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Interrogation of John/Eleanor Rykener

Authored by Abbie Fray
Published on 11th December, 2023 4 min read

Interrogation of John/Eleanor Rykener

On this day (11/12/1394), John/Eleanor Rykener was interrogated in London. Rykener was assigned male at birth yet often dressed and presented as female. They were put on trial after being found “calling himself Eleanor” and dressing in women’s clothes whilst having sex with a man.[1] The trial records state that people were “calling him Eleanor” and that Rykener committed the “libidinous and unspeakable act” of sodomy with men and had intercourse with women.[2] The results of the trial are unknown, but they could have been charged for either prostitution or sodomy. 

The record of Rykener’s crimes is vital for studies of premodern queer relationships. Sadly, queer sexualities mostly come to light in medieval sources when they were being repressed. In this case, we can see negative societal attitudes towards Rykener’s prostitution and same sex relationships. Nevertheless, despite the negative perspective adopted in the source, we can glimpse a more positive sense of community. The record gives insight into queer people’s individual sexual relationships, but also their wider networks of support. Whilst there is little impression that Rykener shared emotional relationships with those they had sexual relations with, they appear to have had a group of women supporting them. For instance, “a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice” and “a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing”.[3] By placing Rykener within their wider community and relationships, we can gain fleeting insights into their everyday life and support network, despite the hostile nature of the trial record.  

Whilst the trial explored Rykener’s relationships with others, we can use the source to examine premodern identities surrounding gender and sexuality. That said, the legal system hinders historians’ abilities to speak of Rykener’s identity as the court only recorded what they did rather than how they felt. As Boone rightly highlights, hostile language in trials was used to repress queer identities.[4] Moreover, the source describes how other people were “calling him Eleanor” rather than exploring whether this is actively how they identified themself. These ambiguities and silences in the source have incited differing historiographical interpretations. Whilst scholars such as Karras and Boyd initially approached the case through the lens of male homosexuality, seeing it as a trial for sodomy, trans studies have criticised this approach.[5] Henningsen and Bychowski view Rykener as an example of a premodern trans person.[6] Rykener, and the debates that this trial provokes, highlight the complicated nature of medieval identity. The fluid and intertwined nature of late medieval gender and sexuality makes it difficult to tease them apart. 

Nevertheless, whilst we will never know how Rykener identified, it is vital that we do not silence their expressions of gender and sexuality. Despite the hostile legal sources that defined Rykener’s crimes, their story survives in fragments today. The example of Rykener’s queer identity is vital for the queer community, providing a sense of identification with the premodern past. Their characteristics, experiences, and behaviours speak to modern day queer, bisexual, and transgender groups. Historians can, and must, consider LGBT histories. We must therefore remember the example of John/Eleanor Rykener. As the fight for LGBT rights continues in the present day, the trial of John/Eleanor Rykener proves that LGBT people always have, and always will, exist. 

[1] Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Roll 1395, in Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd, ‘“Ut Cum Muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London’, in Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay (eds.), Sexualities in History: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2013), 100.

[2] Ibid., 100. 

[3] Ibid., 100.

[4] Marc Boone, ‘State power and illicit sexuality: the prosecution of sodomy in late medieval Bruges.’ Journal of Medieval History 22, no. 2 (1996), 135. 

[5] Karras and Boyd, ‘“Ut Cum Muliere”’.

[6] Kadin Henningsen, ‘"Calling [herself] Eleanor": Gender Labor and Becoming a Woman in the Rykener Case’, Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 55, no. 1 (2019); Gabrielle M. W. Bychowski, ‘The Transgender Turn: Eleanor Rykener Speaks Back’ in Greta LaFleur, Masha Raskolnikov, and Anna KÅ‚osowska (eds.), Trans Historical: Gender Plurality before the Modern,(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021).

Authored by Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray is an undergraduate student studying History at Durham University. She has a particular interest in the histories of gender and sexuality.

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