The “unspeakable act”
In 1394, a Medieval transgender person spilled forth a steaming broth of Medieval scandal and vice including cross-dressing, sex with clergy (male and female) and prostitution.
John Rykener, also known as Eleanor, had been arrested for committing an “unspeakable act” – probably sodomy.
Appearing in the Guildhall in women’s clothing, Rykener named multiple men – amongst them rectors and chaplains, several Franciscans, a Carmelite and three Oxford scholars – with whom John/Eleanor had performed sex “as a woman”.
(S)he also cited several women – wives and nuns alike – with whom they’d copulated “as a man”.
When asked whether the women were married or not, John/Eleanor didn’t know but they definitely included nuns: “how many he did not know”.
John/Eleanor argued that they priests were preferable because they paid more generously.
(One Franciscan friar paid with a gold ring.)
Rykener received training in the “unmentionable act” from a certain Anna, the whore of a servant in the household of Sir Thomas Blount.
She taught them how to have sex with men ‘in the manner of a woman’.
It was Elizabeth Brouderer who first dressed John/Eleanor as a woman.
And, incidentally, taught them how to embroider.
Elizabeth had already been convicted of luring innocent girls to apprentice in embroidery and prostituting them.
Prostitution in the trades seems to have been a fact of London life.
The sex lessons, John/Eleanor explained, were so Brouderer could give her daughter, Alice, to men at night (in the dark so they couldn’t get a good look at Alice).
Alice and John/Eleanor switched places during the night. In the morning, the client would be confronted with John/ Eleanor, wearing women’s clothes, and addressed as Eleanor by Brouderer.
Presumably, the intention was blackmail.
One of the men with whom John/ Eleanor had sex in Brouderer’s house was a rector called Philip.
After sex with the rector, Rykener stole two dresses from him. Philip backed down when John/Eleanor claimed to be married to an important man who would sue in court.
John/Eleanor also told the Mayor and officials of a maid called Joan, whom Brouderer had made sleep with a priest for two nights, “under the pretext of lighting his way home”.
Among Rykener’s later sexual clients, he reported, were “three unsuspecting scholars”. They went with him in the marshes, and Rykener named them as three knights, Sir William Foxley and a Sir John and a Sir Walter.
Since they employed Rykener frequently, it’s questionable how long the scholars could remain unsuspecting!
The hermaphrodite priest
A 1380s story from at least four German sources tells of a protagonist who sold sex as a woman by night and celebrated mass by day. One of his clients was shocked to recognize the female prostitute in the priest.
That evening, he followed him back to his booth and discovered he/she was a hermaphrodite while having (rigorously scientific) sex.
The unfortunate hermaphrodite was arrested, condemned and burned dressed in his/her women’s clothes.
Surprisingly, intersex was a legally recognized status in Medieval times.
The thirteenth-century jurist Bracton described it as being a third category of people in his Laws and Customs of England.
According to Michel Foucault, the Godparent would often assign the sex of the infant at the time of baptism. Once the child had reached the age of majority and they were ready for marriage, they could decide whether they wanted to remain the sex assigned to them at birth.
However, If you chose to be a male, you must pair with a female, and vice versa or be accused of sexual deviance.
Woe betide you if you chose someone of your own gender. In 1281, a female hermaphrodite from Alsace was blinded when she tried to force another woman to have sex.
This story and the Rykener case are similar. Both involved “cross-dressing, dishonesty, the close association of priests with homosexual activity, and the eventual intervention of the city authorities”.
Rykener’s feminity appears to have been more than skin-deep. Not just a transvestite, they seem to be a genuine Medieval transgender person.
They lived and worked as a woman doing work like embroidering and selling ale – and, yes, prostitution – which was typically woman’s work.
John/Eleanor even temporarily married as a woman and claimed female legal status.
We can’t know whether or not John/Eleanor was able to conceal their sex in marriage, but their sex was overlooked and they fit into society as a woman.
That John/Eleanor was not, as far as we know, prosecuted may reflect the Medieval view that a prostitute was by definition a sinful woman.
Even if a man took money for sex, like John/Eleanor, they couldn’t be a prostitute, and so, unprosecutable as one.
Men, if they were ever charged at all, were accused of being pimps and brothel owners; only women were accused of being bawds and prostitutes.
We don’t know what happened to John/Eleanor. We can hope that they were released without charge because the mayor and aldermen of London “did not quite know what to make of him“.
There’s no record of what happened to John/Eleanor after that or if they were even formally charged.
A Medieval transgender life couldn’t have been easy. Let’s hope they found a livable life.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it well when he says:
“The search for a livable life: that’s what it seems to me that Eleanor John was engaged in when apprehended in London in 1395 and compelled to a self-accounting. We’ll never know, of course, what desires animated Eleanor John; we’ll never know if some severe punishment followed the confession to the mayor (no further record survives); we’ll never even know what gender Eleanor John would choose, if given the choice– or maybe for our transvestite-embroideress-prostitute-gigolo a livable life would have consisted in the option of not having to declare a choice, of not having to give a self-accounting that necessitated a self-justification.”
There’s another aspect to this story which makes it even more fascinating.
There’s a case to be made that the entire account is medieval fake news aimed at disgracing King Richard, a case which is made brilliantly by John Goldberg in John Rykener, Richard II and the Governance of London.
Londoners in 1399, Jean Froissart records, ‘could hardly mention [Richard’s] name without adding,“Damn and blast the dirty bugger!”
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.