Non-binary identities don’t belong to the modern age — we’ve had them for centuries.
Queer identity and expression is often seen as a very au currant issue in today’s society. I often hear statements that queer identity “didn’t exist in my time” and that queerness is a “problem of the millennial generation,” specifically when dealing with trans individuals.
This is simply not true.
Questions surrounding sexual orientation and gender expression have existed since long before modern times, even before the 20th century. As David Halperin, author of How to Do the History of Homosexuality, states, “We have preserved and retained different definitions of sex and gender from our premodern past.”
It is through this variety of definitions of sex and gender passed down through the ages that premodern people also struggled to define what it meant to be a “man” and what it meant to be a “woman”; they also wrestled with the nature of their sexuality.
In fact, during the Middle Ages, there are several key figures who expressed a queer identity analogous to a modern trans identity. These figures—both fictional and historical — challenged and complicated the prevailing definitions of gender identity, much like trans individuals do in our society today.
As Heather Love writes in her book on lost queer history, Feeling Backward:
“Paying attention to what was difficult in the past may tell us how far we have come, but that is not all it will tell us; it also makes visible the damage we live with in the present.”
Because queer history has been obscured and erased throughout time, non-binary identities are readily framed as “problems of a modern age,” when in fact, they are questions and identities we’ve had for centuries.
By surfacing the trans identities of the Middle Ages we can reclaim some of our lost history, as well as challenge homophobic and transphobic claims surrounding them.
In the 13th-century French romance, Le Roman de Silence, or Silence, the titular character is born a woman, but lives as a man in order to inherit their father’s land. As they grow, they are raised as a knight and constantly praised as the “best man in England.”
Pretty soon, though, Nature (personified) feels she has been cheated as she has made Silence more beautiful than “a thousand of the most beautiful girls,” yet no one recognizes them as female. A whole comical debate breaks out between Nature and Nurture about Silence’s gender, prompting Reason to step in and, ultimately, she sides with Nurture — Silence was raised a man and should continue to be a man.
As Silence concludes, “I have a mouth too hard for kisses/and arms too rough for embraces. One could easily make a fool of me in any game played under the covers.”
As the romance makes clear, gender is not a clear cut issue—even in the Middle Ages.
Trans people are often thought to be going “against” nature for expressing their identities, and Silence is presented in much the same way. Silence often feels conflicted over their biological sex and their gender identity, echoing the body dysphoria felt by many trans individuals.
Even though Silence “deviates” from Nature’s intended role, they are only able to catch Merlin—a vital piece of Silence’s prophecy is “Merlin will only be fooled by a ‘woman’s trick’”—because of their queerness.
Within the romance, Merlin is depicted as more animal than man, a mad hermit living in the woods. In order for Silence to fully become a retainer of the king, they must capture this elusive man-beast. Their biological sex technically fulfills the prophecy, but their gender expression—which determines their position as a knight—is what allows for the quest to occur and succeed.
Gender is not a clear cut issue — even in the Middle Ages.
To read Silence’s character as a trans man vastly expands the possibilities of trans history and reveals it’s far more than a modern phenomenon. As this medieval romance reveals, gender and sexuality are presented as ever and always in flux; there is no clear resolution between Nature and Nurture’s argument on Silence’s gender, and there doesn’t need to be.
Even at the end of the romance, when Silence’s “true” gender has been revealed and they are married to the king, we still have the king bedding the most beautiful and skilled knight in all of England.
Silence is not the only trans figure in the medieval period. The historically real case of Eleanor (John) Reykener, a medieval sex worker who lived as a woman, but was born a man, again suggests gender and sex have been fluid for far longer than our current dialogue accounts for.
On a Sunday in December of 1394, Eleanor Rykener and John Britby are arrested by London authorities for presumed prostitution.
The authorities—and the court—were shocked to discover that Eleanor Rykener was actually John Rykener and that they had been “posing” as a woman. In their testimony, Rykener admits to working as an embroideress under the name of Eleanor, and having sex with at least three other men. (As well as several women, too.)
Their continued confession recounts various religious and secular men that they had slept with either for money or pleasure. As Carolyn Dinshaw argues in her book Getting Medieval: “It is impossible to discern what Rykener’s various customers wanted,” but it is also too limited to assume their desires were strictly heterosexual in nature.
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Even the legal documents had a hard time defining Eleanor/John’s gender identity as the author continually slips between referring to them as male and female in the same brief.
Again, like Silence, Rykener’s gender identity is similar to modern trans identity in that their identity resists categories. Even the crime itself—either of sodomy (primarily a male crime) or prostitution (of which only female cases are recorded)—is left open to interpretation in the legal document.
While Rykener’s identity does not fully account for the varied trans identities we have today, their life is, according to Ruth Karras, “transgender-like.”
Like Silence’s and Rykener’s bodies and gender expressions suggest, sexuality and gender identity were complicated and nuanced in the Middle Ages. Both literary and real figures openly questioned traditional gender norms, and even then those definitions were not solidified.
Is Silence a good knight because they are born that way or because of their social upbringing?
Is Rykener’s crime prositution or sodomy?
These questions are subjective at best and suggest that medieval people did not have clear answers for them.
Fast forwarding to the present, we find ourselves still struggling with these questions. As trans people become more visible, dialogues abound in both social and legal settings on how to define trans bodies. With current travel laws and the ever-infamous bathroom laws, trans bodies are always forced to be put into categories — categories that even premodern people recognized as unstable.
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As author Carolyn Dinshaw says, “Laws based on clear and apparent sex differences” are made inadequate when dealing with “queer desires or queer truths.”
Dinshaw’s point is correct because laws that rely on rigid definitions of gender and sex cannot fully account for queer bodies or queer desires. Queer people resist tidy categorization by their very nature. As trans identity and other queer sexualities and identities become more visible, laws based on basic definitions of heterosexuality and biological gender become increasingly inadequate.
Queer identities — specifically trans identities — are not a part of modern culture, but rather have existed and evolved through time. While a queer future is important, we should also not forget about the past.
We as queer people deserve a history just as rich and varied in order to combat homophobic and transphobic ideas. Sex and gender have evolved — and will continue to do so. It is through revisiting what was considered “normal” in the past to see that these definitions have changed.
By turning to older literature and willingly reading characters or works as queer, we can reclaim some of our lost history; this is one of the only ways we can continue to have access to queer people in the premodern world and honor the voices of the past who have paved the way for our future.