Gender and difference II: Clerical masculinity and its discontents

One of the unusual things in the Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages conference was the number of sessions that it had on masculinity. Gender studies (because it grew out of women’s studies) has tended to focus on women’s history, with masculinity normally tacked on as an extra. This time round, the split was about 50-50 in terms of topics, which I though was helpful. And several of the papers on masculinity (including my own) were edging again around one of the big questions in medieval gender studies: what do we really know about clerical masculinity? When, as Bill Aird discussed, a twelfth-century bishop is described as constantly weeping, does that have the implications for his masculinity that it would have today or do we need to read such texts differently?

I don’t think the conference provided an answer, but it did provide some hints that maybe we’re still looking from the wrong end. Clerical masculinity is still being described in terms of the restrictions imposed on clerics: particularly prohibitions on sex/bearing arms. I did that kind of defining myself in my paper, because it is there in the Carolingian sources: this is how you tell laymen from clerics. Some of the same ideas are there in the Anglo-Saxon sources, as Carol Pasternack’s paper showed. The problem is that this purely negative definition makes clerical masculinity seem, to modern sensibilities, unstable and unachievable. If clerics cannot procreate and fight, how can they be men and how can they endure a life bound by these prohibitions?

But if such a form of masculinity is psychically unsatisfying and impossible to practice, we are left with the question: why then did the church develop it? Clerical forms of masculinity were invented and imposed by church elites on themselves, and these forms have proved open to historical change. So why did churchmen endorse this specific clerical way of life?

One aspect that has been explored is the role of self-control in defining masculinity, and that’s certainly a key aspect in the imposition of clerical celibacy. Senior clerics in the fourth and in the eleventh century, in particular, thought that men could control their lust and be celibate. To conclude that they were simply deluded about male sex drives seems to me patronising; enough of the clergy must have been sufficiently chaste to make the ideal seem feasible. But there are two other aspects of clerical masculinity that I think haven’t been investigated enough: the intellectual superiority of the cleric and his role in representing Christ at Mass.

To modern liberal feminist thought, neither education nor priestly function demonstrate masculinity: women can be as educated as men, and if women are not priests in some denominations, that is simply an arbitrary human decision. But in a world where men were believed naturally mentally superior to women and particularly created in the image of God, I suspect both these factors may have contributed considerably to clerical feelings of masculinity. Male clerics alone had access to higher learning and to the role of mediator between God and human: if not all men shared these privileges, that merely showed that those lacking them were less manly.

I think it needs more research to explore these factors: the twelfth century association of ‘clericus’ with ‘litteratus’ (which is not there in the ninth century) is one avenue, as is the language of masculinity associated with (for example) the Investiture Crisis. Ruth Mazo Karras has interesting material on late medieval university students and masculinity, which might be extended. But the conference also suggested another angle that was intriguing, in the comment by several speakers that Jewish men may have been a particular challenge to clerics (and by implication to their masculinity). Their role as learned men outside the ‘system’ was obviously one aspect of this: was their denial of the significance of the Incarnation/Eucharist also particularly a threat to religious specialists? Looking at Christian constructions of Jewish masculinity may offer other ways of reflecting back the image of the clerical male, so often hidden from us by the paradoxical fact that they themselves are writing the texts we read.


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