Masculinity and courtliness

I am back to thinking again about one of my recurring problems: are there crises in medieval masculinity and if so how can one tell? This time (as a result of having to give a lecture on gender and the twelfth century renaissance) it’s whether there is a crisis then, as several writers have suggested. As I’ve said in a previous post, part of the problem is how you decide what counts as a crisis. In particular, how do you tell the difference between specific men having a crisis (which statistically, is going to happen quite frequently) and men as a class having a crisis?

I’ve argued before that looking at discourse is key: there is a crisis of masculinity when men say there is. On that measure, clerical masculinity does look to be in crisis in the late eleventh century, since much of the rhetoric of the Gregorian reform is about there being horrible things wrong with the clergy, that they have been corrupted by women etc, etc. Given that it’s an era that also sees the invention of the word ‘sodomy’ and the attempt to rewrite hagiography to show images of ‘the lone manly bishop who single-handedly brings peace and prosperity to his city.’ as Maureen Miller, ‘Masculinity, reform, and clerical culture: narratives of episcopal holiness in the Gregorian era, Church History 72 (2003):1-28, puts it [conjuring up alarming visions of John Wayne in a mitre], the idea of a clerical crisis seems pretty well-based.

The problem is, is there a crisis in lay masculinity at the same time? This has often been claimed, but when you start looking it at it, there isn’t an enormous amount of evidence. Jo Ann McNamara is the standard bearer for this view in “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. She makes an awful lot of assertions (from a very essentialist view of men), but as specific evidence for laymen has

a) there are two kings in the eleventh century (Henry II of Germany and Edward the Confessor) who becomes saints partly due to their sexual abstinence

b) lots of men and women sought ‘escape from the terrors of conjugal life’ and entered religious orders

c) there were a number of sexual scandals and noblemen repudiating their wives

d) there were complaints about effeminate courtiers

e) laypeople must have been affected by the anti-marriage rhetoric of the Gregorian church

f) some sources describe laymen being brutal to women

g) some anecdotes show men as worried about impotence or being mocked if they’re reluctant to marry

h) stress in Crusading literature on freedom from women, exemplified in Bernard of Clairvaux’s praise of the Templars

A lot of these ideas don’t add up to anything like a crisis and are even contradictory (since they combine men shrinking from marriage with those only too eager to contract multiple marriages). But I think the one idea that is significant is the criticism of courtiers as effeminate. This is a recurrent theme and it’s also new: it’s not there in the Carolingian texts. How does the ‘rise of courtliness’ connect to ideas of masculinity?

Stephen Jaeger’s work on courtliness is probably the dominant view at the moment, though it’s weakened both by a simplistic view of courtly as implying ‘less violent’ and by a lack of knowledge about the Carolingians. Recent work by Jinty Nelson and Matthew Innes has successfully argued that Carolingian courts were ‘courtly’, in the sense of places with a distinctive culture where you learnt how to behave. Notker the Stammerer also shows a place with both rampant ambition for gaining office and courtiers wearing unsuitable fancy clothes. So why doesn’t the stereotype of effeminate courtiers develop there?

I would argue that being a courtier can be conceptualized in two ways. One aspect stresses royal service: this is marked by virtue, strength, excellent performance of duties. Models here would include Joseph and Daniel and King David’s generals and more generally the relationship between lord and follower and God and man (which are often paralleled). Here there is always a sense of ‘contract’ in which loyal service is recognized by the ruler and rewarded, and (unlike in republican Roman culture), such service is honourable and manly.

The opposite model of a courtier stresses royal favour: it is about pleasing the ruler and the arbitrary winning of rewards not linked to virtue. This model is about appearances, not necessarily truth and is always liable to be gendered female. The women can be virtuous (such as Esther) or less so (such as all the queens with wicked wiles), but the emphasis is on a ruler who judges by superficial criteria, not necessarily correctly.

