John/Eleanor Rykener

A photograph of the first page of the notes kept during Rykener's interrogation
A scan of the first page of the notes from the interrogation of John/Eleanor Rykener at The Guildhall, London in December 1394 – January 1395

John Rykener, also known as Eleanor[note 1] (fl. 1394), was a 14th-century transvestite sex worker arrested in December 1394 for performing a sex act with another man, John Britby, in London's Cheapside. Although historians tentatively link Rykener to a prisoner of the same name, the only known facts of his life come from interrogation made by the mayor of London. Rykener was questioned on two offences: prostitution and sodomy. Prostitutes were not usually arrested in London during this period, while sodomy was an offence against morality rather than common law, and so pursued in ecclesiastical courts. There is no evidence that Rykener was prosecuted for either crime.

Rykener said that he was introduced to sexual contact with men by Elizabeth Brouderer, a London embroideress who dressed him as a woman and may have acted as his procurer. According to his account, he had sex with both men and women, including priests and nuns. Rykener spent part of summer 1394 in Oxford, working both as a prostitute and as an embroideress. He later mentioned that in Beaconsfield he had a sexual relationship with a woman. Rykener returned to London via Burford in Oxfordshire, where he worked as a barmaid and continued with sex work. On his return to London, he had paid encounters near the Tower of London, just outside the City. Rykener was arrested with Britby one Sunday evening in women's clothes, which he was still wearing during his interrogation on 11 December. It was there that he described his encounters—and his sexual history—in great detail. But it appears that no charges were ever brought against him; or at least, no records have been found suggesting so. Nothing definite is known of Rykener after his interrogation; he has been tentatively identified as a John Rykener imprisoned by and escaping from the Bishop of London in 1399.

Historians of social, sexual and gender history are especially interested in Rykener's case because of what it reveals about medieval views on sex and gender. Jeremy Goldberg, for example, views it firmly in the context of King Richard II's quarrel with the city of London—although he has also questioned the veracity of the entire record, and posited that the case was merely a propaganda piece by city officials. Historian James A. Schultz has viewed the affair as being of greater significance to historians than more famous medieval stories such as Tristan and Iseult. Ruth Mazo Karras—who in the 1990s rediscovered the Rykener case in the City of London archives—sees it as illustrating the difficulties the law has in addressing things it cannot describe. Modern interest in John/Eleanor Rykener has not been confined to academia. Rykener has appeared as a character in at least one work of popular historical fiction, and his story has been adapted for the stage.

Background

John/Eleanor Rykener is located in Southern England
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
Red pog.svg London — red
Green pog.svg Oxford — green
Blue pog.svg Beaconsfield — blue
Brown pog.svg Bishop's Stortford gaol — brown
Orange pog.svg Burford — orange

John/Eleanor Rykener is located in City of London in 1300
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
John/Eleanor Rykener
Red pog.svg The Guildhall — red
Blue pog.svg Brouderer's house outside Bishopsgate — blue
Green pog.svg Gropecunt Lane — green
Yellow pog.svg Soper's Lane — yellow
Pink pog.svg Southwark — pink
Purple pog.svg St Katharine's by the Tower — purple

Prostitution was tightly regulated in fourteenth-century England, and brothels—although not prostitution itself—were illegal in the City of London.[2][note 2] City authorities tended not to prosecute individual sex workers, but focused on arresting the pimps and procuresses who lived off them.[5] Prostitution was perceived as most dangerous to the moral fabric of society. Another sexual offence for which people could be prosecuted was sodomy,[6] but this would generally be by the church in its own courts.[7] Of these two sexual offences, sodomy was deemed the worse. The thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas compared prostitution to a sewer controlling the flow of waste, saying that if one were to remove it, one would "fill the palace with foulness".[8] Aquinas then expanded on the point, saying "take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy".[8] Prostitution was thus seen as a necessary evil, that if not eliminated could be controlled.[8] The Lord Mayor of London's secular court would not have been seen as competent to hear cases involving either offence.[5]

In late-fourteenth-century London, it was considered socially unacceptable for a man to habitually wear women's clothes.[9] There were exceptions if it was deliberately obvious or necessary—for example, in theatre, or mystery plays.[note 3] Corpus Christi mystery plays, as the historian Katie Normington notes, provided an occasion "where gender identity could be tested or disrupted".[12] Conversely, the limited number of such opportunities, says Vern Bullough, meant that male-to-female transvestism was effectively non-existent in public society.[13] But beneath the surface, suggests Ruth Evans, London was "a place of unrivalled sexual and economic opportunities".[14]

Hermaphroditism too had a legally recognised status; the thirteenth-century jurist Henry de Bracton, for example, had discussed it in his Laws and Customs of England,[15] and there was a strong tradition of fictionalising it. The best-known, a story told by at least four separate German chroniclers in the 1380s, was from Lübeck. The protagonist dressed as a woman by night and sold sex out of a booth. By day, he was a priest and was eventually discovered when a client recognised him celebrating mass. The medieval historian Jeremy Goldberg has compared the Lübeck and Rykener cases: both involved "cross-dressing, dishonesty, the close association of priests with homosexual activity, and the eventual intervention of the city authorities".[16]

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