Masculinity and crisis

What Michael Roper’s contrast of masculinity as ideology and subjectivity (see previous post) does suggest is a way of approaching my original problem: how do you recognise a crisis in masculinity? I’m not convinced by one suggestion: that masculinity is in a state of permanent crisis/anxiety in a patriarchal society because men are scared of losing their dominant position. If that was the case you’d also need a permanent crisis of the nobility from the time of the Ancient Near East to 1789 or beyond and no-one’s ever suggested that. Dominance doesn’t necessarily cause fear.

A second view links crises in masculinity to periods of rapid economic and social change, to which the same kind of answer may be due: when are there periods of no change? If you ask any historian, their period always seems to be full of such changes (at least as opposed to the ‘previous’ era). A third view, that crises in masculinity are caused by a change in the position/role of women (though more logical), is also surprisingly difficult to sustain. How many substantial changes were there to women’s social, legal or economic position before the modern world? Judith Bennett may have taken things a little too far by saying that there is no economic change while women earn less than men, but she is convincing that there’s an awful lot of continuity for women across the medieval/early modern boundary.

If you think about masculinity as ideology and subjectivity, however, you get two possible focuses of ‘crisis’, when (as inevitably) there is a gap between reality and ideology/fantasy: how it is for a particular man and how it ‘ought’ to be. There’s always going to be some gap in this, but it isn’t necessarily going to cause a crisis in an individual (after all, no-one can live up to Christian ideals, but not all Christians are permanently in a state of crisis). But when the gap is seen as significant in some way and the ideal is too far away, then a man can either have a crisis in himself (because he isn’t living up to his ideals) or (particularly if a lot of men have the same experience), he can decide that there’s something wrong with the whole ideology and try and develop a different ideology of masculinity. In other words you can have a crisis of masculine subjectivity or a crisis of masculine ideology. The two are different things, but a crisis in ideology is likely (though not inevitably) to come as a result when there are numbers of men who’ve had a crisis of masculine subjectivity, so they can feel it’s not just them, it’s ‘the system’ that’s at fault.

I’m aware that this is a simplistic model, but it does at least give some handle in approaching some supposed historical ‘crises of masculinity’. Take the current ‘crisis of masculinity’. There’s a lot of argument about whether it exists at all. There’s an interesting article by James Heartfield (, which says there is no masculinity crisis and provides some revealing statistics. The problem, he thinks, is that both men and women have lost authority to capital: it is the working class, not masculinity that is in crisis. I think he’s right that the biggest problems in Britain are for the working class, but that ignores the gendered side of it. Working class men and women may both find it a struggle to find well-paid and fulfilling jobs, but women often have another ‘job’ available to them, as full-time mother. This is certainly badly-paid and whether it’s fulfilling will depend on the individual, but it does provides a ready-made identity and ‘career path’. In contrast, full-time fatherhood isn’t established enough to provide a useful model of masculinity.

If you factor in these aspects, then there’s an argument that there is a crisis in working-class masculinity. There has been a collapse in well-paid manual jobs, at least in some areas. As a result, some young working class men are rejecting a masculine ideology of themselves as workers/providers as unrealistic and trying to find alternative ways of showing their manliness which may be destructive/self-destructive. Most masculine subjectivities aren’t in crisis, but some are, and some previous masculine ideologies are ‘in crisis’, in the sense of no longer seen as appropriate.

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Ages…The basic discussion in the earlier Middle Ages is really all about the upper classes (because we know almost nothing about peasant ideologies, let alone subjectivities). The main split here is the lay/clerical divide, which is a basic binary in theory (even if somewhat blurred in practice). In the Carolingian period, there are attempts at moral reform for both clerics and laity, which tend to focus on men, because Carolingian sources don’t say that much on women (or certainly not much about lay women). The Carolingian focus on clerical/monastic reform is pretty wide-ranging. It takes in demands for clerical celibacy, but it’s quite a bit wider than that; it also fudges the issue of clerics fighting. In other words, it doesn’t focus solely on the two key distinctions made between laymen and clerics: marriage and the carrying of weapons. The reformers aren’t trying to provoke a crisis about masculinity. Meanwhile, there is a new (or at least newly visible) attempt to provide a Christian moral code for lay noblemen. As I try and show in my thesis, this is actually fairly positive about lay noble life – a lot of it seems to be implying that with a few relatively small changes, a nobleman can have good things in this life and the next. (This of course doesn’t exclude some noblemen (i.e. Gerald of Aurillac) having their own personal crises and rejecting most of normal male lay life). Put together, these changes don’t suggest a ‘crisis in masculinity’ in the period.

The trickier case is the eleventh/twelfth century ‘crisis’, popularised in particular by Jo Ann McNamara, “The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050-1150,” Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees (Minneapolis, 1994), 3-30. (In my view, this is a very sloppy bit of writing, particularly when it gets onto lay masculinity). If you look at clerics, first of all, whether or not there were a lot of male clerics having subjective crises, there were certainly a number of key reformers keen that they should have. The Gregorian reform movement focused on clerical marriage as one of the twin sins of wickedness (the other was simony) and in its eagerness to put clerics off marriage, trotted out a whole load of misogyny from St Jerome etc. I think you can count this as a crisis, even if it’s arguably mainly a manufactured crisis.

The trickier case is whether there was a crisis in lay masculinity. I’m not sure you can say much about male subjectivities in the period. What I’m not sure that anyone’s yet done is look at the totality of works addressed to laymen in the period to get some sense of whether there’s a change in the ideology of masculinity there. I don’t know if it could be done (or at least for a particular region), but this might be more revealing about changes then any simple reference to ‘crisis’.


One thought on “Masculinity and crisis

  1. Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge caseSometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologu…


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