The Rykener Case: Gender and Sex in fourteenth-century England

Rachel McGlone

The problem was that the woman was, biologically, a man.

In December 1394, John Britby, on a visit to London from Yorkshire, approached a woman on Cheapside. After a short negotiation, she agreed to have sex with him in exchange for money. The two removed to a side alley, where they were then arrested by the authorities for “committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice” – presumably, sodomy. The problem was not that the woman was a sex worker – this was a valid way to earn a living in a medieval city for a woman. The problem was that the woman was, biologically, a man. The story of Eleanor Rykener (born John), was only uncovered in the 1990s after a re-translation of the London Plea and Memoranda Rolls (the civic records of Medieval London). Previous translations of the folios had only summarised the contents, rather than exposing the full details. In the account, Britby confessed to having fully believed Rykener to be a woman, hence the approach and commission for employment. Rykener then tells of their journey into dressing as a woman, and how they were trained as a sex worker. The testament continues with Rykener describing their employment in Oxford the previous summer, where they worked part-time as an embroideress, the other half of their time serving both men and women for sexual labour. Clients ranged from nobility and foreign dignitaries, to priests, monks, and nuns. Rykener even noted a preference to working with the clergy, as they paid more! We do not have the records for the outcome of the trial, but the account is unusual in several ways itself. First, crimes of a sexual nature, especially sodomy, were usually prosecuted by the church, whereas these were civic records. This would imply that this case was larger than that of sexual deviance – perhaps as a way of uncovering church corruption itself, as Rykener lists many clergy among their clientele. We also do not have the corresponding church records for this time period, so we cannot clarify if the case was doubly prosecuted.
The Rykener Case: Gender and Sex in fourteenth-century England
Corporation of London Records Office Plea and Memoranda Roll

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The Latin linguistically refers to Rykener as feminine.

Secondly, throughout the account, the Latin linguistically refers to Rykener as feminine. The issue the church had with sodomy was that the sexual act between two men feminised the passive participant. If Rykener, linguistically, was seen as a woman there would have been no case to prosecute for the feminisation of the act. The term “prostitution” in medieval Latin has only female conjunctives, and sex work was also a purely feminine employment. It was also not a criminal offence. As established in the account, outwardly Rykener dressed and acted as a woman. As their employment as a sex worker was not illegal, they could not have been detained on those grounds. But in identifying and presenting oneself as feminine, would the church even have had a case for sodomy if it had been brought to trial? Thirdly, Rykener details sexual encounters with both men and women. This is the only record of same-sex partnerships in Medieval England, so we cannot draw conclusions of a trend for wider society. That their client list was so extensive, though, could be indicative of much more flexible attitudes to sex and gender in the fourteenth century than originally imagined. It is difficult to apply our modern terminology to people in history, as they would never have used the same words to describe themselves. Today, we would err towards calling Rykener a bisexual, transgender woman or, at the very least, gender-fluid. What we can conclude, however, was that Rykener felt comfortable enough in society to actively express themself in this fashion, in one of the most intimate industries – and was fairly successful at it. Eleanor Rykener gives us an insight into what medieval attitudes and sex may actually have been like to the commonality, in all its flexibility and diversity.
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The Rykener Case: Gender and Sex in fourteenth-century England

Rachel McGlone

Rachel McGlone studied History at the University of York, both at undergraduate level – focusing on Medieval England and Europe – and for an MA in Public History. Her current research focuses on textile history and its ability to tell grassroots stories, as well as its generational links to the past. She has previously contributed to the online magazines “The Historians” and “Periodically Dramatic,” and has written for the University of Cambridge’s “Doing History in Public” project. You can find her on Instagram @bookishhistorian and via her blog.
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