To Eleanor, sweeter than honey or honeycomb,

CONTENT WARNING: Mention of transphobia.

The documentation of oppressed lives is too often confined to the courtroom, or otherwise filtered through a privileged lens. Eleanor Rykener’s case is typical – her words translated, exposed to prying eyes, future uncertain. This leaves us with a very narrow slither of history, like peeking through a keyhole. There are moments in this text that hint at experiences just out our historical field of vision, hidden in the voided blanks of Eleanor’s life. This week, I hope to use a label proposed by Judith Bennett to cast a little light, and to extend this project further into informed fiction, as discussed by Karras and Linkinen in ‘John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited.’[1]

To lift directly from Bennett’s article, the label ‘lesbian-like’ encompasses all “women whose lives might have particularly offered opportunities for same-sex love; women who resisted norms of feminine behaviour based on heterosexual marriage; women who lived in circumstances that allowed them to nurture and support other women.”[2] In this, Eleanor is lesbian-like because of all the sex she had with women, but also in a grander, more historical sense, which highlights all her chances for that and more. The narrative of her life is filled with mentions of other women, each with a profound impact on Eleanor’s experience of the world and womanhood. The professions she took up were defined by the communal work of women, and she discloses a history of emotional and physical intimacy with other women. It’s tricky, with the primary source so adamantly demanding masculinity when Eleanor had sex with women – “[she] had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a man with many women both married and otherwise.” What Bennett’s label does for Eleanor is that it opens up her life beyond sexual encounters, to all the clearer ways in which she learnt and performed femininity in female spaces, with other women at her side. Same gender attraction is often reduced solely to either the sexual or romantic in the modern mainstream. This label puts much needed emphasis on the emotional, without altogether erasing the physical.

Bennett’s article was the first inkling I had of a much broader argument about the use of modern labels in gender and sexuality history. Much like the use of the word ‘transgender,’ even the carefully mitigated use of the word lesbian(-like) made me inexplicably nervous. I read her unapologetic use of anachronism, and started looking fearfully over my shoulder, I couldn’t help but think – is this allowed? That question has led me, over the course of the last few weeks, into the depths of the essentialism vs. constructivist debate. This discourse centres around the nature of gender and sexuality, the former arguing that these things can be identified and translated across broad stretches of time and space. The latter views identity as socially constructed, contingent on a wide range of cultural factors. While both agree that labelling is a product of 19th century pathologization, they disagree on how well past sexual acts can be understood as coherent, and recognisable identities defined by this inescapably modern language. I’m impossibly late to this discussion, which reached the height of its ferocity in the 90s. Even though most theorists occupy a middle ground these days, it’s still a very intimidating area of theory to wade into. ‘Lesbian-like’ seems a particularly good compromise, the ‘-like’ drawing attention to all the ways in which we can only ever glimpse the past, that we are constrained by reliance on impossibly changeable and culturally loaded language. At the same time, a search for resemblance makes a gay history possible, allows us to use modern labels to translate the past into something halfway familiar. This has been crucial to my research this week, which has been focused on the medieval Islamic world.

While largely ignored by anglophone histories, the Arabic written record proliferates with instances of crossdressing and female intimacy, both fictional and otherwise. Unlike in the latinate world, arabic speakers had more precise terminology to describe gendered and sexual acts, and those who performed them. I in no way want to weigh in on what this meant for identity building in the medieval past, but it does provide a wide range of sources. One article on Islamicate gender and sexuality that particularly caught my attention was Everett K. Rowson’s ‘Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad.’ Rowson details how, in the ninth century Caliphal court of Baghdad, “male and female transvestism were not only tolerated, but institutionalized, and even salaried, as forms of professional entertainment.”[3] His perspective seems to obscure any agency available to his largely low status and/or enslaved subjects, his conclusion focusing on the way in which they “subverted the rules of a rigidly hierarchical gender structure for the delectation of those belonging to the gender category securely established at the top of the hierarchy.”[4] Just because gender nonconformity, including sexual acts, is allowed by a dominant class, does not automatically mean that this is its point of origin. Incorporating gender nonconformity into something ‘palatable’ is, to this day, a method of survival. I think histories of ‘crossdressing’ must better account for, to quote Judith Butler, “[the] search for a liveable life,” which is integral to gender nonconforming experience – whether we call it lesbian-like or trans.[5]

