John Rykener, Richard II and the Governance of London
By Jeremy Goldberg
Leeds Studies in English, New Series 45 (2014)
Introduction: On the first Sunday of December 1394 between the hours of eight and nine at night, John Rykener was solicited for sex in Cheapside. In the darkness of the winter evening John Britby, a Yorkshireman and innocent abroad, supposedly mistook Rykner by his dress for a woman. The two men adjourned to a side street to do the deed. There they were immediately detected by certain officers of the city ’lying together‘ over [super] astallinalane called Soper Lane’ doing ‘illud vitium detestabile nephandum et ignominiosum’, a knowingly opaque circumlocution that here perhaps signals anal sex. Caught flagrante delicto, they were arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently brought before the mayor’s court. Questioned beforethe mayor, Rykener told how he first dressed as a woman to sell sex and took the working name Eleanor. He then proceeded to confess to a litany of homosexual encounters with friars and secular clergy whilst masquerading variously as an embroideress and as a barmaid, but also heterosexual couplings with both nuns and a laywoman. All allegedly occurred during the course of a prolonged trip to Burford, via Oxford and returning to London by way of Beaconsfield and lastly the lanes by St Katherine’s Hospital just beyond the walls to the east of the city. It is a remarkable narrative.
The unusually full account contained in the London Plea and Memoranda Rolls of John Rykener’s appearance before the mayor’s court is both vivid and dramatic. Its narrative of cross-dressing, male prostitution, gay sex, clerical promiscuity and the like seems to offer a rare window onto late medieval sexuality and sexual mores. The discussion of the case offered by David Boyd and Ruth Karras in 1995 helped firmly to locate Rykener in the history of gender and sexuality. The focus, therefore, has been on the person of John/Eleanor Rykener and what he and the narrative about him can tell us about late medieval constructions of sexuality.
Subsequently the case has stimulated some excellent scholarship. Karras and Boyd themselves argued that Rykener’s cross dressing and his ‘passive’ role when engaged in anal sex with other men points to a medieval understanding of gender as performative. Their view that the mayor’s court was more anxious about Rykener’s gender transgression than prostitution or sodomy has become something of an orthodoxy. Carolyn Dinshaw and Ruth Evans consider the cultural climate of late fourteenth-century London, which Evans comments was ‘a nodal point for the production and dissemination of numerous texts that arebeginning to create a public discourse about political events’. Dinshaw suggests resonances between the 1395 ‘Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards’, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Rykener text. Evans, who is interested in the idea of the cross-dressing, multi-tasking Rykener as ‘imitator’, sees resonances between the Rykener text and Thomas Favent’s slightly earlier Historia Mirabilis Parliamenti.