“We can say that even if we do not know anything about Rykener's self-identification, hir life as a male-bodied woman was “transgender-like.” — Ruth Mazo Karras and Tom Linkinen
There is a fine line historians must walk between being thoughtful in using contemporary language for historical figures and erasing queer people from history. While someone from ancient Sumer wouldn’t have used the word “bisexual”, for example, we can discuss how their sexuality and experiences fit this modern term. We walk that line with every article, and we try to do so respectfully. There are, however, those who act under the guise of historical accuracy only to deny queer persons our history, particularly those stories of trans women.
Eleanor Rykener is often presented as, well, John Rykener. Little is known about her before her arrest in 1395; everything we know comes from her interrogation. Some years before her arrest, Rykener met a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. Whether Eleanor was approached by Elizabeth or sought her out is, like many aspects of her life, unknown. There she was given her name and taught embroidery; that’s also where she got into sex work.
Elizabeth had developed an elaborate ruse in which she would trick the men her daughter slept with into believing they had slept with Eleanor. It’s likely that though she forced both women into this work, Elizabeth did not want her daughter to have the poor reputation of a sex worker. That reputation instead went to Eleanor. Another sex worker named Anna later taught Eleanor to have sex “as a woman”, as Eleanor called it.
Eleanor eventually left London for Oxford where she tried to find work as an embroideress. It’s important to note that embroidery was traditionally women’s work; Eleanor continued to dress, work, and live as a woman after leaving London. After finding less embroidery work than she had hoped, she focused on sex work. After a time, finding little to keep her there, she moved on to Burford.
There she found work as a barmaid, another profession held almost exclusively by women. While she continued doing sex work, we know that she was only paid by half of the men she slept with in Burford. Whether she expected payment or had a relationship with any of the men is, again, unknown.
We must pause here to mention how her relationships here have been read by modern historians. Often, we find the issue of straight historians erasing queer identities out of discomfort. Eleanor’s relations with these men cannot be denied—she herself talked at length about several of the men she slept with—so instead they are used to invalidate her gender. She is just a gay man who crossdressed.
Of course, the other side of the coin still exists, and we see that after Eleanor’s move to Beaconshire. Though she slept with two men there, she also slept with a woman named Joan. Though she undoubtedly slept with more men than women, their claim is that she only slept with men for work. Eleanor Rykener is then, in fact, a straight man who crossdressed.
Historians are quick to say that she was a crossdresser and a sex worker, though they aren’t as averse to using slurs when they describe her. They do, however, find the term bisexual problematic. Not because Eleanor didn’t have sex with men and women; we know for a fact that she slept with enough men and women that she wasn’t sure of the number. If we apply this modern label—bisexual—we may then have to acknowledge that in today’s language Eleanor would be called a trans woman. The idea that Eleanor was actually a man who tricked people into sex falls more in line with the idea that trans women are just men in dresses, that they are threats. Her sexuality is leveled against her to prove that she is a man, and that is still very much an issue for trans women today.
These historians also ignore the very real possibility that she presented herself as Eleanor, as a woman, to both the men and women she slept with. The original text of the interrogation mentions “ut vir concubuit cum” and ” concubuerunt ut cum femina”. While it explains that Eleanor had sex with Joan (active), it is careful to say that the two men had sex with her (passive). It’s assumed by most historians that Eleanor had sex with Joan as John, as a man, and had sex with the men as a woman. We don’t actually know this. There is, in fact, very little of the details of her relations that we do know. The interrogation is in Latin, having been translated from Middle English she would have spoken, and therefore does not contain quotes from her as she said things. Because Eleanor didn’t give her testimony in Latin, the intricacies of her testimony are lost.
In December of 1395, bundled against the frigid London winter, Eleanor caught the eye of one John Britby. He propositioned her, and the two made their way behind a nearby church. They were then caught by city officers and taken in for interrogation. She introduced herself as Eleanor Rykener. She readily admitted to everything, agreed with Britby’s account of the events, and hid nothing. She told them of her time with Elizabeth and Anna and her many moves throughout England. She told them of the many men and women she slept with; some married, some nuns and priests. She held nothing back, and she introduced herself as Eleanor.
There is a danger in applying modern labels to historical people. To call Eleanor Rykener a gay man is just as harmful as calling her a straight man. Erasing a queer person’s identity, even for the sake of another queer identity, is harmful. The case of Eleanor Rykener was actually revisited in recent years with the admission that transgender may be a more accurate term for Ms. Rykener. To simply call Eleanor Rykener a crossdresser is reductive; it ignores her life as she lived it. Often, we cannot say exactly how someone would describe themself, because we aren’t able to ask them. Eleanor, however, was asked over and over again. The only document of her life is her take on her womanhood and sexuality. Eleanor Rykener slept with both men and women, she worked as an embroideress, barmaid, and sex worker, and she was a woman.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Bershady, Isaac. “Sexual Deviancy and Deviant Sexuality in Medieval England.” Primary Source, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 12-17.
Brown, Amy. “Eleanor Rykener and Queer History.” Australian Medievalists. 27 Sep 2014.
Brown, Amy. “The Erasure of Eleanor Rykener: A Case Study in Trans- and Bi- Phobia.” Australian Medievalists. 28 Sep 2014.
Bullough, Vern L. “Transvestites in the Middle Ages.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 79, no. 6, 1974, pp. 1381-1394.
David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras. "The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London". GLQ, vol. 1, 1995, pp. 459-465.
Karras, Ruth Mazo, and Tom Linkinen. “John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited.” Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies: Essays in Honor of E. Jane Burns, edited by Laine E. Doggett and Daniel E. O'Sullivan, Boydell & Brewer, 2016, pp. 111–122.
Racon, Kim. “‘In the Manner of a Woman’: John/Eleanor Rykener and the Inessentiality of Gender.” Notches. 1 Apr 2014.