That detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice

pathelinI’ve finally got a clear sense of the plot to the second Reawakening book, and it’s going to involve a plague. As a result, I’ve spent my weekend reading through a pile of books about medical history and the Black Death. It’s enough to make me very thankful to live in an era of modern medicine and disease control.

I’ve always been fascinated by the 14th century (I’m a Chaucer and Gower fangirl at heart), and although a lot of my reading was grim, it also threw up some references to the more colorful characters of the era, including one I hadn’t encountered before. Here, from London records of 1395, is an account of the questioning of ‘Eleanor’ aka John  Rykener…

On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and 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, who were 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. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed…

You can read the full story of Eleanor’s colorful career and how Victorian scholars suppressed the story over here. It’s a very 14th Century reminder that appearances can be deceptive, the supposedly righteous are never beyond reproach, and just how broad and complex sexuality was even in eras we perceive as being repressive. Unfortunately, history does not record whether “But I totally thought he was a girl” was a good enough excuse to exonerate John Britby.

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