Margaret Paz is a first year graduate student in Comparative & World Literature at San Francisco State University and is interested in gender, science and sexuality in the Middle Ages. She has a bachelor’s degree in Classical Languages and Literatures from the Classics Department at UC Davis and a master’s degree in History specializing in medieval history from San Francisco State University. Currently she works at the History Department at San Francisco State as an administration assistant and works with faculty and students in the department to maintain department functionality. Her primary academic interest is the connections of science, law and culture in shaping gender and sexuality in the high and late Middle Ages through homoeroticism and aberrant behavior. She wants to show a different narrative than the traditional medieval conceptions of a rigid system of laws and codes and show how subaltern or minority narratives show a more rounded image of the Middle Ages.
This project endeavors to explore the cultural conceptions of gender though crossdressing using the ideas of performative gender and morality through sodomy laws constructed during the Middle Ages. The three figures under exploration are that of Silence from the Roman de Silence, Ulrich von Lichtenstein a figure that may have been inspiration for a character within Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, and John/Eleanor Rykener, a 14th century cross dressing prostitute. This analysis of gender and moral society will be done through a case study of how the idealistic notions of gender and abnormality by the three cases under scrutiny were contrasted by medieval conceptions of masculinity, sodomy and sexuality. Silence and Ulrich are examples of an idealistic form of hyper masculinity, that overcomes the act of sodomy and persecution due to being exempla of the male gendered body. Rykener, however, fell into the category of abnormality due to his unique nature as both a prostitute and crossdresser. This idea of cultural normality is built off a notion of masculinity and performative gender within medieval society that was deemed acceptable by the community and helped create a standard for femininity, masculinity and sexuality.
The Well Behaved Rarely Make History: A Case Study of Cross-Dressing in Regard to Sodomy Laws and Gender Constructions in the High and Late Middle Ages
This project endeavors to explore the cultural conceptions of gender, through cross-dressing, the ideas of performative gender and morality, and through sodomy, constructed during the Middle Ages. The three figures under exploration are Silence, from the Roman de Silence, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, a figure that may have been the inspiration for a character within Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, and John Rykener, a 14th-century cross-dressing prostitute. This analysis of gender and moral society will be achieved through case studies of how the idealistic notions of gender and abnormality, by the three cases under scrutiny, contrast with medieval conceptions of masculinity, sodomy, and sexuality. Sodomy acts as a regulator of the church to help consolidate gender expression and sexuality in the cultural sphere, looking to regulate the definitions of the body. By transgressing the cultural boundary in an acceptable way, the structure of sodomy, reaffirms a type of negotiation in the cultural sphere of the Middle Ages. Silence and Ulrich are examples of an idealistic form of hyper-masculinity, which overcomes the act of sodomy and persecution due to being exempla of the male-gendered body. Rykener, in contrast, falls into a category of abnormality due to his unique nature as both a sex worker and cross-dresser. With each case study, there should be a notion of an acceptable form of sexuality and gender normativity, but also a contrast as to what was considered abnormal and against religious and cultural norms. The idea of cultural normality within medieval society was therefore created through a notion of masculinity and performative gender that was deemed acceptable by the social order and helped create a standard for femininity, masculinity, and sexuality.
Up to the 14th century, gender was constructed through culturally held sentiments of masculinity, femininity, and religion, which became the basis of biological understanding of the body; Karras explains this reasoning through her work that brings to light that masculinity needed further contraction to create a male identity. Cultural structure during the Middle Ages, due to ambiguous bodily understanding was difficult to regulate and showcase how the church attempted to control abnormal bodies. To make an argument for performative gender, the case studies within this paper will try to establish medieval sexuality as a culturally constructed concept, created through ecclesiastical and social normativity. Then, the argument will move into the invention and ambiguity of sodomy laws and, finally, interact by looking at one literary figure, one heroic figure, and one obscure example of a crossdresser in their profession as a prostitute as cross-dressing helps show that these laws and sexual identities were constructed in a way that allowed more freedom, creating acceptability to their actions to remain part of the society they navigated. The cross-dressers in this case study were not typically punished if they did not fall too far away from the ambiguous nature of the laws and were correctable to what was considered the natural state.
