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The Aforementioned Unmentionable Vice

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 - 07:00

One of the minor themes in this chapter of Dinshaw is the tantalizing window that a detailed legal record can provide of what must certainly have been a more widespread phenomenon. John/Eleanor Rykener is a popular example of gender disruption and category challenge in medieval England, but as Dinshaw points out (in the book--I haven't had space to discuss it all here), there is tangential evidence for that probably "more widespread" context. In addition, there may be a basis for believing that Rykener (or someone with a highly similar story) is reflected in one of Chaucer's characters in Canterbury Tales. In this chapter, one of the primary reasons for discussing Rykener is how their testimony ties in with the Lollard accusation of sexual impropriety among the religious establishment. Does that testimony, indeed, support the claim that sexual indiscretions of all types were rampant in the church? Or is it an example of someone using the popular image of those indiscretions as a distraction from their own sexual transgressions?

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Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6

Chapter 2: John/Eleanor, Dame Alys, The Pardoner and Foucault

The chapter begins with a summary of the legal records concerning John/Eleanor Rykener who was arrested for prostitution and who confessed to having sex with men as a woman, and with women as a man. [Note: The primary publication concerning this historic record is Karras & Boyd 1996] Of particular relevance to Dinshaw’s theme, Rykener specified having sex with both clerics and nuns. (There is no explicit mention of being paid to have sex with women, as there is when having sex with men.) The court records date to two months prior to the posting of the Lollards’ “Conclusions” (their manifesto of principles) and the Rykener case reads as if designed to illustrate their claims about sexual corruption in the church.

Rykener’s story also has echoes in Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale,” involving themes of casual prostitution among London’s working class in the late 14th century. But Rykener holds an unusual position in the English legal record, which is generally devoid of accusations of men for prostitution. Prostitution was understood to be an inherently and essentially female crime.

Although originally arrested for suspicion of prostitution (due to female dress and appearance), the investigation shifted to being for sodomy. And yet Rykerer’s entry into the trade involves feminization not only with regard to sexual activity but in occupation (embroiderer).

Using this jumping off point, Dinshaw uses this chapter to explore the questions Rykener’s interrogation raises, comparing this with Chaucer’s queer character of the Pardoner, and with Foucault’s essay on “the life of infamous men.”

Rykener’s crime is described in the text as “vitium...nephandum” (unmentionable vice) which traditionally alludes to sodomy. Yet there are regular references back to “the aforementioned vice”, highlighting it as unspeakable and yet referenced by previous utterance. The interrogatoin involves many layers of “translation”: an English proceeding recorded in Latin, possibly rendered into the formulaic language of confessional manuals. Our ability to retrieve Rykener's own voice is questionable. [Note: I have been shifting to a practice of using they/them pronouns when discussing individuals whose lives crossed gender lines. However this approach has it's own hazards, especially in flattening the data about how their gender was performed and perceived. The transcript of the trial evidence shifts between male and female pronouns for Rykener in ways that reflect both the speaker's attitude and the interpretive layer of the clerk.]

The emphasis on clerical offenses might come from the concerns of the questioners, or from Rykener’s focus in answering, or from the clerk’s own focus in recording the procedings. Rykener appears to cooperate eagerly, but may have shaped their testimony out of fear of the legal penalty for sodomy. (Technically, the death penalty was called for, but very rarely implemented.)

Rykener presents a category crisis. Despite the initial emphasis on male/male sodomy, the emerging details blur categories of gender and sex acts. Rykener’s description of their own actions strictly follows a heterosexual framing: female with men and male with women, dodging the strict definition of sodomy entirely.

Sodomy isn’t the only queer element present. Why would Rykener choose prostitution as a woman (or even embroidery as a woman) over the more profitable options available to even the poorest of men? Practicality and logic suggest this was not simply an economic strategy. Did Rykener’s male clients all believe themselves to be having sex with a woman? Or did they desire sex with someone falling between categories? Women taught Rykener how to be read as a woman and how to play on gender expectations. To what purpose?

Laws that expected a clear gender binary had no way to address the situation. Despite the detailed interrogation, no formal charges were recorded against Rykener--which doesn’t preclude more informal hazards now that their story was out.

Dinshaw compares Rykener’s categorical indeterminacy with the way Chaucer’s Pardoner is presented (and mocked, in-text) as anomalously masculine (with hints that he might be a eunuch). [There follows a great deal of analysis of Chaucer’s use of language and imagery in general.]

The chapter ends with Foucault’s essay “The Life of Infamous Men” on the context and problems of doing history on persons whose lives emerge only from (often antagonistic) texts. [Note: Foucault seems to be playing on both the derogatory sense of “infamous” and a literal sense of “not famous,” that is, men for whom we don’t have multiple textual sources due to the obscurity of their lives.]

Foucault was struck by the power that such ordinary “real existences” have in contrast to the more mythologized lives of the famous. Although his essay is not specifically commenting on queer history, Foucault’s observation is powerful in the context of trying to document and understand queer lives. Texts such as Rykener’s can create affective relations across time that stand apart from any objective unknowable “truth” of their lives.

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historical