The conference at Birkbeck Ive just been to on What is masculinity? How useful is it as a historical category? was fascinating, if rather overwhelming at times. I wasnt 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 didnt 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 womens history, its 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 thats a different matter).
Professor Karras wasnt 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 celibacys not enforced…except that it is, by the Carolingians, and if you say that the Carolingians dont enforce clerical celibacy successfully, how successfully is it enforced after the Gregorian reformation? Theres also the problem that however you look at Carolingian masculinity, its 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 wasnt inevitable: Islam, for example, manages without a priesthood distinguished by lifestyle). Then Id 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 its 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. Its 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 theres 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 Karrass medieval masculinity (though Id 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 dont have to go as far as Stephen Jaegers 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 Im back to being a researcher of medieval masculinity, albeit early medieval masculinity. Now I just have to persuade everybody else of this.