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John/Eleanor

One night in December, 1394, a prostitute was arrested in London. Okay, not that uncommon - there were (and are) lots of hookers in London. What makes this case rather more interesting is that the prostitute in question was a man dressed as a woman - John Rykener, "calling himself Eleanor". He and his client for the evening, a man named John Britby, were brought before the mayor and aldermen of the city to be questioned, and John/Eleanor - still dressed in women's clothing - gave them a rather remarkable account of his life.

You can read the transcript of his testimony here. It's not that long, I'll wait.

Historians of sexuality and gender have been all swoony over this case since it was uncovered in 1995 by Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd, and with good reason. It's basically the only legal document describing same-sex intercourse from England at this period (there are plenty from Italy, because they were more hardcore with their sodomy prosecutions). And, like with lots of people who crop up in medieval legal documents, we don't know what eventually happened to John Rykener. Maybe he was prosecuted in the church courts for sodomy, but the records from that period and jurisdiction haven't survived. Maybe they didn't prosecute him at all, because his offence didn't fit neatly into any of their categories - prostitutes were by definition female, while sodomy as a concept was a bit more fuzzy at this period, but generally applied specifically to anal intercourse, and mainly to the 'active' rather than 'passive' partner. You'll note that in Rykener's testimony, neither term is actually used - he just takes money for sex and commits "libidinous and unspeakable" acts with men, at least some of whom allegedly believed he was a woman, as well as fornicating with women "as a man".

So, was Rykener gay? Bi? A transvestite? A transsexual? Any or all of the above, in series or parallel? It's difficult if not impossible to say. He wouldn't have thought of himself in those terms, at least. We don't know whether he enjoyed having sex with men, or if he just did it to make money, or a little from column A and a little from column B. We don't know if he dressed as a woman in his day-to-day life or just when he was on the job, so to speak - he mentions being employed for six weeks as a tapster at a tavern called the Swan, but it's not clear whether he was being Eleanor or John. ('Tapster' was originally a female-gendered term, much like baxter [a female baker], brewster [female brewer], and spinster [female spinner], but by this period the term was getting more flexible.) He was initiated into both cross-dressing and "detestable vice" by women, one of whom used him as a decoy in helping whore out her daughter, so it doesn't sound like it was entirely his idea. His male partners at least claimed to believe he was female - this is actually not totally implausible, as in an age before birth control prostitutes often practiced oral, anal, and interfemoral intercourse. Add to that the fact that it's dark, and you're in a freakin' alley, and I can see how it could happen. Of course, they might have been lying because they didn't want to admit they liked sex with dudes. For that matter, Rykener might have been lying about some or all of his experiences, but if he was lying in the first place, I have no idea why he wouldn't make up some less incriminating lies.

It's pretty likely the mayor and aldermen were more than a little confused by all of this. They might have been scandalized too, rather like the early 20th century dude who wrote up the summaries of all these records in a big three-volume catalogue. He normally gave pretty detailled summaries, but for this case all he put was "Examination of two men charged with immorality, one of which implicated several persons, male and female, in religious orders". Maybe he was deliberately covering it up (although if he'd really wanted to do that, he could have just left it out) or maybe he just lacked the necessary vocabulary/mindset to explain WTF was going on here. Either way, the vague-to-misleading description meant that it took until 1995 for the case to actually come to light.

Nowadays, of course, you can get 'John Rykener is my homegirl' t-shirts.

Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
shashalnikya
Sep. 17th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Fascinating!

I especially like that priests were apparently willing to pay more.
themodestokid
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
Just hilarious: "asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her." This is my new line (well I'm not on the market but): "Hey babe, wanna commit a libidinous act?"
lookforthewoman
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:05 pm (UTC)
"...sodomy as a concept was a bit more fuzzy at this period, but generally applied specifically to anal intercourse, and mainly to the 'active' rather than 'passive' partner..."

