The internet informs me that this week is Bisexual Awareness Week (consider: is your cat aware of the bisexual movement? 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. 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.
Allow 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.
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.
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!!
“II: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Transcription
Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m.2 (1395)
Undecimo die Decembris anno regni regis Ricardi secundi decimo octavo, ducti fuerunt hic coram Johanne Fressh maiore et aldermannis civitatis Londoniensis Johannes Britby de comitate Eboracum et Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans veste muliebri detectus. Qui die dominica ultimo preterita per quosdam dicte civitatis ministros noctanter inter horas octavam et nonam super quoddam stallum in venella vocata Sopereslane inventi fuerunt iacentes, illud vitium detestabile, nephandum, et ignominiosum committentes, pro seperali examinatione coram dictis maiore et aldermannis super premissa fienda et audienda etcetera. Qui quidem Johannes Britby inde allocutus fatebatur quod ipse per vicum regium de Chepe die dominica inter horas supradictas transiens, dictum Johannem Rykener vestitu muliebri ornatum, ipsumque mulierem fore suspicantem fuerat assecutus, petens ab eo, tanquam a muliere, si cum ea libidinose agere possit. Qui ab eo argentum pro labore suo petens sibi consentiebat, invicem transeuntes ad illud complendum usque stallum predictum. Ipsi tamen tunc ibidem per ministros predictos in eorum maleficiis detestabilibus capti fuerunt, carcere vero mancipati hucusque, etcetera. Et predictus Johannes Rykener in veste muliebri hic adductus de materia predicta allocutus cognovit se fecisse in omnibus prout idem Johannes Britby superius fatebatur etcetera. Quesitum fuit ulterius a prefato Johanne Rykener quis ei docuit dictum vitium exercere et quanto tempore, in quibus locis, et cum quibus personis masculis sive feminis illud actum libidinosum et nephandum commisit. Qui in animam suam sponte iuravit et cognovit quod quaedam Anna, meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount, primo docuit ipsum vitium detestabile modo muliebri exercere. Item dixit quod quaedam Elizabeth Brouderer prius vestivit ipsum veste muliebri; quae etiam conduxit quandam Aliciam filiam suam diversis hominibus luxuriae causa, ipsam cum eisdem hominibus in lectis eorum noctanter absque lumine reponens et eandem summo mane ab eisdem recedere fecit, monstrando eis dictum Johannem Rykener veste muliebri ornatum ipsum Alianoram nominantem, asserens ipsos cum ipsa sinistre egisse. Item dixit quod quidam Philippus, Rector de Theydon Gernon, concubuit cum eodem Johanne Rykener ut cum muliere in domo cuiusdam Elizabeth Brouderer extra Bisshoppesgate, quo tempore dictus Johannes Rykener asportavit duas togas ipsius Philippi. Et quando idem Philippus illas petiit a prefato Johanne Rykener, ipse dixit quod fuit uxor cuiusdam hominis, et si ipse illas repetere vellet faceret maritum suum versus ipsum prosequi. Item dictus Johannes Rykener fatebatur quod per quinque septimanas ante festum santi Michaelis ultimo elapsum morabatur apud Oxonium et operatus est ibidem in veste muliebri in arte de brouderer nominans ipsum Alianoram. Et ibidem in marisco tres scolares ignotos, quorum unus nominatur dominus Willielmus Foxlee, alius dominus Johannes, et tertius dominus Walterus, usi fuerunt sepius cum ipso abominabile vitium supradictum. Item fatebatur prefatus Johannes Rykener quod ipse die veneris proximo ante festum sancti Michaelis supradictum venit apud Burford in comitate Oxonium. Et ibidem fuit commorans cum quodam Johanne clerc atte Swan in officio de tapster per sex septimanas proximas sequentes, infra quod tempus duo fratres minores, quorum unus nominatur frater Michael et alius frater Johannes Barry, qui sibi dedit unum anulum aureum, et unus frater carmelitus et sex diversi homines extranei commiserunt cum illo vitium antedictum. Quorum quidem fratrum et hominum supradictorum quidam dabat dicto Johanni Rykener .xii. d, quidam .xx. d, quidam .ii. s. Item fatebatur idem Johannes Rykener quod fuit apud Bekenesfeld et ibidem idem ut vir concubuit cum quadam Johanna filia Johannis Mathew, et etiam ibidem cum ipso concubuerunt ut cum femina duo fratres minores alienigenae. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod post eius ultimum adventum Londoniae quidam dominus Johannes quondam capellanus ecclesiae sanctae Margaretae Patyns et alii duo capellani in venellis retro ecclesiam sanctae Katerinae iuxta turrim Londoniensem commiserunt cum illo illud vitium antedictum. Item dixit dictus Johannes Rykener quod ipse sepius concubuit cum quampluribus monialibus ut vir, et etiam concubuit modo virili cum quampluribus mulieribus, tam maritatis quam aliis, quarum numerum ignorat. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod quamplures presbiteri fecerunt illud vitium cum illo ut cum muliere, quorum numerum ignorat, et dixit quod citius cepit presbiteros quam alios quia plus vellent sibi dare quam alii.
I: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Translation
On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed. Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act. [He] swore willingly on [his] soul that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her. [He] further said that certain Phillip, rector of Theydon Garnon, had sex with him as with a woman in Elizabeth Bronderer’s honse outside Bishopsgate, at which time Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’, and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife ofa certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him. Rykener further confessed that for five weeks before the feast of St. Michael’s last [he] was staying at Oxford, and there, in women’s clothing and calling himself Eleanor, worked as an embroideress; and there in the marsh three unsuspecting scholars – of whom one was named Sir William Foxlee, another Sir John, and the third Sir Walter – practiced the abominable vice with him often. John Rykener further confessed that on Friday before the feast of St. Michael [he] came to Burford in Oxfordshire and there dwelt with a certain John Clerk at the Swan in the capacity of tapster for the next six weeks, during which time two Franciscans, one named Brother Michael and the other Brother John, who gave [him] a gold ring, and one Carmelite friar and six foreign men committed the above-said vice with him, of whom one gave Rykener twelve pence, one twenty pence, and one two shillings. Rykener further confessed that [he] went to Beaconsfield and there, as a man, had sex with a certain Joan, daughter of John Matthew, and also there two foreign Franciscans hall sex with him as a woman. John Rykener also confessed that after [his] last return to London a certain Sir John, once chaplain at the Church of St. Margaret Pattens, and two other chaplains committed with him the aforementioned vice in the lanes behind St. Katherine’s Church by the Tower of London. Rykener further said that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a iman with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.”
- The Erasure of Eleanor Rykener: A Case Study in Trans- and Bi- Phobia, Australian Medievalists, 27 September 2014, https://australianmedievalists.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/eleanor-rykener-and-queer-history/
- Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of John Rykener, A Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395 https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp