calling [herself] Eleanor / se Elianoram nominans

CONTENT WARNING: Transmisogyny (including, but not limited to, the use of a deadname) and negative stereotypes about sex work and workers.

At some point in the 1920s, tucked somewhere deep in the Corporation of London Records Office, A. H. Thomas read the first case on second membrane of Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, and (possibly) blushed.[1] When it came to typing up his Calendar of Select Plea and Memoranda Rolls, A.D. 1381–1412, he was uncharacteristically brusque in his description of this case, dated December 1395. ‘Examination of two men charged with immorality,’ he wrote (lips thinning under his quivering mustache), ‘of whom one implicated several persons, male and female, in religious orders.’[2] Under this rather vague label, membrane 2 languished in obscurity until 1995, when David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras published ‘The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute In Fourteenth-Century London,’ in the debut issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. The significance of this trial was revealed, providing a unique insight into medieval English gender nonconformity and sodomy before the absolute criminalisation of the latter in 1533.

Membrane 2 is the story of Soper’s Lane, London, between the hours of 8 and 9 on the 11th of December 1394. It is also the story of a sex worker, embroideress, and barmaid, living in the dying years of one of the most chaotic centuries of London history. The scribe, translating everything into Latin, would call them Johannes – or ‘John.’ They, instead, wearing women’s clothes and doing women’s work, called themselves Eleanor. Having come to the attention of the authorities for having sex in exchange for money with one John Britby, the case (outcome unknown) tried her for the crime of sodomy, and documents her many sexual encounters with both men and women. This project will hinge on a premise suggested by Karras in her recent work on Eleanor – that they are ‘transgender-like.’[3] More specifically, I want to explore the trial, and the events that led to it, through the lens of Eleanor’s experiences as analogous to that of a modern trans woman.

The definition for ‘transgender’ used by Karras and Linkinen in their piece ‘John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited,’ reads: “Movement away from an initially assigned gender position… [including] any and all various norm and expectations.”[4] While this label seems painfully anachronistic, it draws powerful and intelligible attention to the most historically significant aspects of Eleanor’s experience. Her identification with womanhood was not surface level, but shaped the work she did and the relationships she made. Her statement, no doubt warped by translation, time, and situation, still reveals a life deeply involved in the learning and living of femininity. It becomes possible, if one is open to it, to feel a resonance across time, the likes of which Carolyn Dinshaw has written so extensively about.[5] While it is impossible to make any kind of absolute statement as to Eleanor’s innermost ideas of self and identity, this does not mean histories cannot explore these rich possibilities. To not rely at least partially on modern labels is to render the past inexplicable and alien, lost on a modern mind and context. A history free of anachronism would lack even the simplest of descriptors – as Leah DeVun illustrates, ‘we write about women in the distant past even as we acknowledge that premodern subjects dovetail imperfectly with the modern term woman.’[6]

This may read like I am simply, desperately, trying justify six weeks of study. Don’t get me wrong, that certainly plays into it – I can definitely feel Andrew Carnegie’s spectral breath on the back of my neck. And yet I also genuinely believe that this sort of imaginative leap is crucial to the histories we need to write. There is, of course, the political reasons for writing radical histories; the quest for legitimacy, for the most fragile and brilliant bonds of kinship with the past. Then there is the increasing need for creativity in history. Writing the marginalised and invisible back into existence has always required a bit of creative license, to stretch thin the line between fact and fiction, and past and present. It feels especially important to read explicitly transgender possibilities back into history. Dinshaw is quoted extensively in histories of gender nonconformity, asking “what can [we] do with this information. What kinds of histories, and what kinds of communities, can we create with it?”[7] And yet, the lack of space made for an Eleanor Rykener that is a woman is striking. Even Dinshaw herself is guilty of this, often letting the desires and distastes of those involved with the trial shape Eleanor’s identity and body. By focusing too much on whether John Britby was searching for a man or a woman on the night of the 11th, we forget that is Eleanor herself that decides the facts of her own existence, not the feelings of others.

