The Lone Medievalist

Eleanor Rykener

Poster with information about Eleanor Rykener
Artist: Dayanna Knight
Profiler: M.W. Bychowski, Case Western Reserve University

Eleanor Rykener was an embroiderer and sex worker in late fourteenth-century London, England. She is primarily known for her confession given in the Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m.2 from the London Metropolitan Archives. While the court case related to the document supposedly hinged around Rykener’s sex work, the question of whether sodomy was committed resulted in a prolonged biographical account of the medieval transgender woman’s life. This biography not only gives important insights into the circumstances of trans populations in medieval England, it is also gives light to the workings of lower-class women, sex workers, and queer encounters in the Middle Ages.

Since Eleanor Rykener’s story began to be distributed in academic circles in 1995, various fictional and speculative depictions of her history have been ventured, including novels by Bruce Holsinger, A Burnable Book (2015) and The Invention of Fire (2016), as well as a puppet show led by Tom Linkinen. Trans scholar, print-maker, and artist, Kadin Henningsen, has created a series of prints based on Eleanor Rykener’s life. Additionally, in 2016, trans medievalist, M.W. Bychowski held a reading of Eleanor’s confession near the location where Rykener may have been arrested.

Brief Biography

  • Eleanor Rykener was arrested and gave her confessions in London on 11 December 1394.
  • She worked as an embroiderer in Oxford, England.
  • Known associates included Anna (a fellow sex worker) as well as Elizabeth Bronderer and her daughter Alice with whom she kept mutual secrets.
  • While Rykener confesses sexual encounters with men and women, gifts and money are only recorded exchanging hands from male clients. It appears as though her sexual relationships with women may not have been for pay.
  • In her encounter with John Britby with whom she was arrested on December 11th, it appears as though Rykener insisted on being given payment and a negotiation for her consent before agreeing to take him on as a client.
  • Although the document acknowledges that Rykener introduced herself to the court as “Eleanor” and presenting as a woman, the scribe almost exclusively deadnames her as John. Consequently, for decades scholars have referred to her by her deadname, sometimes compromising by calling her “John/Eleanor,” and using he/him/his pronouns for her. Only in recent years, following an increase in transgender scholars and scholarship in medieval studies have these mistakes begun to be corrected.

Selected Quotation

  • “se Elianoram nominans veste muliebri detectus” (discovered in women’s attire, she named herself as “Eleanor”)

Selected Bibliography

Baldassano, Alexander. 2017. “Bodies of Resistance: On (Not) Naming Gender in the Medieval West.” PhD diss., City University of New York. 34.

Boyd, David Lorenzo and Ruth Mazo Karras. 1995. “The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London”. GLQ 1 (4): 459-465. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-1-4-459. 

Boyd, David Lorenzo and Ruth Mazo Karras. 1996. “`Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London.” Premodern Sexualities. Edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, 99-116. New York: Routledge.

Bychowski, M.W., “The Transgender Turn: Eleanor Rykener Speaks Back,” Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern, Masha Raskolnikov, Greta LaFleur, and Anna Klosowska ed., (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Press, 2020), Forthcoming.

Bychowski, M.W. and Dorothy Kim. 2019. “Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism: An Introduction.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal for the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship, 55 (1).  Edited by Dorothy Kim and M.W. Bychowski, 16. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/2/.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. “Good Vibrations: John/Eleanor, Dame Alys, the Pardoner, and Foucault.” Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Comminities, Pre- and Postmodern. 100-142. London: Duke University Press.

Goldberg, Jeremy. 2014. “John Rykener, Richard II, and the Governance of London.” Leeds Studies in English, 45. Edited by Alaric Hall, 49-70. Leeds, U.K: University of Leeds.

Henningsen, Kadin. “Calling [herself] Eleanor: Gender Labor and Becoming a Woman in the Rykener Case.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal for the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship, 55 (1).  Edited by Dorothy Kim and M.W. Bychowski, 16. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/9/.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1996. “Prostitution in Medieval Europe.” Handbook on Medieval Sexuality. Edited by Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, 251. New York: Routledge.

Karras, Ruth Mazo and Tom Linkinen. 2016. “John/Eleanor Ryekener Revisited.” Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies: Essays in Honor of E. Jane Burns. Edited by Laine E. Dogget and Daniel E. O’Sullivan, 114. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Gallica.

London Metropolitan Archives, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, CLA/024/01/02/035, mem. 2. https://lmaweb.minisisinc.com/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail?SESSIONSEARCH&exp=refd CLA/024/01/02/035.

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