the body, confused
Writing by Elliot Thompson
Photographs by Caitlin Klara
London, 1395: a woman calling herself Eleanor Rykener is arrested after being caught committing “that detestable, unmentionable and ignominious vice” of sodomy with Yorkshireman John Britby. Immortalised on one page of manuscript as a creature of lust, lechery and fallen sin, Rykener’s crime was more than sodomy. Hir crime was complicated by an undefinable sex - ‘physically’ male, with a known male alter identity, Rykener was painted as a homosexual man who “dressed up as a woman”. Late medieval understandings of gender and sexuality are not as we know them to be now; they were one and the same, with physical expression being much a part of one’s desires. Even with this conflation, there is tangible confusion in those who interact with Rykener.
Whilst the crime was a single instance of sodomy with one ‘John Britby’, during interrogation Rykener admits to a litany of further ‘deviances’. Ze was taught the ways of ‘prostitution’ by a diverse network of poor women who gave hir women’s clothing - most surprisingly, Rykener confessed to working for five weeks in Oxford as an embroideress, and had sex with at least nine men as a woman during this time. Whilst centered around sex, it’s clear Rykener’s relationship with womanhood was more than just a way to make money. Moreover, ze was “brought [to interrogation] in women’s clothing”, implying that Rykener was interrogated in female dress. This complicates an already confusing picture: Rykener is purported to be a male sodomite, yet allowed to present as female whilst the Mayor and Alderman of London interrogate hir.
It's clear that the Latin scribe noting down the case was confused by hir. Rykener is described as having sex with men “modo muliebri” - in a womanish manner - and men had sex with Rykener “ut cum muliere”, as with a woman. Yet in the same document Rykener is gendered male: Rykener confesses to having sex with several women, and these relations always gender Rykener as male. Ze slept with women as male, and made conscious decisions to change hir gender expression. It's unclear whether the scribe or Rykener hirself made this distinction. If Rykener used alternate pronouns then this shows conscious awareness of how hir very existence transcended late-medieval understandings; if the scribe did, then this shows confusion. Confusion, perhaps at the crimes or Rykener’s female presentation, and always attempting to define Rykener along terms that they themselves understood.
It's not only the scribe that was confused. When the manuscript was initially unearthed by A. H. Thomas in 1925, Thomas deliberately obscured both Rykener’s gender and the accusations of sodomy. He sums up the entire case as:
“An examination of two men charged with immorality, one of which implicated several persons, male and female, in religious orders.”
Why am I so concerned about a gender non-conforming sex worker who lived 800 years ago? I’m asking that too. Rykener has stuck with me ever since I found hir in an old article in the first term of university. Something about hir proximity to power, seducing Oxford scholars and chaplains who were supposedly “unaware” of the “trickery”, and hir almost camp disregard for contemporary expectations. The mental image of Rykener ``in women’s clothing” sat before two state officials, both of whom are disgusted and intrigued by hir existence, and hir calm confidence in denouncing the many who desire hir. There is no apology for hir actions, no pleading for forgiveness or attempting to cover hir tracks.
I’m aware this could be projection onto a historical figure of which there are scant surviving sources. The image I have of Rykener in my head is undoubtedly romanticised and ahistorical - but I can’t bring myself to think of that as a problem. As a trans person, I cling to whatever of ‘my’ history I can find.
It’s also comforting to know that my own experiences of transness are not unique. That the confusion I feel about my interactions with the world are not because I’m morally wrong, but because society still has difficulty conceiving the transgender body. The pronoun switching mid interrogation reminds me of how my extended family still slip up with pronouns sometimes, or forget my name is Eliott. Rykener’s interrogation elucidates wider hostile confusion implicit within the text, which again reminds me of how my body still confuses the world it interacts with. My legal sex is both male and female: male on my passport, female on my birth certificate. Reminding me that if I died today, my death would be registered as female. The insistence on referring to Rykener as male, and the later historian’s erasure of her identity, speaks to my existential fears that after my own death people will present me as something other than what I am. At clinics I’m asked if I have sex with men who have sex with men, or straight men. Like Rykener, my body confuses.
Through Rykener I see a strength in recognising one’s own revolutionary potential - an unwillingness to apologise for existing, for surviving and for breaking tradition. The trans person exists as a puzzle to those who interact with - by existing, we have always unsettled the status quo. Yet there is power in the undefinability, something that is often abandoned in favour of cisgender acceptance.
Her gender transgressions stun both the scribe and historian, forcing them to accept on some level that she was not entirely male; she did not dress up as a woman, others consistently perceived her as female even and especially during sex. Yet in the same breath the scribes and scholars attempt to force hir into boxes that ze most likely didn’t even conceive of - Rykener is a sodomite, a sinner, a transvestite, a crossdresser and a pervert.
Rykener cannot speak for hirself, and we can never know how ze thought of hir identity. As historians, we rely solely on how others conceived hir to understand on any level. Neither scribe nor historian knew what ze was. Within their frame of reference, Rykener is a deviant of a specific kind. In a way this is comforting. Trans people to this day are defined by hostile interrogators and theorists; part and parcel being trans in the current climate is being forced to consider how my existence will negatively affect the willingly ignorant. I spent most of my teens attempting to assuage hostile criticism by conforming to ‘traditional’ masculinity, hating every part of myself that I thought was ambiguous and filled with guilt whenever I corrected anyone about my name. I’ve since found power in the confusion, in being undefinable by the straight and cisgender, and I refuse to apologise for that.
Rykener is unknowable, and that’s okay. It's good that we don’t understand hir. Rykener’s power comes from hir undefinability, from the confusion ze created during the interrogation and for generations of historians. My transness now takes comfort in its inherent confusion instead of running from it, and will no longer be watered down for the comfort of others.