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“Calling [Herself] Eleanor”: Translike Gender Presentation in Medieval Europe

This paper was first presented at the Sexual Diversity Studies Student Research Colloquium at the University of Toronto on Friday, 26 March 2021.

Abstract: The discourse around what it means to be transgender has developed dramatically over the past thirty years. Many medieval historians did not even consider transness a possibility for medieval people until relatively recently. Some did not have the language or theoretical background to interpret the cases they uncovered, and many of the sources medieval historians relied on were hostile, and remain so. This includes the document that records a statement taken from a sex worker in fourteenth-century London. Eleanor Rykener was brought in for questioning after being found wearing women’s clothing and having sex with a man. The recording clerk took Rykener for a man. How historians have suppressed the record, and later come to understand, interpret, and reinterpret the case over the past hundred years reveals contemporary concerns regarding sexual and gender politics and demonstrates how they have changed through encounters with queer theory and trans theory.

Title slide: "Calling [Herself] Eleanor": Translike Gender Presentation in Medieval England, Friday, 26 March 2021, Nico Mara-McKay (they/them), PhD student in History and Sexual Diversity Studies, @plutopsyche

Trans people have always existed, but the language with which they and we have been understood, described, and recognized remains dependent on the cultures, places, and times in which they and we have been situated. Indeed, here in North America, the discourse around what it means to be transgender has developed dramatically over the past thirty years. For the purposes of this paper, I am following Susan Stryker’s broad understanding of the adjectives “trans” or “transgender” in reference to “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place.” Meaning, a person whose lived gender does not match what was assigned to them at birth. There remain those who do not believe that the term “transgender” should be used prior to its 1971 coinage. However, it would be more absurd to assume that these people, though unnamed and unrecognized, did not exist. Indeed, historian Roland Betancourt has argued that not using the term “transgender” risks conflating modern assumptions about binary gender and projecting them onto the past. The language around “trans,” what it means and who it includes has changed and it will likely continue to do so. Trans people do indeed appear in medieval sources, both in real and imagined contexts.

The first page of the notes from the interrogation of Rykener at the Guildhall, London [December 1394 – January 1395]

In today’s talk, I will use the late fourteenth-century record of Eleanor Rykener as a case study of a medieval trans woman, and examine the differences in how the medieval source describes the case in contrast to the historians who have interpreted it over the last hundred years in order to provide a queer critique of the historiography.

To briefly summarize the record itself [depicted above], which appears in a Plea and Memoranda Roll for the City of London: In December 1395, two people were brought before the mayor and alderman of London. One of these was Eleanor Rykener, who was wearing women’s clothing, and the other was John Britby, whose clothing went unremarked upon. These two were recently found in what the record describes as “that detestable, unmentionable, and ignominious vice.” The unmentionable vice alluded to is likely sodomy, which had a broader meaning in medieval Europe than it does today, and could include any nonprocreative sex between partners of any gender, including oral sex, intercrural sex, interfemoral sex, anal sex, and sometimes masturbation and bestiality.The record states that Britby solicited sex from Rykener, and Rykener agreed, as long as she was paid. They were then discovered by city officials and taken to prison. Days later, Rykener appeared before the mayor and alderman in women’s clothing and confirmed the account along with Britby.

The record of the investigation concerning each party focused on different aspects of their encounter. Rykener was interrogated about who had taught her this practice, and she gave an account of her social transition. She also provided a long list of sexual partners who she had sex with as both a woman and a man. These people included students, priests, nuns, women and men both married and not. Rykener’s testimony described her introduction to sex work, and previous careers as a seamstress in Oxford and as a tapster (bartender). Britby’s testimony, on the other hand, centred on the fact that he engaged Rykener for sex with the understanding that she was a woman, insisting that he did not realize that their relations might constitute the unnamed sin of sodomy.

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