A Queer Past the Censorship, by Gabe

A record dated to January 1395 sees the ‘Examination of two men charged with immorality, of whom one implicated several persons, male and female, in religious orders’[1]. Arthur Hermann Thomas, the person who wrote that summary in 1932, skimmed very briefly over the true complexities of the case of Eleanor Rykener.

Arrested in the streets of London wearing women’s clothing, Eleanor Rykener was brought to court. They were taken in with a man, John Britby, as both had been caught ‘committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice’[2]—or in other words, a sexual act.

As Eleanor was a prostitute, this was nothing too surprising. What made this case so unique was the fact that Eleanor was assigned male at birth.

The following interrogation of Eleanor conducted by the Lord Mayor’s Court in London addresses them using their legal name and masculine pronouns. Yet, as they introduced themself as ‘Eleanor’, I shall use that name for them. As for the pronouns, I decided to use ‘they/them’ as a gender neutral option given that Rykener lived life as a woman; not only did they confess to presenting as a female sex worker, but they also worked as a barmaid and an embroideress.

Applying modern terms to a person who was unable to use such labels comes with its own array of issues, but the fact that they confessed to sleeping with both men and women as well as living as a woman within and outside of their sex work does tell us a few things. We know Eleanor had interest in both men and women, that they did not conform to their gender assigned at birth, nor the gender roles of the time, and that they presented feminine.

Regardless of what modern labels they may or may not have chosen, Eleanor is just one of many examples that the LGBTQ+ community has always existed, even outside of the available terminology, freedoms, and rights we have today. The arguments that the growth of our community is a ‘modern phenomena’ is indeed, incorrect. We have always existed. Rykener proves as such.

Our history was made murky through suppression—living in England in the 1300’s would certainly make you want to hide too—and those whose identity was discovered would not have had a happy end. On top of that, figures of the past have also had their queerness overlooked, ignored, or out right erased; Thomas’ summary of Rykener’s case irons out a lot of the intricacies which aligns it with anything LGBTQ+.

It is undeniable that things have improved, but the struggle for our rights is still an uphill battle. Yet, I find it comforting to look to the past. Knowing that we have evidence of those who existed before us throughout the ages proves we have been here the whole time. Seeing records of their deeds, their lives, knowing their names—it is a comfort, a strong human connection to know that, even after all this time, we see them. We know them.

We’ve always been here, and we always will.


Gabe is a MRes Medieval Studies Student at the University of Reading.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

[1] ‘6 Feb. 1395, Membr. 2. Roll A 34: 1394-95’, in; A. H. Thomas, (ed.), Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume 3, 1381-1412 (London, 1932), pp.228-232, available from: British History Online, [website], http://www.british-history.ac.uk/plea-memoranda-rolls/vol3/pp228-232, (accessed: 16 February 2023).

[2] Fordham University, ‘Internet Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of Eleanor Rykener (also known as John), A Cross Dressing Prostitute, 1395’, [website], available from: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp, (accessed: 16 February 2023).

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