In most of the sources which discuss Carolingian court life, it is presumed that the ruler is able to judge virtue (one of the recurring themes of Notker is that you can’t fool Charlemagne). The one exception and the most hostile criticism of the Carolingian court is by Paschasius Radbertus whose point is precisely that the palace has become a ‘theatre of illusions’, and that Louis the Pious is no longer able to tell the good (Adalard and Wala) from the bad (Bernard). In contrast, Stephen Jaeger shows Bruno of Cologne (who he sees as the first courtier) already acting as a talent scout: when he finds ‘princes’ who he thinks good, he wins royal favour for them. This includes those ‘who a private life had obscured’. In other words, the king can no longer be simply expected to find the virtuous, they’ve got to be pushed.

Even for Paschasius, the court can be redeemed and restored. There is, in fact, no Carolingian writer who thinks that the court is beyond redemption, that it’s irretrievably corrupt, although that becomes the default position of later court critics. I suspect that’s because all the Carolingian elite (secular and clerical) are courtiers or would-be courtiers themselves. Criticism of the court may even be a ploy to get invited into it later (as Mayke de Jong suggests for Agobard). Criticism of courts as intrinsically, structurally corrupt only really takes off with the Gregorian reformation, when there are churchmen who have a secure position without the need for royal support.

The other thing that I think changes is the rise of courtliness as technique: learning the ways to ‘win friends and influence people’. There are hints of this in Dhuoda and Hincmar on the government of the palace, but it’s mostly about helpfulness and efficiency and cheerfulness (the resemblance to graduate management trainees is lurking there) and not about the more subtle arts. Where Jaeger, I think, is right is in seeing the rise of courtliness as a skill that can be taught; the cathedral schools produce men with the morals and manners to win high office. Once courtliness is seen both as a way to boost your chances in rising to the top and as something that can be achieved, rather than being natural, then a whole industry develops around it. (Industry may be too strong a word, but I would presume that as well as educators, those providing clothes, hairstyles etc to the nobility are also selling them partly on the basis of ‘it’ll help you get ahead, it’ll make you stand out, don’t be unfashionable’).

I would say this produces if a not a crisis in noble masculinity, at least a permanent tension within it. Male courtiers (clerics and lay alike) become willing to use such courtliness as a means to success. In contrast, those who don’t want to gain influence at court, those who have failed to do so, or those who already have gained it and got a safe position can pour scorn on the methods of those still in the struggle. The critics of the court have an obvious weapon in stressing courtliness as effeminate seeking of favour. But I think you can also see courtiers trying to fight back and emphasis the manly service aspect of court life. Romance, for example, stresses that fine words by knights must be backed up the physical prowess to fulfil them: the true knight is eloquent, but also brave. Meanwhile, troubadour lyric is always using the metaphors of both religious devotion and the lord-man relationship in addressing the lady. These both have the implication that the lady has a duty to respond favourably, but also that the service offered is respectable manly behaviour.

The courtier’s dream goals are also impeccably masculine. For the cleric it is a position of rule, via a senior church appointment. For the layman it is a heiress: here the medieval courting man has an advantage over later ones. For at least 300 years, the (male) fortune hunter has been seen as contemptible or ridiculous (I think the female gold-digger has normally been seen more positively – compare Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Pal Joey). In contrast, the medieval knight who wins the lady, or his descendant, the fairy-tale poor man who wins the princess’ hand is admirable. Why? Because he gets half the kingdom (or some smaller area to rule in real-life cases). The medieval hero takes on a role of defending and ruling a territory in a way that (theoretically) neither his wife nor any man she employed could do. As soon as that defensive role disappears, the fortune hunter’s achievement of the heiress’ hand can no longer be seen as manly. Until then, a medieval courtier risks the temporary appearance of unmanliness (trying always to show his acts as honourable service) for the purpose of gaining a position in which his manliness cannot be questioned: at the top.


2 thoughts on “Masculinity and courtliness

  1. There’s no rhetoric of effeminacy at the Carolingian court, OK—I mean you would know far better than me—but isn’t this the way the Greeks are habitually characterised in the era? Or am I just thinking of Liudprand of Cremona’s second embassy? If not, there’s clearly scope for a really trendy article with a title like “Reexternalising the other: gender and alterity in court culture ninth to twelfth centuries”…

    John Wayne bishops still all wrong. “Take heart, lil’ deacon…”


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