Moreoever, in looking at Medieval gender constructions, one can start with the argument that the differences in the sexes was not as profound as later renaissance science states. As argued by Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Bodies and Gender from Greeks to Freud, that during the progression of gender construction through a biological understanding, that there is a one-sex and two-sex model. The Middle Ages used the one-sex model, which meant that female and male gendered bodies were all the same, but some physical differences as well as women are just another variation or a “broken” version of the male form, as “the female body was less hot, less perfect…and hence a less potent model of the canonical body” (Laqueur 34-35). Men were considered hot, and women were cold. Therefore, women were still considered subservient to men, being the cold and wet variation of them, and other aspects of life defined what it meant to be female. Men would, therefore, represent the better, opposite aspect of women, as they were said to run hot from childhood onward, but never became cold out of the prime of life as old men. As such, men were never able to become cold like women and always represented a balanced opposition to women. Gender was not so much the physical, but preconceived notions of the way the body worked, naturally. The temperatures of the body created differences in behaviors, while imbalances led to illnesses, so gender needed to be thought of as more than a scientific construction built on biology. With that, gender needed to be constructed around more than a physical body—it needed a constructed and acceptable function within society to create a hierarchy. As women were just another variation of men, there needed to be set cultural constructs and behaviors that would help to define normative gender roles.
Looking at gender as a one-sex model allows for performative gender to come into play and create behavioral boundaries for gender. Performative gender describes behavioral functions within society that help to construct how gender roles are defined. Ruth Karras built one of the most persuasive arguments for what it meant to be male in her work, From Boys to Men. Karras presents the fluidity of masculinity through knighthood, university, and workshops in the late Middle Ages, as she argues there was no set definition for the word itself or the act of being masculine. Karras appears to have the purpose of redefining the ideas of masculinity that were constructed during the Middle Ages and displaying the competitive nature of this fluid identity of masculinity. This idea of competition establishes, “points of transition, what constituted the jump to manhood and how medieval society marked it” (From Boys to Men 3). She argues that there is a dichotomy within the male that was either hyper-feminine (other) or hyper-masculine (patriarchal archetype), and males had gender and an identity based on these ideas for readers to interpret. They also contended with no standard masculine model but were pressured by class, status, and individual competition to move away from what was deemed feminine.
To do this, Karras begins in male childhood and moves into specific fields that men could partake in due to their gender. She begins with a look into boyhood and works her way into three separate case studies of masculinity. The formation of gender normativity for this argument will be based heavily on her ideas of masculinity. Karras moves from childhood into knighthood, showing the competitive nature within the class, creating relationships with other men; describing the usage of females as a currency was one way to construct the masculine form. Karras then moves into the university students, who would deny the animal-like behavior of the newcomers and show masculinity through intellectual competition, as opposed to swordplay. The university students also placed their sexual frustrations and desires on the females— especially? sex workers, who serve as apertures for sexual and gender exploration. To conclude her argument, Karras’s third case study is that of the urban craftsman, who attained a level of survivability through owning his trade’s workshop, also providing for his wife and family. The goal was to become a master craftsman and leave behind the childishness of apprenticeship, serving as a more masculine male who has achieved the status of master, as, “Their dependence did not make them feminine, but they could not achieve full adult civic masculinity, so they might turn to other means, including violence, to demonstrate their manhood” (From Boys to Men 110). All three cases include the woman as an intermediary of the way masculinity is formed, as she plays a role as an outlet or part of the formation of masculinity. A man had to conform to societally gendered constructions to confirm their masculinity. Karras is using postmodern discourse and seems to be disputing the idea that gender formation was built around the physical body, but then built upon this notion, including that of the formations of separate ways to be male, or performative gender as a definition for the masculine.
All of these forms contain the woman as a middle marker for men competing, in each case, to become what is deemed masculine, yet her role is still considered separate from the power associated with the male formation of masculinity or challenging it. “Women as signs and as stand-ins, mediated relations between men” (From Boys to Men 25). Therefore, as Karras argues, masculinity is also looked at as an ideological, social construction, over the construction of the masculine form— as a biological structure alone—and included a formation period as well as different outlets of masculinity that appear to shift with cultural changes in the Middle Ages. Therefore, masculinity was about denying the femininity within, and it became a competition of sorts between the young men themselves, in what it meant to be considered a man within the later Middle Ages.
