More on John Rykener

After I finished writing my recent post about a Guardian review of Ackroyd’s new book Queer City, I found myself still turning over thoughts about one of the figures Ackroyd signally misinterprets, the person named in fourteenth century court records as John Rykener.

Rykener’s case (the details of which are available in this link) is one I’ve often used as a teaching example, in varied contexts. It works alongside Piers Plowman, a real-life example of the verbose and bizarre legal material Langland interpolates into his fictionalised London. It works alongside much earlier romances such as Silence or Yde and Olive, which interrogate questions of gender, nature, nurture, and sexual attraction. It works, above all, to remind students new to medieval literature and culture that there is no such thing as ‘the medieval mindset,’ that cherished concept that allows us to hive off medieval writers, thinkers and readers as somehow ‘other’ than ourselves, more homogeneous, and less worth seeing as individuals. Students new to academic study will often reach for ‘the medieval mindset’ (or, my colleagues tell me, ‘the Renaissance mindset,’ or whatever) because it sounds like a grand, self-assured phrase. Rykener’s case helps to demonstrate just how hollow the concept is, because in the space of a few dense lines of legalistic prose, it depicts several vivid – and different – points of view. Reading the case with care and attention, it’s near-impossible to maintain any fixed claims about ‘the medieval mindset’ regarding sex, sexuality, gender, propriety, or any combination thereof.

The court records – written in Latin, not Middle English – suggest some of this complexity, for much of their interest lies in the fact that Latin, unlike Middle (or modern) English, is an inflected language, a language in which gender is rooted into the grammar. In the book I’m writing at the moment, I look at some of the medieval writers who theorised about what this gendered grammar signified. Did it reflect some ‘natural’ order in the universe? Could disruptions to the ‘natural’ order of sexual interaction between dominant, aggressive men and passive, receptive women also throw the ordered structure of language itself into disarray? And if so, how might sexual transgressions threaten the very fabric of the universe, created as it was from the ‘word’ of God?

These questions linger beneath the Latin of Rykener’s account, and take on new significance as we read the medieval scribe struggling to know which pronouns to use for his strange subject. The account is worth thinking about in detail. We begin with the sonorous, formal opening (which I quote in modern English):

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.

This passage avails itself of plenty of legal jargon and nicely euphemistic phrases, but it fairly breathes its fascination with the scandal of ‘that detestable unmentionable and ignominius vice … [that] libidinous act’. There’s a sense of the personality of the scribe him (almost certainly him) self here, as his pen runs away with his adjectives. Meanwhile, poor John Britby, the second participant in Rykener’s sexual activities, is named not once but multiple times, identified by his place of birth as well as his name, his nose rubbed thoroughly through the muck of a public record of wrongdoing. As Jeremy Golberg convincingly argues, such a detailed and sensational court record suggests further certain glee on the part of the scribe as he exposes a seemingly respectable man brought low.

As the account continues, details of Rykener’s dealings emerge, which make clear that this is no simple case of an isolated incident in a lonely back alley. Several scholars, including Ruth Evans and Jeremy Goldberg, have concentrated on the text’s preoccupation with mercantile interactions and with dishonesty, and Rykener’s reported account of his affairs boasts proudly of the confidence tricks he and the women of his acquaintance perpetrated:

a certain Elizabeth Brouderer 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.

Interpreting this con relies upon knowledge of the legal penalties for sodomy – understood, in medieval law, as a much wider category than we might think, but certainly including amongst its most serious manifestations sex acts between two men. Perhaps Brouderer and Rykener expected the men in question to see through Rykener’s feminine clothing and to pay up for fear of being exposed as having committed a crime more serious than the ‘mere’ fornication they had in fact carried out with young Alice Brouderer. Or, perhaps Alice’s role was to decoy clients to Rykener, exploiting her greater experience or aptitude in that capacity. But the tell-tale mention of the darkness of the rooms in which Alice encountered the men, and into which Rykener was substituted, makes me suspect the former.

Many studies of the Rykener case stop here, or continue only to shed light on the (fascinating and unpleasant) character of Elizabeth Brouderer, whose name appears elsewhere in the court records, associated with trafficking of women for the sex trade. But the women in the Rykener case seem to me as interesting as the men. What are we to make of the role Alice Brouderer played – a role apparently cooked up by her own mother and her mother’s accomplice? What about ‘Anna, a whore,’ who taught Rykener to have sex ‘as a woman’? What about the many women who suddenly press into Rykener’s account in the last lines, as (apparently eager) sexual conquests of Rykener in his masculine dress?

The crucial issue, for me, is the interesting fact that Rykener never claims to have had sex with women while dressing as a woman (though this is a persistent misreading of the case). Were the sexual tastes of the women of late medieval London distinctly different from those of the men, who seemed to accept, be taken in by, or enjoy, Rykener’s appearance ‘as a woman’? Was Rykener himself imposing some kind of distinction between his activities (a distinction underlined by the fact that all the sex with men appears to have had financial motive, whereas the sex with women seems to have been unpaid)? Or – and this is my favourite reading – are these final details of Rykener’s multiple sexual conquests simply included to add insult to injury in the gleeful account of the tricking of multiple men? After all, Rykener’s account boasts, many men were caught out by Rykener and Brouderer – with Britby only the latest – but the women seem all to have been in on the game.

