Religious men 2: who are the religious men?

I blogged the first day of the Huddersfield conference on Religious Men in the Middle Ages back in August (a mere month after attending it), and I’m now finally back to saying something more. Day 2 of the conference was jam-packed with papers, so I’m going to list the sessions I attended and then give very brief descriptions. I can give more details in comments for anyone who wants to know more about specific papers.

Parallel Session 3, Strand B (Laymen’s devotions)
James MacGregor, Georgetown University, Qatar: ‘Dude prays like a lady? Varieties of male devotion to Saint George in Late Medieval England.’
Iain MacInnes, University of the Highlands and Islands: ‘Piety in a wartime environment: demonstrations of personal faith by English and Scottish warriors, c. 1332- c. 1357.’
David Harry, University of Bristol: ‘“Lordynges, prestes, clerkes, and prechours”: the pastoral responsibilities of lay men in fourteenth and fifteenth century England.’

Plenary lecture
Professor James Clark, Professor of Medieval History, University of Bristol. ‘The attractions of the monastic life for English men between the Black Death and the Reformation.’

Parallel Session 4, Strand A (Tears and cross-cultural constructions of gender)
Hannah Hunt, Leeds Trinity University College: ‘The Monk as mourner: Eastern Christian self-identity in the seventh century.’
Kimberley-Joy Knight, University of St Andrews: ‘”He could not restrain himself from melting wholly into tears”: gratia lacrymarum in male religious life in the thirteenth century.’
Elisa Pulido, Claremont Graduate University: ‘Rabbi Gershom’s ban on polygamy and Jewish accommodation in the Middle Ages’

Parallel Session 5 (Arms and the man)
Kirsten Fenton, University of St Andrews: ‘Gender and religious identity in the writings of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon.’
Joanna Huntington, University of Lincoln: ‘Hereward the Wake: calamity’s child? Writing rebellion, ethnicity and lay masculinity in twelfth century England.’
John Jenkins, Independent Scholar: ‘Mendicant masculinity: a comparison of the treatment of gender in the lives of St Francis and the Buddha Gautama.’

In the first session we had a mix of late medieval papers on laymen, which were a useful reminder to me that it’s not so much the overall types of devotion that change between the ninth and the fourteenth century, it’s the social spread of those who do it and the types of artefacts they use. James MacGregor gave a very interesting paper combining manuscript study and liturgy, looking at Books of Hours with illustrated prayers to St George. There are very few of these, but those that do raise interesting iconographical issues. The iconography of St George increasingly moved towards showing him on horseback, fighting the dragon, with the princess he was trying to rescue watching him. Some of the prayers asked St George to rescue the person praying. How could a man pray such a prayer or appear in a donor image watching St George without identifying himself as feminized, being like the princess? James discussed how some of the iconography seems to have attempted to differentiate the viewing devotee from the viewing princess, as well as pointing out the problems of knowing exactly what prayers were being used and by whom. (Some rich men had multiple Books of Hours, for example). As usual, we can look at artefacts/texts, but it’s very hard to know the male subjectivity in reactions to them.

We then had Iain MacInnes talking about how some traditional patterns of personal piety for warriors were less suitable during the Scottish wars, because the type of warfare had changed, and there was much more skirmishing. So for example, prayers before battle aren’t much good if you’re no longer fighting pitched battles. Instead there was an increased move to patronage of religious establishments, both before battles and afterwards, in memory of dead lords and followers.

Finally, David Harry was looking at the pastoral role that literate laymen were being expected to play in teaching others. This suggested immediate parallels to the Carolingian “lay mirrors” which I have discussed before now in considerable detail, but there are important changes in language and social levels from the ninth century. David was looking at vernacular pastoral literature, and contrasted it to twelfth century texts that were in Anglo-Norman and associated with the English court. In the ninth century, meanwhile, we have Latin texts, produced for laymen of the highest social status (although some of these were also later translated into vernacular languages). Once again, when we’re debating issues of continuity versus change, scale is the key, though as usual, there’s no obvious way in which we can measure that effectively for expectations of lay pastoral activity in 800-1500.

Next up in the day was James Clark providing statistics to show that there was no late medieval decline in recruitment for “traditional” religious orders (as opposed to the Mendicants), and that it’s just Protestant propaganda that makes us believe the last monasteries before the Dissolution contained nothing more than two old men and a dog. In fact, in difficult times you can see particular vigour, such as between the two waves of the Black Death in 1348 and 1351 and between 1534 (the royal settlement) and 1536 (the final dissolution). As well as recruitment holding up, you can also see a continued interest in what are now sometimes called “alongsiders” – people sharing in the community for a while, whether children, youths or independent clerks.