I’ve found this week particularly difficult. With lesbian-like histories relying so much on accounts of AFAB people living masculine lives, and reading them as women, the erasure of trans possibilities seems bone deep. The history of gender nonconformity encompasses both gender transition as we see it in the modern, but also sexual and emotional acts in which the expected roles of masculine and feminine are disrupted. It has seemed at times to me as if a trans history and a lesbian-like one are hopelessly entangled. I guess the only option is to have a little care,  to stop being so precious defending a lesbian-like reading of trans possibilities. To a similar end, we must accept that the lesbian-like label is broad and always uncertain, but is not made any more or less so in its application to women like Eleanor. The patent anxiety expressed by those feminist scholars not wanting to ‘lose’ AFAB individuals to transgender histories is deeply worrying. Trans histories are worth writing for the sake of good history, but an appreciation of how gender in learnt, transformed, and performed has wide ranging consequences. Without playing too much into this false narrative of loss and gain, writing the likes of Eleanor back into lesbian-like history makes the field that little bit richer, a little more nuanced. In a field defined by a lack of sources, the imagined intimacies between Eleanor and the women she worked and lived with are impossibly valuable. Both gender and women’s histories have a lot to learn from trans womanhood, and a duty to do so.

This week I’ve seen that historians can’t be happy with whatever small glimpses we see of women’s lives. Neither essentialist nor constructivist positions are going to be completely satisfactory for the medievalist, who walks a thin line between clumsy anachronism and a past that is rendered completely and impossibly alien. In a similar sense, the lives of those most excluded from historical records – be they Eleanor Rykener or an Abbasid dynasty entertainer – cannot be summed up only in their relation to those above them. A variety of primary sources that I’ve come across this week will shape my final picture of Eleanor. Perhaps more than any, is this letter from one twelfth century nun to another:

To C–, sweeter than honey or honeycomb, B– sends all the love there is to her love. You who are unique and special, why do you make delay so long, so far away? Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you at every hour, at every moment, like a hungry little bird. Since I’ve had to be without your sweetest presence, I have not wished to hear or see any other human being, but as the turtle-dove, having lost its mate, perches forever on its little dried up branch, so I lament endlessly till I shall enjoy your trust again. I look about and do not find my lover-she does not comfort me even with a single word. Indeed when I reflect on the loveliness of your most joyful speech and aspect, I am utterly depressed, for I find nothing now that I could compare with your love, sweet beyond honey and honeycomb, compared with which the brightness of gold and silver is tarnished. What more? In you is all gentleness, all perfection, so my spirit languishes perpetually by your absence. You are devoid of the gall of any faithlessness, you are sweeter than milk and honey, you are peerless among thousands, I love you more than any. You alone are my love and longing, you the sweet cooling of my mind, no joy for me anywhere without you. All that was delightful with you is wearisome and heavy without you. So I truly want to tell you, if I could buy your life for the price of mine, [I’d do it] instantly, for you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart. Therefore I always beseech God that bitter death may not come to me before I enjoy the dearly desired sight of you again. Farewell. Have of me all the faith and love there is. Accept the writing I send, and with it my constant mind.[6]

This little passage was so tender, so massively unexpected, I barely knew what to do with myself. I certainly feel vindicated by its presence, in the same way as when I heard about those gay penguins from a couple of years back. A lot of stock is put in antiquity, the idea that if something is old, it is good, and natural. There’s more there though, a simple feeling of resemblance, of ‘-likeness,’ that I hope doesn’t make me a bad historian.  More than anything, it makes me wonder if there was someone waiting for Eleanor to come home that morning of the 12th December 1394. I hope someone was there, whatever the outcome, to give her some little bit of peace after her trial.


[1] 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),117.
[2] Judith M. Bennett, ‘”Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms’, in Journal of the History of Sexuality 9 (2000), 9-10.
[3] Everett K. Rowson, ‘Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad’, in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, eds. Sharon Farmer & Carol Braun Pasternack (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 46.
[4] Ibid., 66.
[5] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (Abingdon: Routledge), 35.
[6] Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1968), II. 479; reproduced in Jacqueline Murray, ‘Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages,’ in The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality eds. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Routledge, 1996), 211.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s