Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Cisgender Turn: John Britby's View of Eleanor Rykener


"Qui quidem Johannes Britby inde allocutus fatebatur quod ipse per vicum regium de Chepe die dominica inter horas supradictas transiens, dictum Johannem Rykener vestitu muliebri ornatum, ipsumque mulierem fore suspicantem fuerat assecutus, petens ab eo, tanquam a muliere, si cum ea libidinose agere possit."

The Interrogation of Eleanor Rykener
London 1394
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Introduction

On December 11th, John Britby (Johannes Britby) claims to have been walking down Cheap Street around 8:00-9:00 P.M., where and when he turned on and accosted (petere) a local person, Eleanor Rykener (recorded also as John Rykener by the scribe of the account). He affirms that she presented as a woman and indeed that he considered her a woman. Britby solicited Rykener for sex work. He paid her and they went to a local horse stall to complete the transaction. Soon after, they were both turned on and accosted by local law enforcement, then brought to court. Therein Britby told his story and how he viewed the case of Eleanor Rykener.

This is the story of Eleanor Rykener from John Britby's perspective and it is important to consider. First, it is socially important to also recognize that before Rykener is allowed to enact her agency in the exchange with Britby, he is the one to accost her. He turns on her before she can turn on him or even turn back on herself to set limits and costs for her body. Second, it is narratively important to recognize that before Rykener is allowed to tell her own history, the cisgender man gets to speak first. Before the transgender turn to the story, we get the cisgender turn.

The first interaction between Britby and Rykener is the man's accosting of the trans woman. In Latin, the word used is "petere." This means "to ask, to seek, to pursue" but also "to desire, to attack." According to Britby's story, it was him as the cisgender man who enacted the initial blow of power that set the rest of the events into motion. He sees her. He approaches her. He talks to her. He promises money. He takes her away to a private place. He presumably touches her body, in ways not disclosed. Then he is the first person allowed to speak in the courtroom. Consistently, the cisgender man is the one driving events as well as driving the narrative.


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Accosting


How may this cisgender turn on the medieval trans woman be qualified? Unpacking the word "petere" can help demonstrate the way that medieval cisgender approached medieval transgender. In the first case, the pre-modern cisgender perspective begins by asking the question: who are you? Or, perhaps more accurately: who are you to me? Britby wants to know if she will be his sexual partner for the evening. Will she take on that role for him? This cisgender man is the one who gets to set the terms and premises of the exchange with transgender people. In a cis-normative world and a patriarchal world, this is the logical order of events. 

Britby is the one who seeks out Rykener. It must be admitted that later generations might never have known the story of a medieval trans woman without a medieval cis man seeking her out. The cisgender man has the power to move across social boundaries, into the margins of Cheap Street, and bring a trans woman out from the shadows of obscurity into the light of legal and historical analysis. 

Britby also may be said to pursue Rykener. She is not willing to go with him right away but demands payment. He provides this monetary incentive, showing that her resistance or hesitation is not enough to dissuade him. Even after he seeks and finds her, Britby will continue to pursue her. Britby pursues her because the cisgender man desires the trans woman. He does not have her currently in his life. Whether he is without any women's company at home or whether he simply desires the particular company of a trans woman, Britby desires Rykener. This desire is worth emphasizing. There is something a cisgender life lacks that a transgender life can offer, even if in this case it may have been something a cis woman could also offer. Yet despite have the trans woman having the power of attraction, the cis man has the power to act on his desire, overcoming boundaries and resistance to do so. 

Given this power differential, the potential for "petere" to mean "to attack" is worth consideration as well. The translation as "accost" gives some sense of Britby's actions as a sort of attack, assault, or harassment. Even if the cisgender man approached her with all intended politeness, the situation he establishes between the cis man and the trans woman, as well as the exchange he proposes between them serves to underline that he has power that she does not have. Presumably, he wishes to touch her body. She demands money, meaning that she might otherwise refuse without him overcoming this defense with payment. Regardless of whether sexual penetration occurs, the historically defining act of Eleanor Rykner's story is that of a cisgender man penetrating her life, agency, and potentially (likely) also her body.



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The Story of John Britby

I will argue in the next section on "the Scribe" of Eleanor Rykener's story that the Cisgender Turn of history reflects and repeats in the archives the accosting that Britby enacts in person. But before we move on to considering the legacy of the cisgender turn, it is necessary to acknowledge that the story of Eleanor Rykener is not told by her for the most part. Yes, the document includes her confession. Yet the writer is a cisgender man (presumably) and the first person to ever tell her story in the document is another cisgender man. Historians and literary analysts must note how having a cisgender man be the first to tell a trans woman's story will prejudice the telling and receiving of this story. He has a power to speak that she lacks. Yes, she will speak. But her words will always come second to his. The view of the court will be affected and so will generations of historians afterwards, no matter how they might try to forget, by the languages and assumptions that a cisgender man will make about a trans woman. We may move forward and emphasize the medieval transgender voice but this transgender turn will always ever come after the cisgender turn.


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