Hard bodies, soft bodies and power

I have been reading more of Lynda Coon’s articles (particularly Somatic styles of the early Middle Ages. Gender and history 20:463-486 and coming to the conclusion that she has a completely different view of Carolingian masculinity from mine. Which, as we are probably the two people in the world with the greatest interest in Carolingian masculinity, is a little tricky. Coon’s view focuses on a classically-inspired vision of male bodies, in which masculinity is about self-mastery and hardness, as contrasted to feminine softness. The classic example of such a view is in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies XI.ii.17-18:

17. A man (vir) is so called, because in him resides greater power (vis) than in a woman – hence also ‘strength’ (virtus) received its name – or else because he deals with a woman by force (vis). 18. But the word woman (mulier) comes from softness (mollities), as if mollier (cf. mollior, “softer”), after a letter has been cut and a letter changed, is now called mulier.

Coon sees this antithesis of hard man and soft woman as being basic to early medieval gender, but also the source of anxiety, since men who behave in ‘soft’ ways risk becoming feminised. On the other hand, I’ve argued for the Carolingian period as being a time of low male anxiety, where there’s little emphasis on the inferiority of women. How to resolve the contradictions?

One way of looking at this is to say that we’re just looking at different discourses which exist simultaneously in the Carolingian world. Coon’s sources are mainly medical texts, exegesis and monastic rules/commentaries. The audience for these texts is therefore overwhelmingly a male monastic one. The sources I use are those written for a lay male audience (among others) and there’s not much overlap in our sources.

The problem comes when you start looking at what impact these discourses have, because discourses which don’t have an impact on the world around them are frankly not very significant (just like private languages). Coon’s view is that her monastic viewpoint is significant, because (Somatic styles p 466) ‘male ascetics did create the symbolic systems into which the proclivities of female/male or feminine/masculine bodies were situated.’ She also argues (p 465) that ‘Early medieval churchmen forged gender systems that routinely sought to feminise lay male bodies through a variety of textual, ritual and spatial means, reflecting the intense competition between these two elite and often kindred groups.’ She sees this feminisation as done via the claim that proximity to women weakened married men and reduced them to female softness (p 469).

The big problem with this view is that it completely ignores a key difference between the late antique world from which such an ideology of the body was drawn, and the early Middle Ages: the change in the lay aristocracy from a civilian to a military elite. The argument about hardness versus softness was very successful for fourth century ascetics like Jerome, faced with the traditional senatorial class. The obvious retort for a barbarian nobleman, however, told by a monk that he was soft, was to retort: ‘If you’re so hard, let’s see you fight. And why don’t you defend your own XXX monastery, rather than expect me to?’ If ‘hardness’ is the main criteria for manliness, then monks can’t easily compete with soldiers. The Roman world had got round this by treating soldiers as low-grade menials, whose bodily control by others deprived them of true manliness, but that obviously wouldn’t work for monks who could be whipped for misdemeanours.

Even putting aside the question of how widespread such classical concepts of the body were (there’s some use of the terminology of ‘mollitia’ in Carolingian sources, but not an enormous amount, and it can also be used as positive concept), this suggests that bodily ‘hardness’ had lost most of its impact as a political weapon. After all, most modern misogynists don’t base their claims of female inferiority on the fact that men are physically stronger, even though it’s true: physical strength is no longer normally seen as a justification for power. The language of female softness must have retained its usefulness within monastic circles as a way of galvanising back-sliding ascetics to renewed efforts. But any monk or abbot who seriously proposed to use this argument to get at laymen (and Coon doesn’t provide specific texts showing this), cannot have been thinking carefully.


2 thoughts on “Hard bodies, soft bodies and power

    • Isidore is barking as compared to who? Agobard of Lyons (paranoid anti-semitic)? Virgil of Salzburg (who believed in worlds below the world)? Hrabanus Maurus (who reworks a lot of Isidore, including that bit on vir and mulier)? I think Isidore gets re-used and not just copied enough to show he’s taken seriously by some Carolingian authors.


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