However, there is less of a functioning construction for women. As the subservient form of men, women were either one of two types, Mary—good chaste, and Christian and Eve— indulgent and disobedient. These two figures served as a moral and gendered role model for women. Women were bargaining chips within the three important constructions of gender for men. However, while there are other constructions for women, the idea of chastity and virtue remains the same in each form. Qualities such as virginity could be reformatted through performative gender, where the women had the capability of “reformulating the self as virginal” (Salih 5), meaning that the female body also contended with the reformulation of gender constructions, yet there was still natural order. The idea of performative gender means that women enacted their gender norms for their specific moment in time, whether they were to have children or act as the bartering tools for male masculinity (Salih 31). The fluidity of ideological structures means gender itself is a fluid moving idea; it changes as society changes and understands the behavioral aspects of their bodies.
Moreover, sodomy versus Procreative gender roles comes into opposition as the church tries to regulate this fluidity in gender. In The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Mark Jordan conceptualizes the origins of the term, Sodomy, in Christian doctrine. As Jordan states, “Medieval theologians invented sodomy …and the category was built with material from earlier texts” (1). It was usually placed on acts that were deemed anti-Christian or on an opponent of the church, such as Islam, which Jordan remarks helped set a standard for the antagonist to the church. Sodomy was meant to function “…to disentangle the retellings …from the ambivalent relations of Iberian Christianity to the same-sex love it thought was preached and practiced by Islam.” (Jordan 10). The church literature paints Islamic figures as sodomites in order to create sodomy as an opponent to Christianity and morally wrong.
Sodomy went through historical phases, changing forms from blasphemia and luxuria to finally sodomia, becoming the primary definition for the acts of sexual indulgence. It is always ambiguous, and acts of sodomy never get described. As sodomy was an “enormous digression on the sin against nature,” it was indicative of indulgent sex, homoerotic vices and, through the works of Thomas Aquinas, was even comparable to rape and incest (Jordan 94). The church father, through Jordan’s argument, demonstrates, “the anxiety that Sodomy is not repulsive—that it is immensely attractive” (107). The fear of sexual desire and duplication of acts of sodomy keeps the works ambiguous surrounding acts of sodomy, in order to control any ideas of replicating acts of sodomy. Even the penitential literature never claims what constitutes sodomy other than that it is unnatural; not one act is given a definition, leaving the definition up to interpretation. The only aspect of the crime of sodomy described by church definitions is that sodomy is an act against God and consequently must be stopped.
Therefore, Sodomy was never really defined—just illustrated through tales of martyrs and ambiguous laws to ensure there was no replication of the acts themselves. This idea of not defining sodomy allows for some flexibility in the idea of medieval sexuality and how the body could be perceived. As such, due to this fluidity and laws not being defined, Cross-dressing was done quite prolifically during the Middle Ages and gave birth to chivalric romances, saints, heroes, and prostitutes. Sodomy laws could not regulate these types of performative acts due to their very nature and the ambiguity of the sodomy laws. Cross-dressing was therefore in a middle ground between acceptability and denunciation due to the conflicting ideas of sodomy laws and constructed sexuality.
To show this tension between sodomy laws and performative gender, Le Roman de Silence, dated to the early 13th century, features a character who, throughout the work, dresses in opposition to their natural gendered body. It tells the story of the Duke of Cador, who only has a daughter, when the king of England makes a law that women cannot inherit from their fathers or become heiresses. In order to get around this law, the Duke raises his daughter as a boy for their entire life, so they inherit his kingdom. Cador names them Silence. Silence, therefore, has to become a male, not by choice, but because of how they were raised. This idea of raising a child according to one’s desires brings tension between two opposing forces, nature and nurture. Silence then has to perform appropriately even though another character has attempted to prevent this performative male role from the very beginning of her story. Nature, who is a character first seen at the birth of Silence, comes and blesses the child with extreme beauty. This extreme beauty meant Silence, from appearance, would be very hard to masquerade in their in male guise. Though the parents nonetheless announce that they had a boy and have the child perform how they wish them to as a male, in order to hide their beauty and take attention away from feminine aspects.
