Article Title:History: My Sweet Lady John
Category:Comment
Author or Credit:Craig Young
Published on:13th April 2006 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:1195
Text:While investigating London city archives for historical records about fourteenth century sex work, two researchers unearthed the story of one Eleanor Rykener, brought before the courts in 1394... whose real name was John. Ruth Karras was writing a book on the subject of sex work in England during the Middle Ages, and uncovered a single instance of male sex work during that period. In 1394, the Plea and Memorandum Role of the Corporation of London Records Office recorded the case of Eleanor/John. Besides being the only case that involves gay male sex work, it is the only such case to also involve drag. In court, after his actual sex was uncovered, John confessed to sex work as Eleanor, dressed in women's clothing, while client John Britby claimed to be ignorant of Eleanor's actual gender within the records. How did Eleanor/John come to take up the world's oldest profession? Eleanor/John was unofficially apprenticed to one Elizabeth Brouderer (an embroiderer), who aided and abetted her apprentice to procure sex work in drag with priests, secular petty officials, merchants, students and labourers as well. As a male, John had nondrag sex with nuns, housewives and unmarried women for free. In discussing John's case, Carolyn Dinshaw observed wryly that this must have been a shock to England's fourteenth century proto-Protestant Lollard heresy/reform movement, given their conservative views about male clergy 'sodomy.' Dinshaw speculates that "Rykener" might have been a trade name, as it meant 'to reckon' or 'to pay money for' - an apt last name for a sex worker who apparently raked it in as an assumed woman. Unfortunately, there are some questions left unanswered by the court records. Some are easily resolved. John wasn't charged for sodomy at a church court - or if he was, then no court record survived the English Reformation of the 1530s or the Civil War of the 1640s. Rather, according to Karras and David Boyd, her co-researcher, John's 'crime' was seen as cross-dressing, which enabled his sex work as Eleanor and commercial sex with men. In late fourteenth century England, it was usually the civil courts that heard cases of sex work, while church courts handled sex-related defamation, fornication (extra-marital sex) and adultery. As for 'sodomy,' there are comparatively few records within London church court records for their duration, apart from one fifteenth century case that never made it to court and was called off. As noted though, if John was tried for sodomy in a church court, no such record remains. Also unanswered are questions about how John came to adopt Eleanor as a persona for sex work. Did Elizabeth Brouderer suggest that as John may have been a 'pretty man,' that he could pass for female, and get money for his sister act as Eleanor? Did Elizabeth, and/or John's sex worker mentor Anna, train him to masquerade as a woman for purposes of commercial sex transactions? Or did John get the idea himself, and did he ask for Elizabeth and Anna's assistance? Did he like dressing up as a woman, and did he like sex with men as well? Karras notes in her book on the subject of medieval sex work that Elizabeth might have had a track record in convincing female apprentices to take up sex work to supplement their earnings, which could clarify matters, if it were proven that this was the same woman. However, there is a frustrating lack of supplementary evidence to identify the two accounts as referring to the same woman. Did Eleanor's clients know who she really was? In her book on medieval sex work, Ruth Karras implies that if John escaped detection, then that may imply that full nudity wasn't essential for street sex work, or that penetrative vaginal sex may not have been necessary for sex workers either. However, Karras cautions that Eleanor/John's case was the only case of male and transgender sex work on record within the archives, so it may not be possible to generalise from his case. For transgender it was- and today's trans rights activists might be pleasantly surprised to encounter the use of appropriately female gender pronouns when it came to describing Eleanor's confession. What happened to Eleanor/John afterward? Unfortunately, we don't know. There is no record of the actual verdict, which suggests that either the case was perplexing to the civil and church courts, so we don't know whether Eleanor/John was let off with a warning, or whether he was fined, or whether he simply left London and travelled as Eleanor to ply his trade in another city. Eleanor glides into history, leaving not even a lavender-scented kerchief as a trace of her subsequent whereabouts. Recommended: Ruth Karras and David Boyd: "The Interrogation ofA Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London" GLQ 1 (1995): 459-465. Ruth Karras and David Boyd: "Ut Cum Muliere: A Male Tranvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London" in Louise Fradenberg and Carlo Frecerro (eds) Premodern Sexualities: New York: Routledge: 1996. Carolyn Dinshaw: "Good Vibrations: Eleanor/John, Dame Alys, the Pardoner and Foucault" in Carolyn Dinshaw: Getting Medieval: Durham: Duke University Press: 1999. Ruth Karras: Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England: New York: Oxford University Press: 1996. Richard Wunderli: London Church Courts on the Eve of the Reformation: Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America: 1981. Craig Young - 13th April 2006    
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