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In an earlier thread, I wrote briefly about trans people in medieval Europe, and discussed some of the main issues when studying the medieval history of trans people.

Today, if you'll indulge me, I want to spend some time discussing a single person in detail. I want to talk about the way she's been written about, and about her and what she can teach us about life as a trans person 600 years ago.

This is the story of Eleanor Rykener.

We only have one record of Eleanor's existence, and it's an extremely historically important ones. The record is an account of her trial.

We only have about three surviving records of so-called "sodomy trials" in Britain before the 16th century. The fact that one of these three involves a trans person is either incredibly fortunate, or it is an indication that they had quite a few more trans people around in those days than we might suspect.

Eleanor was arrested on the streets of London in December 1394 between the hours of 8 and 9pm. She was caught "committing that detestable, unmentionahle, and ignominious vice."

Legal records did not usual use such strong language when referring to sex work, so it is likely that Eleanor was specifically accused of sodomy. "Sodomy", in the middle ages, had a very broad and flexible definition, and Eleanor stretches this definition.

If "sodomy" is understood as anal sex, or as sex between two people who both have penises, Eleanor would have been found guilty. If it was sex between two people of the same gender, the question becomes more complicated for Eleanor's accusers.

The record of her trial, for the most, part does not use either male or female pronouns when referring to Eleanor, because it is written in Latin. In Latin, you only use a gendered pronoun for the object of the sentence ("him" or "her"), not the subject.

When Eleanor is the grammatical object of a sentence, the legal record uses BOTH male and female pronouns, interchangeably.

This is read by some historians as indicating that the members of the court were confused about Eleanor's pronouns, but it actually reflects medieval practice. In the 13th century French poem Le Roman de Silence, the protagonist, a trans man, is referred to using male or female pronouns, depending on how he is presenting at that point in the story.

During her interrogation, Eleanor said that she was assigned male at birth, and taught how to wear female clothing and present as a woman by women she knew, called Anna and Elizabeth. She then began living as a woman full-time.

She lived, first in Oxfordshire, and later in London, where she worked as both a seamstress and a sex worker.

Women could not enrol in the craftsmen guilds, so their work, though it demanded considerable skill, was not as well paid, and it was common for them to work multiple jobs, like Eleanor.

During this time, Eleanor had sex with, according to her testimony, more people than she can remember. When she had sex with men, they would pay her for it. When she had sex with women, they would not. She would seek out priests as clients, because priests could be charged higher rates.

And... this is where the story ends. We have no record of what happened to Eleanor, we don't know if she ended up being charged, or if the court dropped her case and she went on to live happily ever after.

The transcript of her case is barely a page long. It's not much to go on, but it feels like a lot compared to the evidence we usually have, especially for trans women, who tend to get much less coverage than trans men.

This is Eleanor's story as I chose to tell. It is not her story as it has so far been told by historians and academics. It's now time to get into the ugly, ugly history of the way my fellow cis have written about her.

Eleanor's court record was originally published in 1995, in a translation written and presented by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies and oh boy. Ohhhhh boy. It is not good.

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So, in conclusion, Eleanor Rykener was one of what I think we can assume were quite a few trans women who lived in England in the 14th century. She lived as a woman full-time. She was the target of transphobia, as her trial attests, but she also was successful in getting the people she knew and worked with to treat her as the woman she was. I hope she go off easy, and went on to have a long and prosperous life.

I've not covered anywhere near all the aspects of her story, and I'm sure I've gotten plenty wrong. I would be immensely grateful for you to tell me what I did get wrong, and to share whatever comments you might have!

This is part of a dissertation I've just begun research towards about queerness in medieval poetry, so if you have any poems/stories/thoughts to share, I'd be happy to hear from you!

@garfiald pictured you sitting backwards in a chair with a baseball cap on backwards and i am so pumped.

@garfiald Wait, you mean they were actually MORE accepting of trans people in medieval times than they are nowadays? Fucking right wing nutjobs really ARE regressives.

@garfiald A trend that has since reversed itself as we've become a scapegoat for our failing socioeconomic system.

@garfiald i don't have anything clever or insightful to add i just wanted to say thank you for posting all this

@bryn Hahaha I mean this is just me going on about the nerdy shit I spend my days thinking about lol. I'm glad you liked it!

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@garfiald if you ever need someone to proof read your dissertation give me a shout. I'd love to read more of your writing on this subject!
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@garfiald it seems to me the tendency as reversed and trans women are now at the center of trans discussion by society when trans men are rarely mentioned. But it could be a bias coming from my own point of view

@freyja_wildes That's 100% right in my experience. Trans men are much more prominent in medieval documents (such as with accounts of St Marinos, or Pope Joan, or the Roman de Silence). I'm not sure I could give a definitive reason why. It probably has something to do with the fact that men in general are much more widely covered by medieval history and literature.

@garfiald well we also have to cover the fact that modern media have a *strong* focus and transwoman. The reason why isn't clear to me. I mean most large audience targeted movies are about trans-women (I can only think of boys don't cry which is about a trans men, played by a cis-woman...).

I wonder why. I feel it is rooted in the modern form of sexism but I'm not sure why...

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@garfiald can I just mention that sounds like something @Elizafox and I would do now, and that is our names 😳

Sorry, I don’t want to seem self-absorbed, but it makes it hugely more relatable

@garfiald could you expand on that? i'm not an expert on medieval legal latin, but afaik, all latin pronouns and demonstratives to decline in three genders in the nominative?

@esvrld You got me lol I don't know shit about Latin, I was merely repeating what I've read about pronouns as they relate to this specific document. The translators write in a footnote that "We have put in brackets the places where the Latin pronoun used for Rykener is of
indeterminate gender, or where we supply a pronoun that the Latin omits". You're welcome to have a look at the original article, they include the Latin text! Article and translations are super transphobic tho

@garfiald @esvrld hello hi! someone who knows A Bit about Latin here! the reason there aren't a lot of nominative pronouns in Latin is that Latin can express the subject of a sentence via the ending of a verb. so instead of saying "[he or she] wore a dress", Latin can just say "wore a dress" and leave it at that. and then the indeterminate ones are going to be things like "[his or her] coat" or "we said to [him or her]", b/c those forms are the same across genders ("eius" and "ei" in the chart above)

@glitternoodle @garfiald @esvrld thanks for language explanation.

It's pretty common that natural languages bring more chaos to gender topics. But that's the way how languages works.

People should got that linguistic gender is not same thing as sociologics gender.

@esvrld @garfiald Latin nominative pronouns can almost always be omitted, and the verb form does not depend on the gender of the subject.

@esvrld @garfiald can and are, I should say. It's not an unusual thing or a stylistic choice; it's how Latin works as a language.

@garfiald

just airing my dfirty laundry in public jfc

@garfiald

also please put

"caught committing that detestable, unmentionahle, and ignominious vice." on my gravestone thank!

@garfiald where do you put Joan of Arc some people seem to suggest she may have been Trans --- definitely bi.

@garfiald thanks for doing all this... this has inspired me (probably) to use my ‘history degree’ for good

@garfiald also medieval history is really important and interesting... not something to be fast forwarded to get to the ‘renaissance’

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