Le Roman de Silence provides an excellent example of gender roles during the middle ages. Le Roman de Silence not only deals with gender but, again, this idea of the medieval body. Silence as a character is a good insight into gender and sexuality due to their fluidity as male, female, and a neutral force. The character is troubled by the acts of living as a woman as well as the fact that they were raised as a man, yet, the character performs accordingly, dependent on the guise they have donned at that moment. Silence’s transgender appearance in the romance makes them an interesting character, in that they break away from the normality of medieval church constructions of procreative gender, yet, they are still captured by it. Silence has a fluidity in their guises and therefore, cannot be beholden to sodomy laws that would have been in place. Silence’s body and actions allow for them to conform to the performative gender standards of the gender they are currently using within the work; in essence, they can become both male and female depending on the situation at hand.
Moving forward, Silence is raised as a man to inherit what was left to them, but they are not a male, and if they were female, they would not be able to inherit at all. Silence struggles throughout the book about whether she is female or male, and is always on the cusp of not having a real identity. In order to inherit, Silence must be a man, even if biologically they are female, they must perform as a male within their cultural sphere, “when the child was old enough to realize he was a girl” (Le Roman de Silence 2439-2440). Silence was very much aware of the physical aspects of their body, yet, has to continue to perform. It can be said that the body, physically, is not the aspect that creates the gender, because Silence is always in between both genders and it is not their physical body in turmoil but, their mind. In the end, Nature wins, and Silence goes back to being a woman and inheriting, which is a bit unsatisfying, but there is no space “between genders” in medieval culture, and biological reproduction is typically the resolution to these issues. The issues with defining gender can also be due to the fact that there is no set definition of gender, as nature and nurture debate sexuality at the very first lines of the play, allowing Silence to cross gendered boundaries (Hotchkiss 9). The author uses a neutral variation of this name when they talk of Silence—male pronouns when Silence is doing masculine feats, and female when Silence is acting as a woman should. They are the perfect knight, besting the men at all the knightly games, which solidifies their guise as a male. The author has a great interest in the proper place of gender within the hierarchical system concerning gender during the Middle Ages.
The interest in Gender is shown through the foreshadowing that Silence will not remain as a man when Nature comments, “They have insulted me…by acting as if the work of Nurture were superior to mine!” (Le Roman de Silence 2266-2268). Nature clearly will win in the end, as even when nurtured to be a man, Silence is physically a woman and can see this in their body, which would eventually change their mind into that of a woman. That the mind can be nurtured in a way to change mannerism, and not the body, shows gender as a performative act instead of a biological one. This idea of nurturing is an aspect of performative gender, and the actions are deemed acceptable by society in order to create constructions of gender. Le Roman de Silence is also unsettling to the ideals of governance in the Middle Ages, and to gender, as Silence cannot be a father or give birth to children in their male form. Nature’s creation of Silence is thwarted by Cador, who gives his child a neutral name and a masculine upbringing, and, therefore, goes against Nature’s wish to create the most beautiful girl. Cador creates a male out of his child in order to preserve his line and, therefore, ‘silences’ an aspect of his family—his daughter’s real gender. Silence’s body is therefore subject to the social contractions of inheritance and patriarchy, yet they cannot inherit unless their physical body is that of a man nor could they make children unless they were to live as a woman again.
The author is clearly showing gender roles, especially through the character of Silence, taking care to use proper pronouns when describing characters’ actions, including Silence when they perform their gendered roles. We see this especially with Eufeme, the wife of King Evan. Heldris had a great interest in performative acts of gender that were deemed either acceptable or denounceable within society. Eufeme is a straight caricature of everything a woman should not be. She speaks her mind, has a sexual drive, and presents this Eve dichotomy as a warning to women, reading the romance, not to be this type of lady. She contrasts greatly with Euphemia, Silence’s mother, who is obedient, chaste, and loving to her husband. Eufemia is a warning to what performative gender does not allow, as, “A woman’s role is to keep silent. So, help me god, I think a mute can tell what women are good for.” (6399-6402). This idea of an archetype to gender goes further still, because descriptions of Eufeme also present that she is, “always quick to think of something clever in such circumstances. She is much quicker at finding ways to harm a man than at thinking up something beneficial” (5014-5016). The author is very much telling us what gender roles need to be regarded by these two main characters. There is danger in not conforming to the idea of constructed gender; a woman has her place, as does a man, within this society. Silence, however, does not conform to either construction, in the sense that they are neither construction. They choose when to perform as one or the other construction, dependent on whom they have to display at the moment.
