut vir concubuit cum” and ” concubuerunt ut cum femina” (‘[he] as a man lay with [Joan]’ and ‘[they] lay with [him] as a woman’) it does not speak of what clothes Eleanor was wearing at the time, or what name she went by. The issue at hand is who did what to whom, as is nicely demonstrated by the verb forms: he-as-a-man had sex with Joan, they (two franciscans) had sex with him-as-a-woman.

What we do not know here includes:

  • Whether Joan of Beaconsfield considered herself to be having sex with Eleanor, or with John, Rykener.
  • What Joan and Eleanor did together. Concubere could in fact mean lie down together, and Eleanor did not give her testimony in Latin: we don’t know what she said that she and Joan did which the court records as ‘concubuit‘. Eleanor may have spoken in compatible passive/active terms, or she may not.
  • Assuming that Eleanor and Joan had penis-in-vagina intercourse, that does not tell us why they did so. Even if Joan met and bedded John Rykener, did she know about Eleanor? Was there an experiential difference, for either of them, between Eleanor(?John)’s conduct in bed and that of other men?
  • Conversely, we do not know which identity Eleanor was presenting when she slept with the two Franciscans – but that possibility has already been raised by queer historians, who are generally quite keen to point out that John Rykener’s male lovers could have known exactly who and what they were doing.

Returning to London, Eleanor committed ‘the aforementioned vice’ with several more churchmen, but the record does not state if they paid her – nor, in this instance, does it specify cum femina. However, it seems her efforts to find more respectable work had not succeeded, because finally, we know that she propositioned one John Britby to commit a ‘libidinous act’ with her in a stall by Soper’s lane, for an agreed-upon-sum. John Britby swore to the court that he thought she was a woman at that time.

Image of the Rykener interrogation record.

Image of the Rykener interrogation record.

The court record also says that Eleanor had sex cum vir with assorted nuns and married women. This addition lacks the detail of her encounters with men and with Joan, and I would be inclined to suspect it of being an embroidery upon Eleanor’s testimony, designed to both mark out John Rykener as a particularly depraved individual and enforce public perception of him as male by ensuring that everyone knows he could and did have lots of sex cum vir. However, even allowing for the fact that this assertion has less to hold it up than the previous account, I find it curious1 that it tends to appear as a footnote only to the history of John Rykener, when the following comment about numerous priestly clients who pay better than other man gets a fair bit of circulation.

Eleanor Rykener is rarely cited, despite what her testimony can tell us about women’s lives in marginal professions in the 15th century. (I note that Kim Racon at Notches has also blogged about this lack.2) John Rykener is spoken of, and John/Eleanor, but never Eleanor or Eleanor-John. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of teaching this topic, I’ve made a point of speaking of Eleanor Rykener and her trial, because… well, it seemed the decent thing to do.3 At the very least, Eleanor Rykener was a cultivated public persona (comparable to a drag act, perhaps?) – and given she seems to have run away and tried to take up a woman’s profession other than prostitution twice, the common summary of her story as ‘male crossdressing prostitute’ is incredibly reductive. Karras herself notes on p. 184 of Medieval Sexualities that the Rykener and a 14th century Venetian prostitute, probably a hermaphrodite, named Ronaldo/Ronaldina, are far from the standard sodomite, who did not normally wear women’s clothing. It is very unlikely that John Rykener was, in modern terms, a sad gay man who found crossdressing the only way to get laid – there’s enough other evidence to suggest that medieval blokes found ways to bang that didn’t involve ladies’ clothes!

Coming up tomorrow: a much denser post on bi- and trans-phobia and the historiography of the Rykener case. I’ve saved most of the links, terminology, definitions, caveats, disclaimers and personal context concerning bi- and trans- studies for that post, so if you’re hankering for more citations, come back tomorrow!

—–(Footnotes and anecdata under the cut)—–

Cover of Eisner's Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution)

Excellent, trans-aware, intro to bi theory. Not without faults (link goes to my goodreads review thereof) but excellent in its sphere.

  1. Correction: I do not find it curious, I find it aggravating and unsurprising. Because patriarchy.

2. Short version of the personal story: When it came down to preparing a class on this stuff, rather than working it into my own scholarship or ranting on the internet… I could not in all integrity betray the unknown trans student, male crossdresser, or genderqueer folk in the lecture room, let alone Eleanor herself, by not questioning my lecture brief (The Boswell Thesis: Medieval Homosexuality?) from the messy side of the queer spectrum. There has to be a way to balance good post-structuralist historical theorising against the very real need of marginalised young people to see someone like me in the past in order to historicise their own experience (see footnote 3). And what we turn out in class, and in peer-reviewed scholarship, will be paraphrased and cited and summarised and there is actual harm done to people if scholarship continues to replicate the entrenched hierarchies and privilege systems which the queer community has inherited from wider society.

3. I am told also, by people who know these things, that the London based queer feminist burlesque collective Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, cite Eleanor as Ms Rykener, genderqueer sex worker, busted 1395 in their song ‘A Brief and Eurocentric History of Western Queerdom’. Can’t find a video or lyrics online but this post by the song’s lyricist discusses the ‘history problem’ of lived queer experience. Efforts to address this problem do not always produce the most nuanced historical readings – but if high level scholarship is not generating nuanced readings that address that history problem, then that’s our own damn fault.

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