Birkbeck 5: continuity, change, and the male archive

One of the things that any historian of masculinity comes across when listening to papers across a very wide time span (as at the Birkbeck conference) is recurrent norms and models. (This can lead to what Chris Fletcher memorably referred to as the ‘earlier than thou’ tendency, especially among medievalists). There were some interesting discussions about how much continuity there was in norms of masculinity, as opposed to change, with the tendency being to argue for greater continuity than has previously been acknowledged. In particular, Henry French and Mark Rothery, in their long-term study of gentry masculinity from the seventeenth to nineteenth century, were arguing for relatively slow changes of norms in masculinity as transmitted within families, in contrast to the rapid changes seen in conduct literature. They gave examples of how fathers might suggest their sons read improving works that were written decades or even generations earlier. (The suggestion of distinctively family traditions of masculinity within the elite seemed to me to have interesting parallels to the discovery of crusading historians of particular family traditions of crusading).

But family influence doesn’t seem to be sufficient to explain the really long term recurrence of norms. There isn’t any meaningful continuity between masculinity in classical Rome and eighteenth century England and yet there are parallels between the ideals of manhood being promulgated. Which is why I pointed out that we need to consider another method of transmission: the continuity of the male archive.

By that I mean that history and literature are full of the deeds of great men. As a result, those men with access to such written material (which goes increasingly far down the social scale with widening literacy) can take inspiration from a wide range of previous models of historical masculinity. If you’re an eighteenth century gentleman you can read the life of Cicero. If you’re a Victorian and you don’t like current models of manliness, you can find something in chivalric romance or Ancient Greek philosophy that does inspire you. Men (or at least elite men) have the resources available to re-imagine masculinity in this discontinuous way relatively easily. This is in stark contrast to women. As has often been pointed out by women’s historians, women had to go to considerable lengths to find intellectual foremothers; such women rarely appear in traditional histories. As a result, women have traditionally not had the opportunity to rethink their self-image in this way. Even as we accept that there is considerable continuity in norms of both female and male behaviour, we should remember the gendered differences in intellectual options here.


One thought on “Birkbeck 5: continuity, change, and the male archive

  1. Probably because I am not a gender historician, your post raises a lot of questions to me, ie: what about the causes of the continuity of femenine gender roles? It seems to go against the idea of linking continuity with avalability of literary models…?

    Or, more broadly: how far do ‘our’ social categories of ‘gender’ in fact apply? For exemple, I read C9th charters where geography and hagiography overlaps, ie: damaging a church property is taken as a personal offense to the site’s saint. Clearly those people knew about ‘places’ and ‘saints’ (or people) as different concepts, but not in the same way as we do, so they could mix both wherever convenient. Similar examples can be found for other common concepts, and I suppouse gender to be one of these. I also have to add the fact that context information (ie: social relations, economy, tabboos, etc) is usually taken for granted and not explicited in the sources; so I end with a lot of doubts about what the meaning of ‘gender’ (and many other concepts) was for people for example in the C9th Gothia.


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