The king needed help to catch Merlin, since only a woman could catch him. Nature wins over nurture with Silence, as a woman, and they can catch Merlin. “Not for a hundred thousand pounds sterling would the king ever have wanted Silence to come back. Moreover, now he was furious with Merlin because Merlin had said he would never be taken except by a woman’s trick.” (6174-6179). Overall, Silence is both the perfect male and the perfect female. As a man, Silence performed knightly duties, fought, and performed perfectly, as the male heir to their father. Silence was nurtured into this role, however, and does have conflicts; they are aware she is Silence; if any knight knew “that a tender, soft, faint-hearted woman…” had outperformed him as a male, and knocked him down, “he would have been ashamed” (5157-5161). Silence’s inner conflict is in their name. They may not speak about their turmoil but must do as they are told. They play the role of the boy their parents wanted, with the same nature as a woman listening to their parents to go into a marriage. Silence is, in a sense, the perfect female and male depicted in one body, outperforming everyone by being a knight and by capturing Merlin. Silence is a neutral force that must be the proper girl listening to their parents and the proper knight as she is portraying a man.
How Silence succeeds in being an acceptable body, without performing procreative sexual duties, this is the narrative that was meant to be shown to the societal majority. Nature will always beat out nurture, which allows gender to be performative. In the end, Silence is overall a correctable threat. How this is done is through Silence outperforming the men and needed to be corrected and, in the end, they do become a woman again publicly. This public visage is partially explained by the idea that, ” although the transvestite may seem to challenge traditional definitions of social roles according to anatomy, at the end of her/his story the cross-dressed heroine is always integrated into an aristocratic society whose stability is maintained through marriage and reproduction” (McCracken). What Silence does is more important than who they are physically, as the author portrays Silence as both a hyper-masculine male and, then, a proper feminine figure. Silence is then able to present both roles. The author appears to be making a statement about the roles women and men played—that these roles must be in their proper function in order to sustain order, and gender must abide by the hierarchical order of medieval society, being that women do womanly things, and men do manly things. Therefore, gendered behavior must be based on the body given to the individual by biological gender and defined behaviorally.
Thinking about behavior brings us to the next case study. Ulrich von Lichtenstein (1200-1275) was a member of the ministerialis class, or serfs raised to hold high positions of power, even if they were servants. He was a poet, a writer, and an unbeatable knight, having been knighted by his lord later in his life. Overall, Ulrich is not considered obscure, his fame being played into his knighthood over his identity as a cross-dresser.He was a prolific knight, even possibly gracing Chaucer’s work in the Knights Tale as one of the figures within the work.Ulrich’s work as a writer and poet makes him stand out, as Ulrich wrote works for free nobles, other ministerialis, and knights, to follow a genuinely chivalric life.He lived up to the idea of the knight impressing the lady and his work the Frauendienst,which is his autobiographical outlook on chivalric knighthood and masculine values.
The most intriguing part of this work is his Venusfahrt,which is the moment he documents his struggles to court a lady with whom he has fallen in love. It stands out as an obscure occurrence within medieval literature in the fact that Ulrich himself performs this stunt wearing female clothing and acting feminine. As stated by scholar Vern Bullough, cross-dressing among men could be seen as acceptable under certain circumstances, when there was an illusion of the female and when the male in drag was performing a function that society wanted and desired but would not allow women to do (240). he fact that Ulrich is a knight separates him from femininity and allows him continued denial of the feminine. As stated by James Schultz, who draws from Michel Foucault and the theory of scientia sexualis and the history of homosexuality, Ulrich is still within a heteronormative bubble by performing to impress a lady (“Parzival, Courtly Love, and the History of Sexuality” 32). Schultz states that heteronormative realities have created a discourse when dealing with the concept of sexuality and the Middle Ages. Ulrich is performing and not addressing his sexual orientation, therefore he is staying within normative societal functions of sexuality.
