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.

cw: transphobia 

The article is called "The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London". As far as I know, this is the only place where the full transcript has recently been published, and that really fucking sucks because it means that the only direct record of Eleanor's life that's been recently published is under a title that manages to be both TERF and SWERF at the same time, in a journal which trans people would (rightfully) expect to be welcomed in.

cw: transphobia 

The article is from 1995, so it doesn't really come as a surprise that it's a complete shitshow, queer studies were undergoing a transitional period in the 90's, etc. But some of the stuff in there is especially appalling. In the translation, where the Latin uses "indeterminate" pronouns or omits them, the translators use male pronouns for Eleanor, and they misgender and deadname her throughout the article.

cw: transphobia 

In order to justify use of male pronouns in the translation, they write that "The feminine is only used twice to refer to Rykener, both in indirect speech, so it seems reasonable and consistent to translate the indeterminate pronouns as masculine."

Why this is poor scholarship should be obvious: if the original text's pronouns aren't "consistent", your translation shouldn't be either. With this translation, we can see transphobia in action, actively deforming the text.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

Karras, one of the authors of this original article, co-wrote an essay two years ago, when she questioned the way that she had written the first article about Eleanor, and admitted that "if she were to write those articles over again she would suggest that we might understand Rykener as a transgender person rather than as “transvestite”".

This is obviously a step in the right direction, but the rest of the essay does its best to undermine this tiny element of progress.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

The essay is called "John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited" and honestly, what the fuck. Like come on. You literally were given a second chance to get this right. This new essay was published in motherfuckin 2016.

Throughout the essay, Karras and her co-writer do make plenty of good points, but this is undermined by glaring mistakes, such as deadnaming IN THE FUCKIN TITLE!!

cw: transphobia, deadname 

The authors of the 2016 essay choose to use ze/hir pronouns when referring to Eleanor, which I think is an interesting decision, and shows some thoughtfulness on their part. I use "she/her" because Eleanor lived as a woman full-time. She was a seamstress and sex worker, neither of which paid well. If all that mattered to her was money, men of her class had a much more stable living than women.

cw: transphobia 

If she had been a man, she could very well have undertaken sex work in drag, and then put men's clothes back on when she wasn't working. Because she continued living as a woman when she was not working as a FSSW, we have every reason to believe that she was, indeed, a woman.

cw: transphobia 

And as a final note about the 2016 essay, the authors describe her as "a male-bodied woman". In 2016. They say the phrase "her cock" is "jarring". It seems to me that to find the idea of a woman having a penis jarring in 2016 reflects poorly on the writers' credentials as queer theorists. "Male-bodied" doesn't even deserve to be addressed.

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 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 Just came across this, thank you for sharing your knowledge and her story!

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@garfiald Very interesting story. Thanks for sharing.
I wonder why she only charged male clients and not female ones. Do you know?
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@garfiald just saw this of fedi tl: Canon Lawyer Huguccio in 1188 wrote “if he has a beard and always wants to engage in manly activities and not in those of women, and if he always seeks the company of men and not of women, it is a sign that the masculine sex predominates … If he however lacks a beard and always wants to be with women and be involved in feminine works, the judgment is that the feminine sex predominates in him” wrt being allowed ordination

@garfiald fuck you i will support you at all costs don't even test me

@selontheweb damn... thank you for bringing attention to this unknown thread using your platform...

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@garfiald jebus my timeline just got flooded with this thread cuz of this single boost.
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cw: transphobia 

@garfiald this just leads me to wonder how many people who are published in queer adjacent journals are actually trans? how many reviewers are?

cw: transphobia 

@meena That's definitely what allows this kind of transphobic scholarship to proliferate. The only trans academics that I know of at my uni are in STEM, and I can't think of a single time I saw a writer whom I knew was trans on a reading list -- although to be fair I don't check the cisness of every person I read. As far as I know, people working in queer medieval studies today are uniformly cis.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

@garfiald I think that both names in title are not bad in fact. Especially if it's history essay about person who died many centuries ago.

They simply want to have this essay discoverable both by searching for "Eleanor Rykener" and "John Rykener".

Also I think more clear solution is redirect as in Walter Carlos -> Wendy Carlos wikipedia article.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

@severak I disagree. Rykener is not widely written about, so every time someone publishes on her, their publication will take up a very big part of Rykener studies.

Right now, if someone started spelling Shakespeare's name "Shakspere", it wouldn't have an impact on what people call him. If they were the second person to ever write about him, then what they decided to call him would have an enormous influence on the name by which he would go on to be known.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

@severak So the more widely her deadname his spread, the more she is known by her deadname.

As for "she lived 600 years ago", yes this does change how we write about her. If she or her family were still alive, her deadname should not be written anywhere by anyone else than her. Since she is not alive, and her deadname is a prominent part of the document which tells us about her existence, I think it's OK to write it and say it in the right context.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

@severak The title of an essay about her is not the right context. Putting her deadname before her actual name is especially bad. In the title of the article, the deadname is not "dead", it is very much brought back to life, because it's presented as if it's as important, or more important, than her real name. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter how long ago a trans person died, if you call them by their deadname, you're also deadnaming every other trans person.

cw: transphobia, deadname 

@garfiald it's good point that "John Rykener" is not well known name.

cw: transphobia 

@garfiald I get how the title is TERF. But how is it SWERF? It looks to me like it just identifies her as a prostitute without judgement (although maybe the body of the article does judge, idk).

@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.


just airing my dfirty laundry in public jfc

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