James was arguing that a heroic, saintly ideal of monasticism still survived in the period, and that such a way of life also came to be associated with Englishness, with memories of King Offa as founding monasteries, and devotion to saints associated with monasteries, such as St Alban. Family identity was also important to some monks, where there was a tradition of sons entering a particular foundation.

But regular monasticism was also a career choice, providing social capital for gentry, yeoman and burgess families when their teenage sons entered. (There were relatively few sons of the nobility or lower classes professing). Some social mobility was possible, and there are examples of endowments and patronage allowing particular boys to enter the monastery as a richer monk’s groom or being educated in a monastic school. There were professional opportunities in monasteries as well – as Joel Rosenthal pointed out on the first day, a fair number of late medieval bishops were regular clergy. There were also increasing opportunities for scholarship for monks, especially since some Benedictine abbeys had their own Oxbridge studia and links to specific secular colleges.

Parallel session 4 had a lot of manly crying men. Hannah Hunt was talking about two different models of the Eastern monk as mourner (the Syrian word for hermit, “abila”, literally means “mourner”). John Climacus, from Mount Sinai in the seventh chapter of his Ladder of Divine Ascent had an inclusive view of mourning as a charismon that could be gained by anyone, emperors, women, children, convicts. Isaac of Nineveh, meanwhile, who talked about gouging tracks in your face by weeping, saw mourning as an activity done by male priests, while women lamented by singing, as in Jewish practice. Hannah was followed by Kimberley-Joy Knight arguing that contrary to what Piroska Nagy argued, the grace of tears didn’t lose its significance after the twelfth century. Nagy argued that tears from the thirteenth century were no longer the unique gift of a male elite, but Kimberley-Joy was giving examples showing that tears weren’t necessarily feminized after that.

After those two papers, which usefully implied that whatever happened in the Year 1000 and the Gregorian Reforms, there wasn’t a “lachrymal mutation”, we then had Elisa Puledo talking about something that did happen in the early eleventh century: Rabbi Gershom banning polygamy and a man divorcing a woman without her consent. The ban on polygamy was completely accepted in Europe, but not by Jews in Muslim-controlled areas. Elisa argued that a possible motive was as a way of distancing Jews from Muslims, at a time of increased tension after Caliph Al-Hakim had destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in 1009. Muslims were seen as lascivious by Christians, and Ashkenazi Jews, by changing their practices, moved radically away from other Jews as well as Islamic practices. Elisa wondered whether this then made it easier for bishops to protect Jews during the anti-Semitism preceding and during the Crusaders, but concluded that Christians may well have been unaware of the ban. Partial assimilation of this sort may not have made much difference.

The final session of the day was probably the most enjoyable one, even though I got roped into chairing it. We started off with an excellent paper from Kirsten Fenton in which my vast ignorance of twelfth-century English historians was revealed. I had not realised that Henry of Huntingdon was a married cleric with children, at a time when such behaviour was being attacked and prohibited. Kirsten showed how Henry’s discussions of synods on clerical celibacy were affected by this – such as his gleeful claim that in 1125, after the papal legate, John of Crema, had dealt severely with clerical concubines, he was discovered “after vespers with a whore”. Henry also didn’t mention some councils that prohibited clerical wives, and reported protests that attempts at purity beyond clerics’ capacity might lead to further sin. It was a nice reminder that the views of reformers about clerical celibacy weren’t universally accepted, and especially significant because Henry was an archdeacon, a group who were now being expected to act as enforcers of such decisions at a parish level.

Next up after Kirsten was Joanna Huntington, giving us a rousing account of Hereward the Wake, complete with PowerPoint slides of Lego figures and weird Victorian images of Hereward. Such unusual images seem rather appropriate when combined with a discussion of the Gesta Herewardi, a work which Joanna described as being at the intersection of history and fiction. The text includes a lot of anecdotes about Hereward as an exiled youth, including him slaying a bear in Northumberland (this animal was allegedly the offspring of one from Norway and possessed human intelligence, thus allowing Joanna to point out that we therefore now knew what a Norwegian bear does in the woods).

Joanna’s main point was that even though Hereward is shown as a hero in some ways right from the start, he’s only shown as truly manly, a “praeclarus vir”, rather than an “iuvenis”, when he’s older and behaves more responsibly, for example by returning booty he looted from Peterborough Abbey. Joanna sees this as a part of a wider concern in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to have clerics recognised as rightful leaders of the Christian community. Laymen have to know their place; military virtus isn’t enough on its own.