Moving forward in this event of the Venusfahrt, Ulrich went along the countryside after he fell in love with the lady he serviced and, in order to gain her favor, he dressed as Venus and challenged men to joust with him. Ulrich reiterated his desire: “I was so full of joy to know my undertaking to please her so” (cited in Frankki, line 470). However, he falls in love with another lady during one mass and is stricken very closely with love sicknesses but forces his eyes away to direct his gaze back to the first lady for whom he has dressed like Venus. This could be his way of avoiding lovesickness as well, for he is aware of his joy for pleasing the woman versus the knight within the knight’s tale that states, “And in his behavior, he acted not only as if he had the lover’s sickness of Eros, but rather like madness sprung from melancholy in the cell of imagination in his brain” (Chaucer 1379). By staying focused on his singular love interest, Ulrich avoids the sodomy act of adultery or indulging in his quest to please his lady and, therefore, avoids illness or condemnation.
Within The Knight’s Tale, the Knight is physically ill from being away from the object of his love, and his focus is so farfetched he has lost sight of his desires and is solely focused on the lady, yet, Ulrich is also making his Venus “journey” for his pleasure. The imbalance of bile from being unable to see one’s love had such an adverse effect that, “The intellect that dwelt in his sick and sore heart began to wane just as the heartfelt death” (2810). Very early on, Ulrich states that he is well and happy to saunter around, as the women do, on his own accord, as he can joust and choose to perform acts to please her and he is aware that even in a thousand years he may never attain her (Arbor 148).
As a knight and as a man, this was a pleasant journey for him to undertake to please the women to whom he had devoted his affections. For twenty-nine days he rode along from Bohemia, Carinthia, Friuli, Lombardy, and Styria, adorned in luxurious clothing and jewelry as the lady Venus or the goddess of love. Ulrich states, “My bowing and my turning took a long time. I was walking merrily the way women do (943-944).” He worked to gain the favor of his lady and was said to have broken 307 spears, meaning he won that many jousts, and he gives gold rings to everyone that honorably jousted with him. He had attended mass as the lady Venus and even had women following him who were either aware or not that Venus was a man in disguise. It all goes back to the roles a man can play—knight, student or guild master—as Karras points out. Also, the very placement of the journey as Venus shows Ulrich’s emphasis on the idea that, “Most important for the current study is the Venusfahrt’s unique portrayal of a topic only rarely discussed in the European Middle Ages, the practice of male transvestism” (Frankki 3). Ulrich emphasizes this is by the fact that the journey was the most well-documented part within the journey, showing Ulrich felt this journey was the most important to impress his lady, at the cost of defying his gender, yet still performing by normal masculine values.
Ulrich is, in essence, humiliating the other men because after they lost, they had to submit to his guise of Venus, as performative gendered standards would still hail him more masculine for winning his jousts. He was making them submit to a woman in a sense, as she defeated them in battle. He is, in essence, still more a man than they are by trying to gain the love of his lady as a knight. Being Venus adds more to the image of a knight, as “Queen Venus provides a mock parallel to the lady on the pedestal, for her presence not only inspires the knights to battle at her feet, when she is seated on the balcony, she has the power to stop the fight when it is inconvenient for her” (Dussere 303). Even so, Ulrich outperformed the other men, and after this, he paraded around as an even manlier figure of King Arthur, before returning back to his wife and lands as a representation of chivalry. He did this all through honorable combat without changing how masculine perceptions of knights did battle and kept to the safe gender role a man should have. Moreover, as Ulrich writes, she did what any noblewoman does, she keeps her virtue and spurns his affections and has him do even more deeds such as mutilation and other acts of valor . He avoids the idea of deviance since, “the process of acculturation follows a binary organization of male/female which requires coordination of genitalia and body and which excludes any third term as ‘deviant,’ as a contradiction of a ‘natural’ system” (McCracken 2).
