Bodies, Confused: Doing Transgender History
by Eliott Rose
November 2019. I’m sitting distracted in a lecture on late medieval London: half paying attention, half thinking about what I needed to grab from the big Tesco’s on the way back to college. The lecturer suddenly stops talking, switching slides to project a scrawling manuscript onto the screen. “This is one of the most elusive medieval sources I’ve ever studied-”, he states, “-and the first recorded instance of ‘transsexualism’ in England.” Suddenly I’m not thinking about Tesco anymore. I’m gripped by this story – the story of Eleanor Rykener.
London, 1395. A woman calling hirself 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”. Whilst only mentioned in passing, Rykener has stuck with me for over eighteen months. Something about hir proximity to power and hir camp disregard for contemporary expectations has stayed with me. A rare glimpse of a medieval trans world is alive in my mind, and I cannot extinguish it.
Whilst hir 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 – but 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; living consistently ‘in role’ for five weeks speaks to a complex understanding of hirself. 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. Rykener 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.
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 to sleep with men as a woman. 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. But beyond this, Rykener confuses the epistemic limits of historical research. When hir manuscript was initially unearthed by historian 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.” Rykener’s complexities are whitewashed. More insidiously, the 1995 translation of Rykener’s trial by Boyd & Karras used “[He/Him]” to note when the Latin scribe used pronouns of indeterminate gender, doing so as “the feminine is used only twice [so] it is reasonable and consistent to translate the indeterminate as masculine.” This conscious rewriting of primary sources to omit gender confusion limits to what extent the historian can analyse how these historical actors operated outside the boundaries of sexual dimorphism – by erasing the interchangeability of perception, this constitutes a rewriting of medieval conceptions of gender fluidity. Our understandings of sex, gender and their binary relationship are not transhistorical, and imprinting them onto historical sources can only be limiting. The confusion is more interesting than the certainty. The blurriness and incompleteness of hir story is something paradoxically tangible – recognisable in contemporary experiences of transness.
I’m aware this is projection onto a historical figure of which there is one surviving source. The image I have of Rykener in my head is 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. The proximity between historian and subject in trans history is negligible. Separated by temporal and sexual difference, a historian in twenty-first century Oxford can feel affinity with a fourteenth century sex worker because of the trans experience. The trans historian is not only working to uncover the past, they are waging a concurrent battle to legitimate their place in a society attempting to legislate them out of existence. Jules Gill-Peterson’s “crying in the archive” methodology of trans history is inescapable; the archive’s proximity “disperses being overwhelmed by the present”, and this act of recognition functions as our right to exist through historicising transness
Rykener helped me to realise that the confusion in my interactions with the world are not because I’m morally wrong, but because society has difficulty conceiving the transgender body. The pronoun switching mid interrogation – ut cum muliere – reminds me of how my extended family slip up with pronouns, or forget my name. At clinics, I’m asked if I have sex with men who have sex with men, or straight men. 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 hir identity, speaks to my existential fears that after my own death historians will present me as something other than what I am. Like Rykener, my body confuses. I don’t exist as a whole, but as dispersed and contradictory statements.
Yet 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. There is power in the undefinability, something that is often abandoned in favour of cisgender acceptance. Hir gender transgressions stun both the scribe and historian, forcing them to accept on some level that ze was not entirely male; ze did not simply dress up, others consistently perceived hir 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 indefinability, 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.
Boyd, D & Karras, R. (1995). “The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London” The GLQ Archive 1: 459-465.
Medieval Sourcebook, “The Questioning of Rykener, 1395”, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp
Peterson, J. 2019. “Feeling Like a Bad Trans Object” Post45 (September), https://post45.org/2019/12/feeling-like-a-bad-trans-object/
Eliott Rose (he/him) is a 21-year-old gay trans man studying History at Oxford University. He has been published in many small magazines in England, primarily on transgender issues and contemporary art. This piece focuses on the trans historian/subject relationship and the proximity between them. Follow Eliott on Twitter @el__iott and view his full portfolio at https://eliott-rose.co.uk/