Friday, May 19, 2006

Same as it ever was

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)


Anonymous said...

While I hope you don't view me entirely as a cockney tranny whore, I'm touched by your sentiment. "Same as it ever was" is a fabulous song by a band that arguably influenced a generation of musicians. To some degree it symbolizes the incomprehensible frailty of living a life within the confines of acceptable society, fully aware that in all likelihood it will all come crashing down on me like the suffocating weight of an ocean.
Perhaps another song I’ve tried to internalize to keep the anxiety at bay is, “Finally woken” by Jem (Jemma Griffiths) which speaks of a spiritual rebirth and freedom. Jem is a phenomenal vocalist to boot.

Anonymous said...

Greetings from Denver, CO; It's certainly been a long time. I finished my MA at OSU (and got an MS.Ed from Penn to boot), however, the PhD was not meant to be. Lasted a year and a half (long story) at Syracuse, met my husband, and moved out here in January. I've told him that the doctorate will happen when I'm about sixty and don't have to worry about the job market any more.

Good to see that you're well, and that English at GW is still thriving. All the best,

Lindsay Metzker Raddeman, CSAS 1998

Karl Steel said...

If I can bust into this old home week, I just want to say, lovely stuff JJC (here and in the post below), and all the best to you "John" as "John" gives way to "Eleanor."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the well-wishes Mr. the Grouchy Medievalist! I need all the support I can get. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I wasn't 6'4", 280 lbs. and bald, huh?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Lindsay: Good to hear from you! Hard to believe it has been 8 years since you left GW (I am fossilizing even as we speak), but glad youa re doing well.

Karl: hey, you belong in this page of reunions and friendships.

John/Eleanor: it is very tempting to write "multiply by .50 to obtain actual statistics" but I won't. And when did you go bald? (look in the comments here for some disparaging remarks about hair loss)

Karl Steel said...

(look in the comments here for some disparaging remarks about hair loss)

Aargh! Mea culpa, mea proxima culpa, since I said "balding" not "bald." Bald is fine!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl: And yet because of that comment, forever preserved in the amber of the internet, you will never be hired by a search committee that includes a member with thinning hair.

Anonymous said...

Karl, just kidding about my being bald. A bad joke for JJC. I'm a whopping 5'4", maybe 150 lbs and possess a thick mane of luxurious curly locks.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Agreed! Attested! I'm mean, what can I say. I take it all back (though if you read carefully you will see that I never actually made the assertion inquestion).

Karl Steel said...

I'm a whopping 5'4", maybe 150 lbs and possess a thick mane of luxurious curly locks.

Whereas I'm made entirely of curly lox.


JJC: my plan? Defensively tonsure myself before interviews. Per my confession, above, I might diminish somewhat, but I'll sacrifice as much as I desire.

Anonymous said...

Whether it's John or Eleanor, it'll still be the same person... Just maybe without some of the male camouflage you were used to? : )

Good luck and best wishes.