Therefore, unlike Silence, Ulrich was not a correctable threat but, rather, a very extended look at a hyper-masculine example that wore feminine clothing, though many were either quite aware he was male or were not aware at all. Even with the argumentation that femininity restricts men more than women because they are becoming secondary sex, Ulrich is not restricted by this code, as he is performing no adultery or indulgent sexual acts but, instead, performing the normative role as a knight (Hotchkiss 9). He did this satirically and, therefore, no one batted an eye,—not the church and no other vassals and lords. His aberrant dressed appearance was meant to emphasize his masculine identity and reaffirm that even while altered, he was still an ideal masculine example. Ulrich performed acceptable cultural acts of masculinity, even in his guise of Venus, and did not perform sexual acts, which kept him safe in his role as a male. Both Silence and Ulrich protected their gendered form by either confirming or returning to their natural state, or as Karras notes, “identified people by behavior rather than by desire or orientation” (Common Women 12). What this does is create ambiguity that allows fluidity and this, in turn, translates to the idea of sodomy that would try to regulate these interactions. However, ambiguity creates room for the law not to know how to handle figures that do not conform to a standard.
The next figure presented is a sex worker, a profession that St. Augustine called a necessary evil. Prostitutes were compared to sewers, something disgusting but necessary, to help the society stay clean as a whole. Karras argues even the sanctioning of brothels by officials did not condone the improper actions of the women who were involved. What can also be argued and is quite acceptable is that, the “line between a respectable woman and a whore was a vague one” (Common Women 88). The prostitute, as Karras argues, provided a way to protect women from male sexual advances by being a wall between good women and indulgent sex. Prostitutes already crossed the line by being an antithesis to Christianity as a profession of indulgent sex, yet they are considered a necessary profession for the protection of the community.
The only record of John/Eleanor Rykener is their inquisitorial arrest record; they were arrested in December of 1349 in London. Little is known of their life, and they have remained an enigma of gender studies that sits as an odd case. Rykener was a cross-dressing prostitute also known as Eleanor. They were questioned on two separate offenses, prostitution and sodomy. Rykener worked as an embroideress and a prostitute to make their living, and when they were arrested in December, they were caught still wearing their dress and performing fellatio. The record stated, “brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. Moreover, the Aldermen of the City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener, calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing” (Boyd and Karras 111). The record first must demonstrate that John was calling himself Eleanor and that this was the state in which he was brought in. The record must also note that the one brought in, on questioning, is not female but draws special attention to the fact he is male. Next, they bring up his crime as sodomy and prostitution as, first and foremost, they must establish an ambiguous vice to bring him in on sodomy charges, such as Rykner was “…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” (Boyd and Karras 105). The usage of vice over fellatio remains with medieval standard records on sodomy, as the acts cannot be described to ensure there is no replication of said acts.
As Karras states, Rykener was already on ambiguous grounds as, even with normative professions as women, the marker of a whore was present to be placed upon them. She iterates that, “the equation of laundress and whore was made. Both the prostitute and the laundress had some connection with filth, but laundresses most likely acquired a reputation for prostitution because they were among the few women who frequently came and went from all-male households” (Common Women 54). For Rykener, being an embroideress was a different job option, for if he visited males while in this profession there was still a likelihood that he would be considered a whore. Also, his need to work after the Black Death situated him in a woman’s profession, placing him on a strange ground of needing an income while being around other women who may have indulged in prostitution to offset their lack of monetary gain. This stigma was more accusatory than the cross-dressing nature, yet, there were no charges of sodomy brought on by prostitution itself. The most significant interest, however, is paid to his cross-dressing and not to the prostitution, as “Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act” (105).
During his interrogation, we learn a great deal about his sex life, where he prostituted himself to men and woman, including priests and nuns. He states that he first cross-dressed while in a needlework apprenticeship since, after the bubonic plague, it was quite common for boys to do this style of work. The record states that a woman, Anna, who inquisitors kindly call a whore, taught him this detestable act. What is interesting about this record is that, very much throughout the report, the inquisition tries to establish who taught him how to cross-dress, from accusing the servant of Thomas Blount to placing blame in Elizabeth Brodner. The record states, “[He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Brondner first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust. This places her with those men in their beds at night without a 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” (111). This establishes the relation of Alice and Elizabeth as possible prostitutes, but again notes John may have misbehaved, though they also mention his behavior is offset by the fact he was cross-dressing.
