Birkbeck 2: what is masculinity?

Given that the title of the Birkbeck conference included the question ‘what is masculinity?’, it’s 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 men’s history or ‘critical studies of men and masculinities’ (which was Harry Brod’s 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 masculinity’s better seen as a matter of three components/levels: ideology, practice, subjectivity. (This breakdown isn’t 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, there’s subjectivity: the ideology only really ‘works’ if it gets into men’s minds (or at least some men’s minds). But this doesn’t 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 women’s history. Women’s history to a large extent started from an exploration of women’s past experiences: the urge to discover what previous women did and also what they thought. Women’s subjective experience was thus embedded in the field from the start. (In contrast, I think conceptually the study of men’s subjective experience has always suffered from a) the vague feeling that men don’t 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 one’s own gender, just as in societies where whiteness is normative, whites don’t need to think about their colour to the same extent that blacks do).

If women’s history started with female subjectivity and practice, the link to the history of masculinity was via ideology. Once you move from the reality of women’s subordinate position to explore historical ideologies of why women are subordinate/inferior, it’s 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: I’ll discuss that more in a further post).

Looked at like this, then women’s 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).

It’s relatively easy to study dominant ideologies of masculinity in most historic societies. If there are subcultures that have their own ideology, but that aren’t writing it down, this can be far harder to see. We don’t 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 men’s lives, but there is an awful lot that we don’t know. I’ve 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, you’re 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, I’ve argued before that we just can’t 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. There’s a team down at Exeter University looking at seventeenth to nineteenth century gentry in this way, but I’m 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 can’t 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 didn’t have an answer (and I’m not sure there is the evidence to find one), but it’s still one of the many questions worth thinking about.


5 thoughts on “Birkbeck 2: what is masculinity?

  1. I see now the depth of the thinking you were touching on in your comment previously. It has me thinking. It’s scarcely new to say you might be able to get at ideologies of family through inheritance strategies, but presumably this has been Dubied to death as far it can go and probably further…


  2. A simple question, probably with an obvious answer. Is everything in public correspondence by clergy useless for anything but ideology?


    • Public correspondence by clerics will obviously tell you about some forms of masculine practise, though normally the kind of practice that gets officially disapproved of (like Boniface on clerical concubines). As for male subjectivity, it’s very difficult. With any medieval figure with a lot of correspondence, if you read it all you do sometimes get flashes of what seems to be personality, though you have to trawl a lot to get such nuggets. And once in a blue moon you get something that seems to bear on masculine identity. I’d mention, for example, Einhard’s comments on how part of the pain of losing Emma is how he misses her in the management of the household, or Abelard on the shame he felt about his castration. You get those moments of subjectivity and then you are forced to ask the awkward and unanswerable question: is this typical? Is Abelard’s male subjectivity representative of anyone else but Abelard, given he’s so distinctive in other ways?

      It’s easy at this point to slip into those fatal words for a historian of mentalities and emotions: ‘they must have felt..’. And then you’re back into the slippery slope of emotions and reactions as eternal and not historically contigent. If someone about 900 can write a saint’s life (Vita Gangulfi) in which a murdered cuckold is called manly, and that saint can gain a decent sized cult, that calls into question all our ideas about the shame that a man with an adulterous wife ‘must’ experience. So I suppose when I say we can’t get access to male subjectivity in the Middle Ages, that’s shorthand for ‘we can only get a few fragments and trying to join them up is likely to do more harm than good, because it’s likely to lead us astray’. Maybe in the later Middle Ages we have enough letters with enough personal comments by similar enough clerics to get something more tangible, but I’ve not yet seen anyone demonstrating that.


  3. I am very interested in general masculinity studies but struggling to know where to start. Can you help? Found your piece interesting but probably too much for in terms of history etc.


  4. Im genderqueer, my experience of my masculine side and feminine side are quite different. When my masculine side is in control i feel more idea orientated, i begin to notice buildings and structures more, my masculine persona is not concerned with domination its more about independence, emotions are not processed as much by my masculine side. My feminine side is more emotional and tends to be more intuitive when my feminine side is in control the way in which i make decisions changes, both sides of me are make decisions my feminine side can do it better by acting on intuition this frees up my mind for other things. My feminine side is more into arts and tends to notice colour more then structures, it tends to like strong shades of green, blue, yellow and purple. My masculine side lives for the moment, my feminine side tends to look back over things and thinks about the future. When i am expressing them both at the same time i feel more balanced, when not something is always missing.

    I would not say that the primary focus of the feminine is emotion, its more the creative aspect of us, emotion is just one thing it can create. The problem is that the masculine has been exploiting the feminine for to long and limiting it to creating only for the masculine. While at the same time the masculine has been doing things that the feminine can do its self and the feminine has been allowing it. I believe that even though both energy’s are different, then can do the same thing, the masculine can be creative and process emotions, the feminine can be proactive and independent.

    I think gender roles of the past were created as a means to survive, society forgot that and has continued to divide people based on gender expression resulting in the imbalance seen as sexism today.

    If we try and push our emotions away we get stuck in a type of behaviour that can appear macho, this happens when the mind wants to do its own thing in the absence of our intuition. After some time we get a blockage where we are afraid that if we let any emotion out at all, too much will come out at once and then we will look weak or be made fun of. I know as i have tried to hyper masculise.

    If we try to block off our mind and our will to go where we want in the world under our own lead and instead get stuck in our emotions we get to the stage where an imbalanced of our feminine side leads us to loose direction in life and start to need someone to depend on. We become afraid to take risks and try new things incase we fail and are made to look a fool. Women can end up like this when they get used to having a man do all for them, when they begin to live there life through his lead.

    The same issues can arise in same sex relationships too.

    Where does gender come from, i think that its all to do with our binary brain. Men and women are brought up to do different activities which effect different parts of the brain. The left side is all about structure and logic, the right is fluid and creative. Genetics and hormones may effect how much of each side men and women use or how developed each are. But i think that simple fear of using the other side is what holds gender roles in place. If you notice in every day life, when a woman is thinking people mostly men will either tell her to cheer up or ask her something or sit and look at her, other women may even ask her what her thoughts are. No one does this to men, they are just left to be. They do not want women to access that thinking part of the brain, they want her just stuck in the emotional.


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