The combination of the two papers raises interesting questions about the extent to which discussions of masculinity/correct behaviour by men in the eleventh and twelfth centuries are mainly focused on conflicts between clerics and laymen or within the clergy themselves. Who are religious men defining themselves against? The most influential view has tended to see masculinity in the Gregorian Reform as about clerics asserting their male superiority over laymen, based on their supposedly greater purity. But that doesn’t explain why reformers were making that claim in the eleventh century, but not in the ninth. Joanna’s paper suggests that clerical claims to control of laymen could be as much about greater wisdom and respect for Christ’s servants as opposed to simple claims of moral superiority based on celibacy. Kirsten’s paper suggests how much conflict there was within clerical circles, that reform is as much about making claims of having superior virtue over other clerics (to which someone like Henry of Huntington responds by claiming that the reformers are just hypocrites). I hope to talk a bit more in my final post on the conference about how that ties in with some of the wider points that came out in the conference about clerical careers.

But first of all, a brief mention of the final paper of the day, by John Jenkins who managed the previously-unheard of feat of being more outrageous than Joanna. Though his paper started off with some comparisons between the Buddha and St Francis as mendicants, the main focus was on Buddha as the embodiment of the perfect man in Indian Buddhism. There he is portrayed not as a jolly fat figure (that’s Budai, but as having extraordinary beauty and great skill in martial arts. John referred to the 32 major characteristics of the Buddha’s body, which included him having webbed hands and feet and a retractable penis. John was arguing that this hyper-masculine image was developed to be set against the Vedic religion, which contrasted Brahma (the priestly god) with Indra (the warrior god) and linked beauty and strength together. The Buddha is the perfectly controlled warrior as well as the perfect spiritual leader, the perfect man in this world who can therefore renounce it. In contrast, St Francis, in a more established religious environment, doesn’t need to display such hyper-masculinity. Instead, the very weakness of his body simply confirms his strength of mind. Unlike the Buddha, he fights his own body, not those around him.

As a conversation-starter, a paper discussing a retractable penis is always going to be hard to beat. But at a slightly more analytical level, it’s a useful illustration of the fact that even hyper-masculine warriors aren’t culturally identical. The next time I hear evolutionary psychologists going on about universal views of male or female beauty, I am going to ask whether they include having a “long and broad tongue” (no. 28).

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3 thoughts on “Religious men 2: who are the religious men?

  1. Next up in the day was James Clark providing statistics to show that there was no late medieval decline in recruitment for “traditional” religious orders (as opposed to the Mendicants), and that it’s just Protestant propaganda that makes us believe the last monasteries before the Dissolution contained nothing more than two old men and a dog. In fact, in difficult times you can see particular vigour, such as between the two waves of the Black Death in 1348 and 1351 and between 1534 (the royal settlement) and 1536 (the final dissolution). As well as recruitment holding up, you can also see a continued interest in what are now sometimes called “alongsiders” – people sharing in the community for a while, whether children, youths or independent clerks.

    Did he stick to his time limit? More seriously, how can one quantify this? My initial reaction was that by 1450 both my pet monasteries are repeatedly fending off attempts to shut them down precisely because there aren’t even twelve monks and they’re all living in different parts of the building, but then remembered that Santa Maria de Ripoll stays strong till it’s dissolved in the 1830s. It seems to me as if cherry-picking could be terribly misleading here, but are there any global figures?

    Also:

    … allowing Joanna to point out that we therefore now knew what a Norwegian bear does in the woods

    I don’t think it’s been sufficiently placed on Internet record how much fun Joanna makes her work, thanks for this prime example!

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    • My notes don’t remind me on what statistical basis James Clark was relying – I presume there are some overall statistics for the dissolution period, so statistics for individual houses from earlier periods can at least provide negative evidence against the received wisdom that *all* monasteries were in decline. And as your evidence from Catholic Europe suggests, traditional monasticism wasn’t on the way out absent external forces (whereas there’d always been the rise and decline of individual houses). James Clark had an hour to speak, by the way, and I remember him as sticking about to that.

      Joanna was, as always, wonderful, and her paper did also allow me the best joke I’ve so far had as a session chair. After thanking Kirsten for talking about the professional religious, I went on: “We turn now to rebels. Joanna Huntington from the University of Lincoln (pause) will talk about Hereward the Wake.” Maybe you had to be there, but it did get a laugh.

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  2. “As a conversation-starter, a paper discussing a retractable penis is always going to be hard to beat.” Like that comment, very very nice 🙂 Very good article btw, thanks for that!

    Like

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