How much of the Rykener accounts are fact, and how much fiction, we will never know. Students of mine often want to inject certainty into the matter, to claim Rykener as a ‘gay man’ or ‘trans woman’ (interestingly, I’ve far less often seen Rykener claimed as bisexual). It’s tempting – but, I think, misguided – to read the incident as a story of sex workers’ habits accepted and only minimally censured by the authorities (misguided, because we’ve no idea what happened to Rykener, and other court records indicate that pessimism would be a sensible position to take). We’d like to think we can impose modern categories onto the past, that we can start talking not about what Rykener did, said, or wore, but about how Rykener ‘identified’. But this is to flatten out historical specificity, to return to an approach to history as one-dimensional as the presumption that we can identify a ‘medieval mindset’. All I think we can do, is to trace out the currents of differing response to Rykener (or perhaps to the fiction of Rykener). We can look at the ways in which the different men – honourable Yorkshiremen; lascivious friars, suspicious ‘foreign men’ – are depicted as sexual partners. We can look at the various depictions of women, from the seasoned deceiver Elizabeth Brouderer to her seemingly pliable daughter Alice, to the ‘Joan, daughter of John Matthew’ who had sex with Rykener while he was dressed as a man. What emerges from the trial records is not an early snapshot of ‘queer’ London, offering an image of modern-looking people in old-fashioned clothes. It’s something much less stable and static: a sense of the diversity of desires and demands, pressures and expectations, criss-crossing medieval London’s written representation of its own scandalous side.

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Ackroyd’s Queer City and the ‘Natural’ Performance of Femininity

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new book, a history of London’s gay history ranging over an expansive 2000 years and titled Queer City, popped up in the Guardian today, and I read it. Andrew Dickson, the reviewer, makes the determinedly impersonal Ackroyd as much the subject of the review as the book itself, making one suspect that the biography of the man would be rather more interesting that of the city – and perhaps rather less prone to winsome ahistorical speculations.

But what interests me in the review (and the review, not the book itself) is the claim, mid-flow, that ‘unlike many chroniclers of gay culture, Ackroyd doesn’t neglect lesbianism’ (“the theory or the practice, sir?”). The details advanced in supporting evidence were delightfully familiar and expected, and especially so to me, as I read this review fresh from thinking about medieval men’s writings about female same-sex desire. We are told of Georgian dildo-selling shops, the account salaciously hedged about with the trappings of oral culture (‘it is said …’), and we’re reminded of ‘cigarillo smoke-filled Edwardian clubs’. These two anecdotes alone seem to be considered sufficient lip service (have I punned enough?) to the idea of a ‘queer’ city whose population extends beyond men. But they’re almost parodically predictable: the first a practice glossed as recognisably ‘lesbian’ because it uses a prosthetic implement resembling a male body part; the other a community tacitly depicted as such because it overtly resembles the stereotypical smoke-filled masculine equivalent. And these same exact characteristics – lesbianism as a practice dependent on a masculine prosthetic; lesbianism as imitation of masculinity – are also what male medieval writers devoted their energies to speculating about.

It could be that there’s simply nothing new under the sun: Ackroyd’s reviewer, Andrew Dickson, is unwittingly participating in a centuries-long trend of viewing lesbianism as masculinity manqué. But Ackroyd himself is credited with a telling quotation relating to one of the most-hyped medieval characters of the ‘queer city,’ the cross-dressing prostitute Rykener:

‘Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.’

The details of Rykener’s case have been chewed over plenty of times by scholars from Ruth Karras and David Boyd to Carolyn Dinshaw to Jeremy Goldberg. They’re found in court records (not, as has been pointed out, quite the unbiased source of information we might imagine), which report Rykener’s own account of his career. Ackroyd rather reads into the account, which quite insistently specifies when Rykener acted ‘as a woman’ (invariably, when conning men or prostituting himself to them) and when he acted ‘as a man’ (when sleeping with women – not, so it would seem, for financial gain). There is no implication that Rykener took on his female dress and persona during sexual interactions with women, but rather that various women already participating in the sex trade were well aware of his habits, and helped in pull off his lucrative deceptions.

But what’s telling is Ackroyd’s careful gloss of the behaviour – which, in the Latin, is described with lingering voyeuristic detail – as something Rykener ‘enacted … quite naturally’. To invoke ‘nature’ is a well-worn polemical gesture, of course, and a gesture that often goes unquestioned in modern LGBT activism. To argue that a fourteenth-century prostitute slipped between gender roles and sexual orientations ‘naturally’ is to mingle justifications of history with the justifications of biology. But it doesn’t wash. Rykener’s accusers don’t characterise his actions as natural or unnatural, but more to the point, Rykener’s own account contradicts Ackroyd’s reading. Rykener, we are told:

‘swore …  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 Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing …’

The practices of dressing and acting like a woman, and of performing whatever euphemised sex act is intended by the phrase ‘this detestable vice’ (and much ink has been spilled on the question), come not from nature but from careful study and teaching. Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

It’s perfectly fair (in my view) for Ackroyd to take a cheerfully magpie-like approach to the ‘queer’ history of London, and fair, too, to put his own spin on the historical records (as plenty of others have before and will again). That’s popular history, and you read it at your own risk. But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.