Birkbeck 1: the other Middle Ages

The conference at Birkbeck I’ve just been to on ‘What is masculinity? How useful is it as a historical category?’ was fascinating, if rather overwhelming at times. I wasn’t the only person who felt serious intellectual overload by the end, and I am likely to end up blogging a lot about this, partly just to try and sort out in my own mind what I heard. But there was one issue that particularly bugged me as a scholar.

We had the usual implicit attitude from John Tosh (one of the plenary speaker, who studies modern history) that the history of masculinity is really the history of masculinity from the eighteenth century onwards and that nothing significant happened before. I knew that there were a number of medievalists speaking at the conference, so that didn’t really worry me. But then we got the medievalist plenary speaker, Ruth Mazo Karras. She gave a really good talk, starting with the comment about how the Middle Ages tended to be a static other in many discussions by modernists.

She was also attempting to periodize the history of masculinity (and made the really important point that unlike women’s history, it’s not likely to produce many very different periodisations, because traditional historical chronology is already based on what changed for men). To her, however, medieval masculinity started…with the Gregorian reforms in the late eleventh century. (She saw it as ending in the mid-fifteenth century, but that’s a different matter).

Professor Karras wasn’t alone with this: a number of other papers on medieval masculinity started with the eleventh century, against an (implicit) background of a first millennium AD of nothing much happening (even as St Anthony and John Cassian got referenced). I raised this issue, and people did take the point, but I think there is still a conceptual issue of where the early Middle Ages fits into the longue durée of masculinity (or even pre-modern masculinity).

The argument for putting the turning point at the Gregorian Reformation is essentially that this is when clerical celibacy starts. Except, of course, that clerical celibacy becomes the official ideology of the Western church at the end of the fourth century, and this never wavers. You can say that celibacy’s not enforced…except that it is, by the Carolingians, and if you say that the Carolingians don’t enforce clerical celibacy successfully, how successfully is it enforced after the Gregorian reformation? There’s also the problem that however you look at Carolingian masculinity, it’s pretty near impossible to see it as anything like classical or even late antique masculinity. Charlemagne just would not look right in a toga.

I think it does make sense to make clerical celibacy play an important role: it is significant that for the whole of the medieval period, the ruling elite is institutionally split. My argument then would be for continuity at the broadest level between the conversion of the Roman Empire and the Reformation: the idea that there are two ways of life/forms of masculinity possible for elite men. (As Peter Brown points out, this wasn’t inevitable: Islam, for example, manages without a ‘priesthood’ distinguished by lifestyle). Then I’d argue for three sub-periods within this: very roughly, c 300 AD-sixth century, sixth century-Gregorian Reformation (c 1050), and 1050-Reformation.

I would see the first sub-period (late antique) as ending with the decline and disappearance of the ideal of the elite Roman civilian/senator. You can argue when in the sixth century such men vanished (or all became bishops), but it’s very hard to claim they continue beyond 600. If all the lay elite are expected to have a military role, that makes a clear difference from both the classical ideal of the leisured senator and the sixteenth century rise to dominance (at least in England) of a gentry class that did not expect to fight routinely.

If in the first sub-period the main choice for elite men was between the life of a senator and that of a cleric, in the second sub-period the contrast is between warrior and clerical roles. It’s tempting to say that the differences between the two roles disappear at times, but that goes a little too far. At the ideological level, counts and bishops always remained clearly distinct. Even when clerics behaved like laymen, they did not discard most of the trappings of clerical office: their titles clearly meant something to them. And I think there’s also an argument that even in the case of clerical marriage, the aim was not to destroy the difference between lay and clerical life. Instead, clerical marriage for higher religious (abbots, canons, bishops) tended to be aimed at creating dynasties. It was thus an alternative way of keeping a separation between the church and the lay world, by creating a hereditary class of churchmen.

Finally, my third sub-period would be Professor Karras’s medieval masculinity (though I’d see it as extending a little longer), with clerical celibacy now established as the sole way of keeping church and state separate. It also sees the development of the lay masculine ideal from the warrior to the knight. You don’t have to go as far as Stephen Jaeger’s claims about a new refinement to accept that ever more complex class-based codes of conduct for elite men do profoundly alter how masculinity is understood.

Put like this, I think I’m back to being a researcher of medieval masculinity, albeit early medieval masculinity. Now I just have to persuade everybody else of this.

6 thoughts on “Birkbeck 1: the other Middle Ages

  1. Mostly I like the sound of this, though the part of me that listens to Chris Wickham wants to say, “isn’t this all about the elite? How does this periodisation work when it’s not counts and bishops you’re talking about?” My inner charter pedant twitches mainly at this, however:

    Even when clerics behaved like laymen, they did not discard most of the trappings of clerical office: their titles clearly meant something to them.

    How would it affect this if I showed you some examples of clerical scribes who don’t always use their titles in their charters? Clerics behaving like clerics but discarding a trapping, not quite what you’re denying but a blurring thing all the same, no? Or do you think that writing is an essentially clerical thing? Because I could possibly argue with that too (though in a world where scribes don’t always use clerical titles, that gets harder all of a sudden).


    • I would argue that we just can’t say much about non-elite masculinity for the Middle Ages (see next post of the series). I’d better say that my ideas about clerical masculinity are fairly impressionistic: I haven’t looked hard enough at the periods/places where clerical marriage does seem to be more significant (eighth century Francia, tenth century Italy, England) to be sure whether dynasties are the normal outcome. If you’re finding clerics who don’t use their titles, that is interesting. How seriously is clerical celibacy taken in your period, and do you have any other sense of whether clerical identity does matter to men?


      • Well, I can certainly point at married clerics, but I can also point at other clerics who seem to have rather sterner ideas on the matter. Clerical marriage is certainly not the norm in my period and area, but it does happen. As for the identity, when you’re going on charters of course it’s very hard to tell; people are making statements about their ownership of land, not their sense of self. Some of them seem self-important; there’s a scribe called Bonhom who always signs himself “HAC SI INDIGNVS PRESBYTER” in Rustics, which seems to me to contradict his message rather, but it’s only that level of inferred self-opinion I can really handle until you get up to the level of bishops pronouncing excommunications with full Scriptural citations about the importance of obedience to priests…


  2. There was no elite choice to be a warrior before 600 AD? That’s a little hard for me to swallow: Aetius, Sidonius’ brother or whatever, etc. Belisarius and people like Aspar entered the elite by being warriors — whether they were barbaric is a question worth debating.


    • Not to mention all those testosterone-poisoning cases in Gregory of Tours, some of whom were Romans, while there were a few Frankish bishops.


      • Professor Muhlberger: I probably didn’t make my point clearly enough. I don’t deny the option of the military role for the elite before 500/600, what I’m pointing out is the absence of the civilian role (for the elite) after this period. You can’t choose to be a non-combatant layman after this period and retain any credibility (well, apart from Einhard).

        There is also the interesting question of how prestigious the military role was in late antiquity, which is a topic that researchers haven’t really studied much (though Guy Halsall and Richard Alston have done a bit on this). Soldiers themselves increasingly tend to get despised as you move into the imperial period, but it’s not clear what their own self-image was, and I don’t think anyone’s really looked hard at images of generals, as compared say to senators (who is manlier and to whom?). You could probably get something out of Ammianus Marcellinus and other late Roman historians, but I’m not sure anyone’s done that yet.


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