Religious men 1: rabbis, bishops and saints

I went to two conferences in July: the first one was organised by Katherine Lewis and Pat Cullem at Huddersfield, discussing Religious Men in the Middle Ages. In one way this was revisiting a lot of my previous work on masculinity (since a lot of papers dealt with gender), but also moving onto new territory, since I’ve worked mainly on lay masculinity. This conference, though, cleverly swung between “religious men” as those who had some kind of clerical/monastic profession and those who were simply holy or aspired to be, whatever their official role in life. It also got me at least a little further forward in pursuit of two questions that I keep on turning over: how historians can get to grips with masculinity and what actually changed during the Gregorian reforms.

The opening paper was by Michael Satlow on “From salve to weapon: Torah study, masculinity and the Babylonian Talmud”, a very revealing look at gender in late antique Judaism. (Michael’s introduction to his paper is here). I was vaguely aware (via the work of Daniel Boyarin) of Judaism historically having different models of masculinity, but not of some of the details.

Michael was arguing for rabbis as redefining masculinity in the later first century and producing a model distinct from, but not opposed to, the hegemonic classical masculinity (which defined manliness as a matter of domination). Instead, the study of Torah was gendered as a masculine activity, one that allowed Jewish men (but not women, children or non-Jews) to resist the evil desire inherent in all humans. Michael also mentioned how the rabbis were ambivalent about the merits of asceticism, which is an interesting contrast to the attempts by some Christians in the same period to redefine true masculinity as the battle against one’s own desires. The metaphor of being a warrior is rarely used in the early texts discussing Torah studies, again a contrast to Christian traditions.

Michael saw a change coming, however, in the Babylonian Talmud, written around 500 CE, in the context of an institutionalisation of Torah study in the yeshiva. This resulted in a highly structured academy, where teaching was based on oral arguments and the study of Torah came to incorporate images of aggression and dominance. Stories such as the quarrel between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan, which led to Resh Lakish’s death, show a competition for power reminiscent of the hegemonic masculinity from which earlier rabbis had moved away.

The paper was revealing on one particular form of Jewish masculinity, although Michael doubted how much influence the rabbis had on the rest of Judaism. But it also raised a wider question about recurrent patterns in masculinity, the repeated return to similar ideals of what a true man is like. I’ve discussed before how the existence of the male archive, easy access to earlier works about prominent men is one explanation for this. But this isn’t an adequate explanation for why, in this case, a hegemonic form of masculinity is first moved away from and then reappropriated.

I don’t think this is an argument for arguing (as some commentators on this blog have sometimes done) that there is one only true (timeless) form of manliness. Firstly, at a theoretical level, if there was, why would any group choose to move away from this? And secondly, because the empirical evidence is against it. For example, Michael said that the metaphor of the athlete is entirely missing from Jewish literature (although it appears in early Christian tradition, thanks to St Paul). What seems more plausible is that particular social structures generate (or at least encourage) particular forms of male behaviour. Social structures which encourage competition will produce more competitive men, which in turn is likely to generate the belief that victory in competition is manly, whether you’re beating the other male over the head with a club or a really good citation.

After this view of Jewish masculinity, we then moved back to the Christian west with a session on bishops. The papers covered 500 years: I talked about Hincmar of Rheims as a religious man, while Michael Davis from Suzhou discussed the career of Henry of Blois and Joel Rosenthal gave a prosopographical study of the late medieval bishops of Wells, Lichfield and Hereford. I found Joel’s paper particularly interesting, because he was deliberately concentrating on what he called “minor dioceses”, ones that were some way down in terms of prestige from sees such as Ely and Lincoln (though still above some, such as St David’s). To some of the bishops, such a diocese was a staging post to greater success, but many men who achieved bishoprics in these sees were “lifers”, who reached no higher than this. (As noted before, medieval clerical careers have some odd parallels to modern academic ones, and I did find myself thinking of those whose ambitions have been thwarted by achieving only a professorship at a minor university).

But a question after our papers about ambition did provide one answer for what changed during the Middle Ages. The existence of ambitious clerics was certainly constant – though I was arguing that professed humility was also important for bishops, as a way of dealing with the gap between their pretensions and the realities of their life. Notker the Stammer, for example, has some funny tales about Carolingian royal chaplains desperate for bishoprics. But there were also limits to ambition in an era before episcopal translation was allowed: here again, institutional structures affect the forms of competition. So a change is visible here, which fits at least partly with Conrad Leyser’s argument about professionalisation of clerics being a key factor in the reform movement.

After bishops, I moved onto saints, with a session on religious and lay saints in the later Middle Ages. Mary Lester from Princeton was talking on C13 Italian lay saints, arguing that they held a liminal position between lay and religious masculinity. She contrasted some who achieved holiness within existing models of urban non-elite lay masculinity (such as Raimondo Palmario of Piacenza, who was a married craftsman) with St Andrea Galarandi (?) of Siena who subverted such models. Andrea lived all his life in his brother’s house and was often mistreated by him, and when threatened by street violence offered himself up humbly to the gang about to attack him. Then came Michalis Olympios from the University of Cyprus talking about the veneration of Latin saints in Cyprus under the Lusignan rulers. There is evidence for some veneration of western saints (such as John, count of Montfort) by Greek Orthodox Cypriots in Nicosia, as well as by Jacobite Christians. In contrast to Nicosia, which seems to have developed a blanket Cypriot identity and been receptive to Latin cults, such Latin saints don’t seem to have developed a following within rural Cyprus.

Finally in the session, we had Catherine Sanok from Michigan talking about John of Bridlington, the last English person to be canonised before the Reformation. Catherine was focusing on two artefacts: a stained-glass window in Ludlow and a Middle English poem on him. She contrasted the stained glass window which shows John in pontificals (mitre etc) distancing him from the laity, with the poem, written in tail-rhyme (more usual for romances) and concentrating on broad moral virtues applicable to both lay and religious. John became a model of the mixed life, combing active and contemplative roles and he was also a model for Marjory Kempe in her gift of tears. John’s virtues are thus non-gendered and cut across religious and lay lines and also across class lines as well. The poem thus produces an ethics largely divorced from social status, something that has previously been thought to be characteristic only of the modern period. (It’s certainly different from Carolingian moral texts).

Collectively, I think this session did a good job of reminding me of two things. One is the subversive potential of Christianity on the dominant social order (even if this potential was rarely realised). In fact, if you include Michael Satlow’s paper alongside Lester’s and Sanok’s, you can get the subversive potential of Judaeo-Christianity, creating models of manliness that do not simply conform to society’s preconceptions. The papers on saints also showed the potential for spiritual/personal identification to cross social boundaries: an orthodox Christian could identify with a Latin saint, a merchant woman attempt to imitate a male prior. The sessions on the next day (which I will try and write up soon) had more about identifications and the sometimes blurred divide between lay and religious men, but this first day already gave me a lot of food for thought.

2 thoughts on “Religious men 1: rabbis, bishops and saints

  1. Your blog made me start to wondering where Photius of Constantinople might fit into this analysis?

    Judging from his vast canon of literary put-downs (eg. the Bibliotheca) Photius seems to wield his breadth of reading like a ‘citations club’ on the heads of those less well-endowed, a bit like the battle of the rabbis you mention.

    Although Photius would probably be enraged at the suggestion, I can also see his strong support of caesaro-papism — the notion of a king and high priest as a model of the ultimate manliness — as parallel with another ancient and very masculine Jewish tradition.

    Thanks, as always, for a fascinating blog.


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