Given that the title of the Birkbeck conference included the question what is masculinity?, its not surprising that there was so much discussion of definitions and approaches, until at times my eyes started to glaze over. Should we be looking at masculinity or masculinities or gender history or mens history or critical studies of men and masculinities (which was Harry Brods suggestion, taken from the title of one of the journals in the field)?
My normal take on masculinity is that what I am studying is an ideology, and that therefore my work comes under cultural history, but John Tosh, among others, made some quite pertinent comments about too great an emphasis on the cultural turn, as though masculinity and gender was purely a rhetorical effect. So I am coming to think that maybe masculinitys better seen as a matter of three components/levels: ideology, practice, subjectivity. (This breakdown isnt exactly the same as anything discussed in the conference, though it owes a lot to Joan Wallach Scott, among others).
The ideology component of masculinity is relatively easy to see in most historical periods: a cluster of norms about what men ought to be like and ought to do. As Judith Butler and others have pointed out, however, gender needs to be performed: men and women need to act like men and women in order to be accepted as such. So you get a second component/level of masculinity: practice, how men (individually and in groups) actually behave. Finally, theres subjectivity: the ideology only really works if it gets into mens minds (or at least some mens minds). But this doesnt necessarily happen: norms can be (to some extent) ignored or resisted or subverted, practices can be purely external.
I think John Tosh is right that the main emphasis in the historical study of masculinity has been on ideology, and that male subjectivity has been neglected. There are two reasons for this: the origin of the field and the nature of the sources themselves. The history of masculinity, as was pointed out several times, developed from womens history. Womens history to a large extent started from an exploration of womens past experiences: the urge to discover what previous women did and also what they thought. Womens subjective experience was thus embedded in the field from the start. (In contrast, I think conceptually the study of mens subjective experience has always suffered from a) the vague feeling that men dont have much of an observable internal life (coming from the stereotypes of men as less emotional or emotionally self-conscious) and b) the rather more substantial point that part of male privilege may be not having to think about ones own gender, just as in societies where whiteness is normative, whites dont need to think about their colour to the same extent that blacks do).
If womens history started with female subjectivity and practice, the link to the history of masculinity was via ideology. Once you move from the reality of womens subordinate position to explore historical ideologies of why women are subordinate/inferior, its obvious to link this to ideologies of why men are dominant/superior. (There is still intense debate in looking at how ideologies of masculinity relate to ideologies about women: Ill discuss that more in a further post).
Looked at like this, then womens history has moved from the personal to the political (which makes obvious sense in the light of feminist slogans), while the history of masculinity still tends to stick at the political level, and needs to look more at the personal. The problem in doing this is the sources (at least for medievalists and early modernists).
Its relatively easy to study dominant ideologies of masculinity in most historic societies. If there are subcultures that have their own ideology, but that arent writing it down, this can be far harder to see. We dont know, for example, what a peasant ideology of masculinity might look like, until at least the early modern period.
With the second component, the practice of masculinity, there are even bigger gaps. We know things about some aspects of some mens lives, but there is an awful lot that we dont know. Ive tried to look at what happens in ninth century marriage disputes, but this relies on a handful of cases from elite men. If you want to look at medieval father-son relations before very roughly 1000 AD, youre limited to discussions about kings/rulers; for the high middle ages you can start discussing noble/knightly families, from the late Middle Ages you start to have sufficient information to look at gentry families (there was an interesting paper by Rachel Moss on the Cely family).
As for male subjectivity, Ive argued before that we just cant get access to it for the medieval period. You need to be able to compare substantial collections of personal documents (such as private letters or diaries) to be able to say much useful. Theres a team down at Exeter University looking at seventeenth to nineteenth century gentry in this way, but Im not sure you can get much further back. (My impression is that medieval private letter collections, such as the Celys, the Pastons etc by and large dont give you much in the way of emotions beyond the conventional).
What all this means is that the study of medieval masculinity is inevitably going to be the study of the elite (although this elite gradually expands) and that its not going to get as personal as we might like. But it does challenge those of us working in the field in two ways. One is to see if somewhere, somehow, we can squeeze a few case studies or even an emotion or two our of our recalcitrant sources. The other is that even if we cant answer these questions about practice/subjectivity, we should at least remind ourselves of them occasionally. Derek Neal asked the question of whether it mattered to (late) medieval clerics if laymen made them feel unmanly? He didnt have an answer (and Im not sure there is the evidence to find one), but its still one of the many questions worth thinking about.