This is just one of many transmisogynistic trends in the scholarship, that – not that its a competition – feel impossibly more anachronistic than using a modern identity label. These retellings fall into narratives that would be all too familiar to modern trans women, especially those engaged in sex work. Jeremy Goldberg’s otherwise useful article and blog post suggests that this document is in fact fictional, an instance of political satire. While this reading of the text is as believable as any other proposed, his portrayal of Rykener is a particularly good example of these tropes distorting analysis. Rykener is described as “a man masquerading as a woman” who sells sex “to his unwitting, and hence cheated customers.”[8] This sort of language mirrors transmisogynistic rhetoric in striking ways. Other instances of transmisogyny that creep in around the edges of a text seem more benign, but are perhaps a little more insidious for all an academic’s good intentions. The stories we tell about Eleanor Rykener are littered with slashes; caught between John/Eleanor, s/he, and encompassed in the moment an academic decides to stop hedging their bets and – usually – stick to masculine pronouns. ‘S/he’ certainly illustrates the tension in the document, between Eleanor’s lived experience, and the need for the authorities involved to hold the line between sexes and genders. Owning the blur through neutral (ze/zir), and quasi-neutral (s/he) pronouns does valuable legwork in highlighting the confusion Eleanor and her gendered crimes and activities embody. While her dress and professions were wholly feminine, the crime she was being tried for, sodomy, is (here, at least) shaped along masculine lines.[9] In the eyes of her interrogators, s/he is prostitute, barmaid, embroideress/sodomite.

But there’s a deeper dissonance that plagues these histories. There are, of course, the most simple of awkward phrases – “this perhaps suggests a deep feminine identification on his part,” “perhaps s/he liked male-male sex.”[10] I respect these academics too much for words like ‘tokenistic’ or ‘careless’ to ring true, but any gestures to womanhood are often totally undone by a few unfortunate, unnecessary word choices. Then there’s the slow-burning discomfort in these texts that I feel ridiculous articulating. Dinshaw goes to great lengths to illustrate the ways in which Eleanor is dangerous to the court who tries her because she “breaks down crucial social distinctions.”[11] And yet I’m constantly distracted by the flurry of slashes in her work, separating s from he, and John from Eleanor. While this project hopes to focus on Eleanor, and womanhood, I can’t help but notice how the way we talk about gender nonconformity reifies a binary that obscures lived experience. There’s something insidious in the way we discuss this case, a use of language that both reflects and informs how we think of Eleanor and others like her, past and present. I find myself thinking, in the same vein as Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, of what damage prioritising ‘John’ over ‘Eleanor’ in the common, slurring title of ‘John/Eleanor’ is doing to our histories.[12] Maybe this is something I’d have the privilege of not noticing, if I hadn’t spent all week reading everything I could on the case, if I hadn’t set out to write history about Eleanor. It’s really gotten under my skin, made me feel even more eager to give even a small slither of agency back to the dead.

Bychowski goes on to say, on the topic of consent, and use of Eleanor’s deadname: “Only by paying Rykener through citation and a byline can the transgender turn establish and maintain a commitment that is as important for medieval trans lives as modern trans lives: if you wish to use trans stories and trans bodies, you should pay trans subjects, at very least give them the credit of authorship over their own lives, bodies, names, and stories.”[13]

I know she’s long dead, and John/Eleanor has been written to death by any academic with even a toe dipped into gender history, and maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does; but I think Eleanor Rykener deserves an apology. These next few weeks I aim to build a background for Eleanor’s story, to contextualise and, hopefully, humanise her. It’s important to me to pay my dues to this woman, who called herself Eleanor.


[1] Original text and translation found David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London,’ GLQ 1 (1995), 481-483; linked to Medieval Sourcebook (1996) <> [accessed 10 June 2019].
[2] A. H. Thomas, Calendar of Select Pleas and Memoranda of the City of London. A. D. 1381-1412, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924-32), 228; quoted in Boyd and Karras, ‘The Interrogation,’ 480.
[3] Ruth Mazo Karras and Tom Linkinen, ‘John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited,’ in Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies: Essays in Honor of E. Jane Burns eds. Laine E. Doggett and Daniel E. O’Sullivan (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer 2016), 112.
[4] Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Boston: De Capo Press 2009), 19; quoted in Karras and Linkinen, ‘John/Eleanor,’ 114.
[5] Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 1.
[6] Leah DeVun and Zeb Tortorici, ‘Trans, Time, and History,’ TSQ 5:4 (2018), 523.
[7] ‘Queer Relations,’ Essays in Medieval Studies 16 (1999), 80.
[8] Jeremy Goldberg, ‘John Rykener, Richard II and the governance of London,’ Leeds Studies in English 45 (2015), 50.
[9] Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, 106-7.
[10] Cordelia Beattie, Gender and Femininity in Medieval England (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), 157;
[11] Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, 109.
[12] Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, ‘The Transgender Turn: The Archive’s View of Eleanor Rykener,’ Transliterature: Things Transform (2018) <; [accessed 10 June 2019].
[13] Ibid.

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