One of the most prevalent attacks on trans people in the US, from both the left and the right, is that trans identity is a product of modern times and cannot be found in preceding eras. This is a product of selective history at best and intentional erasure at worst. On trans day of remembrance, we present two medieval texts that directly address and express trans identity or gender dysphoria.
The Questioning of Eleanor Rykener 1395:
One of the most famous accounts of trans identity in Medieval England, the questioning of Eleanor (John) Rykener was deliberately erased by 20th century literary critic A.H. Thomas. In his exhaustive and intricately detailed early 20th century catalog of medieval law documents, he only vaguely summarizes this case, and actively sought to remove Eleanor Rykener from the historical record.
The account of her escapades with various churchmen is written by her interrogators who very likely utilized torture and should thus be taken with a grain of salt, but her identity is interestingly mentioned in some detail by her interrogators.
On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed. Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act. [He] swore willingly on [his] soul that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her. [He] further said that certain Phillip, rector of Theydon Garnon, had sex with him as with a woman in Elizabeth Bronderer’s honse outside Bishopsgate, at which time Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’, and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife ofa certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him. Rykener further confessed that for five weeks before the feast of St. Michael’s last [he] was staying at Oxford, and there, in women’s clothing and calling himself Eleanor, worked as an embroideress; and there in the marsh three unsuspecting scholars – of whom one was named Sir William Foxlee, another Sir John, and the third Sir Walter – practiced the abominable vice with him often. John Rykener further confessed that on Friday before the feast of St. Michael [he] came to Burford in Oxfordshire and there dwelt with a certain John Clerk at the Swan in the capacity of tapster for the next six weeks, during which time two Franciscans, one named Brother Michael and the other Brother John, who gave [him] a gold ring, and one Carmelite friar and six foreign men committed the above-said vice with him, of whom one gave Rykener twelve pence, one twenty pence, and one two shillings. Rykener further confessed that [he] went to Beaconsfield and there, as a man, had sex with a certain Joan, daughter of John Matthew, and also there two foreign Franciscans hall sex with him as a woman. John Rykener also confessed that after [his] last return to London a certain Sir John, once chaplain at the Church of St. Margaret Pattens, and two other chaplains committed with him the aforementioned vice in the lanes behind St. Katherine’s Church by the Tower of London. Rykener further said that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a iman with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.
Selection, “Prayer for Transformation,” from Evan Bohan, by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir, French Hebrew Poet, 1322
In this remarkable 14th century Hebrew poem by Frenchman Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, the poet describes gender dysphoria with remarkable accuracy and power. For Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, there was no hope of becoming the person they wanted to be, so the poet laments and underlines feelings of powerlessness.
What shall I say?
why cry or be bitter?
If my father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity
then I do not wish to remove it.
the sorrow of the impossible is a human pain that nothing will cure
and for which no comfort can be found.
So, I will bear and suffer until I die and wither in the ground.
Since I have learned from our tradition
that we bless both, the good and the bitter
I will bless in a voice hushed and weak:
blessed are you YHVH who has not made me a woman.
Read the entire poem here.