The inquisitor repeatedly situates John as a cross-dresser to show that he is going against performative gender standards and committing lewd acts, as a case of sodomy, which would not fully understand sexual orientation and for which it would be easier to relegate a punishment. John, however, is ambiguous in all regards. If John were merely a male prostitute, he would not be charged, as this profession was not fully denounceable and somewhat acceptable as a necessary evil within society. In his masqueraded form, John possibly performed normative procreative acts, which the records do not discuss, leaving out whether he was penetrating or penetrated, which makes it hard to draw a verdict against his behavior. As noted by Cordelia Beattie, “it is noticeable that, according to the record, the men had sex with him, whereas he had sex with the women” (156). Scholars also working on gender in the Middle Ages argue that, due to his relations with a male rector, there were motivations behind his prostitution, that he could have possibly blackmailed an enemy or be used as blackmail for having sex with him. Rykener could still be performing as Silence had, that they were performing according to the role they were in at that moment and therefore committing no sodomy acts as defined by the non-procreative definition.
The record remains as ambiguous as it starts, as it tries more to situate Rykener’s accomplices in teaching him how to dress as a woman, than it does to determine with whom he was having sex. He even admits to readily accommodating priests because they paid him better than other clients. Furthermore, “Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others” (Boyd and Karras 112). But, the record talks more of his escapades dressing as a woman than of his shameful sex acts. Someone society deemed acceptable, such as priests and nuns, took indulgent pleasure and committed sodomy by the very definition. One can argue this is not argued further within the record because it would draw attention to the very backers of the inquisition and formation of sodomy laws and that is the church.
Ruth Karras believed Rykener was just like any other prostitute, creating a living and making money where they could when their profession did not pay enough, while others argue that he was a way to blackmail men. Either one knew that Rykner, in his female form, was male, or they fell prey to the act of sodomy, which was to accuse his sexual partner and threaten them, such as, “and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife of a certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him” (Boyd and Karras111). In the end, though, we never know if he was charged for his crimes; prostituting skirts a fine line of acceptance while still retaining the aspect of immorality. Rykener, therefore, already sits on ambiguous grounds as a prostitute, but his cross-dressed, meaning he took a cultural aspect of society and twisted it to charge Rykener with sodomy. As stated earlier, the record is only interested in establishing Elizabeth and Alice as his accomplices, and placing Rykener in the form of a man dressed a woman, as opposed to with whom he was having sex. They also illuminate his actions, such as an instance where Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’s. When Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife of a certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back” (Boyd and Karras 111), focusing again on the gowns as opposed to the fact that the rector committed sodomy through indulgent sex. Remaining more interested in his cross-dressing, the court still skirts the line of ambiguity by making his acts in repeatable and not describing them, while using their interest in his cross-dressing as a means to show an action that they deemed unacceptable to society as a whole.
Historians have dealt with Rykener by having him show as an example for medieval sexuality’s inability to form a solid definition of gender, and as a way to show that finding a punishment for cases of sodomy and gender was complicated since there were no strict laws against it.Rykener performed the procreative act with women, though it was indulgent, while he committed sodomy or same-sex desire with men.They were both male and female having two separate identities and a prostitute in both, leaving him in a vacuum between normative versus abnormal gendered behavior.He is an example of the medieval incapability to structure firm gender boundaries by either science or culture; the need for ambiguity leaves Rykener in a place of near safety, and freedom of the expression of abnormal sexual desire.
There was a safety for male abnormal sexual behavior, as opposed to that of women. Silence needed correction and Ulrich did not. For Rykener, they did not have to face punishment either for prostitution that was already morally a gray subject, nor for sodomy that did not have a clear definition.Sodomy could not accomplish its desired function, which was to regulate sexuality, due to its very nature and the idea of performative gender as an offset to biological gender to help define hierarchical roles.In the end, medieval gender was so ambiguous, undefinable, and faulty, that there was a level of freedom, dependent on the categorized gendered role an individual performed.
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