I've been thinking lately about a cross-dressing embroideress from late fourteenth-century London. Perhaps you've heard of John Rykener, AKA Eleanor [ Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans ]. Dressed as a woman, Eleanor John was propositioned by a man named John Britby in 1395 and agreed to have sex with him for a certain sum of money. They were arrested while engaged in this "libidinous act" and brought before the mayor and aldermen of London. To the questioning authorities Eleanor John narrated a life filled with sex acts enjoyed abed and outdoors, sometimes for money or goods, sometimes not; sometimes with men (especially clerics), sometimes with women (including nuns). Much of the time in between these escapades was spent in women's clothing, living a quiet life of embroidery work. The remarkable contemporary document that gives a brief glimpse of Eleanor John's life was published by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras a decade ago ["`Ut cum muliere": A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London," Premodern Sexualities , ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carl Freccero (London: Routledge, 1996) 99-116; the Latin document with an English translation can be viewed in the Medieval Sourcebook]. Carolyn Dinshaw provides a nuanced reading of the text in her book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999), stressing "his/her queer and queering presence" throughout the narrative Eleanor John provides. [For a web accessible but condensed version of Dinshaw's argument, look here]. Rightly so, she contextualizes the legal document with reference to Lollards and the Canterbury Tales; rightly so, she stresses that there is also something untimely about the narrative, something that invites an affective, community-engendering reading.
I've been thinking about Eleanor John in relation to some keen words from the foremost modern philosopher of gender, Judith Butler. I'm a fan of all Butler's work, but have found her recent book Undoing Gender especially useful … and moving. In the introduction she speaks of the necessity, and difficulty, of bringing into being a livable life. That's no sloppy redundancy, but an acknowledgement that contemporary culture is very good at allotting spaces to those who dwell outside the sphere of the normal (as if a mere place were what tolerance is about); these spaces often turn out to be uninhabitable to those who are consigned within. We need a certain openness, she writes, a lack of predetermination when it comes to deciding what it means to be human: "We must learn to live and to embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious and, finally, less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise form our humanness does and will take" (35).
The search for a livable life: that's what it seems to me that Eleanor John was engaged in when apprehended in London in 1395 and compelled to a self accounting. We'll never know, of course, what desires animated Eleanor John; we'll never know if some severe punishment followed the confession to the mayor (no further record survives); we'll never even know what gender Eleanor John would choose, if given the choice-- or maybe for our transvestite-embroideress-prostitute-gigolo a livable life would have consisted in the option of not having to declare a choice, of not having to give a self-accounting that necessitated a self justification.
I write all this because two days ago at what was to be an ordinary lunch in an ordinary restaurant on a nondescript day, a friend confessed that he will, within a matter of months, be living as a woman. This friend – why not call him John? – has initiated hormone therapy and is beginning to live sometimes as (lets keep the medieval analogy going) Eleanor. For the most part the only vocabulary we have today for talking about transexuality involves jokes and tragedy. In John's case the decision and the change are in no way funny (even if John has the good humor to make light of what he can). John has young children. He, his wife, and his kids are close to me, my wife, our kids. We all love John and want him to be happy, but we are all only too much aware of the amount of present and looming pain. Selfishly, I am also mourning the loss of my friend – or, rather, the loss of my fantasy that I knew this friend as he is.
To confess his narrative to me was difficult for John. I could see it as he sat across from me, and as we walked back to my office at GW. He told me afterwards that he suspected I would accept him for who he had revealed himself to be. He knows that my family is queer friendly: many pals who are gays and lesbians, some close friends who live together as a polyamorous quad. But he was nervous all the same, especially because this means a major change not just for him but for his-- and our -- whole family. He and his wife will no longer live together, but will strive to remain best friends.
John, becoming Eleanor, is brave. He faces a wholly uncertain future: What will his kids think? The community? The conservative firm for which he works? Yet he faces that uncertainty with a courage that I can barely comprehend. I'm honored that he confided what he did in me, and I'm happy that he chose this difficult path to creating a livable life over the alternative he had seriously contemplated, suicide.
I will miss John, but "John" was partly a creation of my own ignorance. I will look forward, then, to getting to know Eleanor.
(posted with the permission of "John," who would rather have been compared to Joan of Arc)