Medieval masculinity problems

I have been struggling again about the concept of masculinity and its usefulness to an analysis of the early Middle Ages. This is fairly basic, given my thesis was about it and I’m hoping to write a book on Carolingian masculinity. What triggered my concerns was a very good paper by Lynda Coon in the collection ‘Gender in the early medieval world: east and west, 300-900, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (CUP, 2004). [Quite a lot of interesting material in the whole collection, though it shows as usual, that ‘gender’ still predominantly means papers focusing on women]. Coon’s paper is about the ideas of Hrabanus Maurus on the mystical bodies of priests and their powers of spiritual procreation. It shows clearly that masculinity is a meaningful concept for the period: Hrabanus’ comment (which gives the paper its title) is ‘What is the Word except semen?’ The problem I’m having is to what extent masculinity in the period can be seen as an ideology, i.e. shared and promoted views. Were Hrabanus’s views shared? It’s not a topic that Coon goes into and I’d need to explore more of her source material (Biblical exegesis) to see if I can find traces elsewhere. It’s not in the material I’ve looked at, which is work largely for a lay audience, but I had to omit exegesis from the thesis for lack of time.

This leads me into two wider problems for my work. One is whether there is such a disjunction between ideas of clerical/monastic masculinity and lay masculinity that there’s no commonality between them. The other is to what extent I can infer ideas of masculinity from texts which deal with the topic only very indirectly. The problem with the divide between clerical and lay masculinity is that it’s not useful to model it on the standard view of hegemonic and subordinated masculinities. This may work OK for the post-Reformation world (and the classical one), but not for a world where the male elite is institutionally split into two supposedly very different lifestyles. I need to try and find a model that reflects this.

My bigger problem, in some ways, is with some of the texts which I’m using to make my arguments about lay masculinity. It’s not necessarily a problem that they don’t explicitly mention masculinity: narrative sources can show a lot about expected/applauded/derided models of male behaviour without any explicit mention of masculinity. The difficulty is with the non-narrative sources I’ve used: moral tracts and legislation. In these masculinity is everywhere and yet nowhere, in the sense that most of them are addressed to the universal layperson, assumed, however, to be male. Laws, for example, often start: ‘Si quis…’, (if any man…). Is it valid, as I have done, to deduce ideas about masculinity from such texts, or should I conclude that gender is unimportant here? Did masculinity matter to the ninth century or I am imposing my own twenty-first century framework in which gender must everywhere and always be significant? I don’t have answers to this at the moment: I’d welcome any comments.

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