I'm not so sure of that... the inquisition was very big into punishing the passive member of the sodomy dude than they were the active dude, I was just at the Torture Museum in Mexico City and the number of torture devices for the anus/vagina is astounding, even more so when you realize there are none for the penis. The "pitcher" was executed, the "catcher" was tortured.
curtana
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:16 pm (UTC)
Ah, but this is England we're talking about :) There was no Inquisition there. There are essentially no sodomy persecutions in England, unlike in other parts of Europe, which is why this case is so significant.
curtana
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)
I meant to add, sodomy was highly linked with heresy at this period as well, which was why, for instance, the term 'bugger' was originally applied to Cathar heretics - they were believed to have come from Bulgaria, hence 'Bulgar' - 'bougre' - 'bugger'. I'm not an expert on continental sodomy, but I wouldn't expect that everyone the Inquisition accused of being a sodomite was actually anything more than your garden-variety heretic ;)
lookforthewoman
Sep. 17th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
We've been reading the same pages! :)

All I remember from the Torture museum was a single plaque discussing how the penis was mercifully expempt from torture but the anus was not.

Also, he wasn't charged with sodomy he was charged with cross-dressing: also a heresay! ;)
curtana
Sep. 17th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
Well, we don't know what (if anything) he was charged with. Like I said above, it could have been sodomy, or prostitution, or nothing.
jfruh
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
I find it interesting that whoever did the English translation kept putting [he] and [him] and the like in brackets. My Latin is way too rusty to try to wade into the original, but Latin third-person pronouns are only marked for gender in the nominative case, and are often left blank entirely in that situation, so it's possible that the original text is gender-ambiguous in that sense, but I'm still curious as to what the translator is getting at.
curtana
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
The text is indeed ambiguous in some senses, because of the nature of Latin grammar where pronouns are often understood rather than expressed outright. Pronouns in brackets are ones supplied by the translator for clarity in English, those that aren't in brackets are present in the original. They're just making it clear where they've added a pronoun. It's interesting that Rykener is referred to in the original as both male and female, if we look at their pronoun use - "asked who had taught him to exercise this vice" but "calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her." In Karras and Boyd's translation, which is very slightly different from the one I linked to (lacking the minor typos, for instance), they note "The feminine is only used twice to refer to Rykener, both in indirect speech, so it seems reasonable and consistent to translate the indeterminate pronouns as masculine."
shihtzu
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
This entry is detestable, unmentionable, ignominious, unspeakable, and altogether libidinous. Good show!
genarti
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, man, this is fascinating!
lordstarfish
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
That has to be the most obscure shirt in the history of geeky shirts. Great article, too :)
themodestokid
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
This page has got an unattributed graphic -- a painting of Rykener? Or just a random mediæval-looking person of indeterminate gender? I do not know.
curtana
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)
Absolutely a random woman, not Rykener. Nothing else is known about Rykener outside of this one document, though I suspect historians and archivists are keeping an eye out.
love_1776
Sep. 17th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
I love English history. It's filled with so many WTF moments to just look back on and go "ahh..."
dumortierite
Sep. 17th, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
Oh my God, GENIUS. This is why I am a history major. :)
Also, ace reporting of the case by you! So many fascinating tangents to go off on - how did he get started, what did (or would?) John/Eleanor identify as, who knew, what happened next...
blackjackrocket
Sep. 17th, 2008 09:37 pm (UTC)
I'm more taken aback by the transcript. Had they not invented how to avoid run-on sentences yet? Because yes, no set laws of grammar, but you're writing for COURT, people!

That's a hilarious shirt.
ambrmerlinus
Sep. 17th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
Oh man, I think I want that shirt now. Best history ever!
kevingarcia
Sep. 18th, 2008 06:00 am (UTC)
I bet Chaucer knew this guy.
What really freaks me out is that this guy was a contemporary of Chaucer. Ole Jeff knew a lot of crazy folks, and wrote about a lot stranger ones... I could easily see this guy/gal fit in on the road to Canterbury, and imagine the tales he'd tell (he obviously wasn't bashful about it, as it doesn't seem like this information was tortured out of him or anything).

I wonder if he was a regular at Harry's Tabard?
prettydragoon
Sep. 18th, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)
Awesome!
aurz
Sep. 18th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
Eww, the case is totally disturbing... (Though intriguing...)
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )