IMC 2012 report 1: rules, filth and gender

My experience at the International Medieval Congress in July this year seemed particularly fragmented. Partly this is because my research interests are getting increasingly broad, but also because a large chunk of my time had been spent organising a set of sessions on Hincmar of Rheims. So anything that wasn’t Hincmar tended to be something of an after-thought. And Monday certainly was a day juxtaposing all kinds of papers.

I started with the keynote speeches, which reflected two very different examples of the rather vague theme for the year of “Rules to Follow or Not”. Svere Bagge talked about when regicide went out of fashion, arguing that in Scandinavia it was 1286 (with the killing of Eric V of Denmark) but that it was earlier in the rest of Western Europe (although with some blips). He put this down predominantly to more agreed succession rules – and made a contrast with Byzantium, which although no less civilised, had fewer restrictions on who could become emperor, giving would-be regicides the chance of succeeding to the throne themselves. In the west, in contrast, murderers almost never came to the throne, but other methods of resisting rulers developed; kings who were killed were often not rulers at the time, but had already been deposed. Sverre said that there was always a tendency to give kings a certain leeway in order that they could rule the country and ensure stability. He also saw the development of the theory of the king’s two bodies as aiding such resistance: kingship could be defended against a particular king. Practical concerns about the results of killing a legitimate authority also helped protect kings.

We then had Nicole Bériou on C12 and C13 monasticism and the tensions between rules and following Christ. Stephen of Marais (?) claimed “There is no other rule than the rule of Christ”, and other theologians, such as Petrus Cantor worried that structured monastic rules might actually hinder monks in following Christ’s precepts, e.g. those who had to remain in a contemplative life for which they were unsuited.

In the same spirit, Dominican rules were not made binding on the friars: their infraction was a simple offence, but not a sin. And the idea of a rule could itself be adapted: from the C13 the idea of the laity as an ordo was explicitly developed, with key parts of their “rule” being marriage and the Ten Commandments. The monastery could become a model for all society in this way.

After that session I went off for some filth, although on this occasion, mostly not of the sexual kind. Instead, the topic was hygiene rules. First up was Elizabeth Archibald on rules about bathing, who gave a quick canter through 1000 plus years of medieval bathing, demonstrating that the church wasn’t against bathing on principle (though some individual religious men were). Indeed, Aelred of Riveaulx took up to forty baths a day when he had bladder stones, but that was OK, because he took no pleasure from it.

Elizabeth also gave some details about bathing that suggested the church may have had cause to be worried: the term “stew” could refer to baths or brothels, and in Germany there was apparently a tradition of taking off your clothes at home and then running to the public bath-house naked, to avoid having your clothes nicked. (Someone has to do an article on the history of the swimming-pool locker). During questions, we also had someone pointing out that while mixed bathing together in a hot tub may sound alluring (or alternatively an occasion of temptation), unless it was possible to drain the tub, the water would probably have got cold pretty quickly.

We then got even filthier with a couple of papers on latrines. Belle Tuten discussed Frankish monasticism and excretion, and pointed out that we don’t know much about how monks dealt with or thought about bodily waste. On the other hand, we do know quite a lot about the latrines on the plan of St Gall, and there are hints in some of the monastic rules about the need for supervision when young monks went there. One of the most interesting points Belle made was that with a fixed routine of meals and diet, the monks’ bowel movements might have been fairly predictable; she pointed out the possibility that going to the latrine at odd times might have been taken as evidence of “crapula” (over-eating ), condemned as a sin. (Though there could be other reasons for such irregularities: a number of the herbs shown on the St Gall plan were vermifuges, suggesting the monks may have had problems with intestinal worms).

Finally in the session, we had Martha Bayless bringing together two Anglo-Saxon texts. She was arguing that the solution to the Exeter Book Riddle 76 “Ic ane geseah idese sittan” (I saw a lady sitting alone) was that she was on the toilet, and then connected this to a complaint of Aelfric about women having drinking-parties in latrines. In practice, women might not be alone in the latrines – but they could be away from Aelfric and other male moralisers, which might have its own advantages!

My final session for the day (I was being wimpy and attending a mere three sessions out of a possible five) was 214 on narratives of masculinity. This started off with Joanna Huntington whom I had last seen glorifying rebellion in Huddersfield. This time, she was looking to explore how William of Malmesbury adapted his Gesta Regum Anglorum to reflect the patronage of first Matilda of Scotland and then the Empress Matilda. Her verdict was that William didn’t adapt the work to make it empress-friendly and she also suggested that William simply didn’t care about gender (in contrast to Turgot of St Andrews, who wrote the Life of St Margaret for Matilda, and who seems to have thought of Margaret as a model of monarchy for both men and women). As Joanna concluded: “It’s all about the men in the twelfth century.”

Eilidh Harris followed with contrasting ideas of chastity in the lives of two twelfth century male saints, Hugh of Lincoln and Gilbert of Sempringham. Hugh’s life was shown as a battle for chastity and described in military terms, a trope that was common in the period. Gilbert, founder of a double order of monks and nuns, isn’t described in such terms in his vita, though it does include an extremely peculiar dream in which Gilbert dreams he’s put his hand into the bosom of one of the nuns and been unable to remove it. (According to his biographer, this was a sign of his sanctity and virginity, although I’m not quite sure how). Eilidh was arguing for Gilbert’s male authority as coming from self-control. He was therefore able to control women by enclosing them; he could go into the women and they couldn’t get out. (I should note at this point that typing my notes up four months later and post the Jimmy Saville revelations, Gilbert looks rather more creepy than I’d ever thought of him before).

The session ended with Katherine Lewis, looking at twelfth-century masculinity through fifteenth-century eyes, discussing Middle English hagiographical writings. These have tended to be seen as artistically worthless; for example, Laurentius Wade’s life of Thomas Becket from 1497 was described in the early C20 as “this valueless work”, partly because it wasn’t written in proper rhyme royal.

All of the saints canonised in medieval England were men, Katherine said (I presume she meant post 1066) and there was a distinctive genre of holy bishops. She saw the Middle English versions of lives as increasingly aimed at the laity, and thought that Caxton’s audience when printing such legends was the prosperous mercantile class. To these the saints could be presented as an exemplar model, especially of the “husbandry” described by Derek Neal: the prudent and honourable management of self and household. Thomas Becket, Katherine thought, was popular because he was a burgess’ son and also an example of a man taking on respectability later on in life, changing his demeanour when he was made archbishop at age 44. She then ended with parallels to Henry V, whom biographer described in similar terms: a useful reminder that although we tend to separate out the masculinity of religious men/holy men and laymen, role models for others may have crossed these lines.

I finished up Monday with a tour of bookstalls, followed by the bloggers meet-up in the evening (about which my memories are oddly vague, although we did have a good time). And then it was on to Tuesday: monks, charters, more gender and Geoff Koziol arguing with everyone, of which more anon.


2 thoughts on “IMC 2012 report 1: rules, filth and gender

  1. Thanks for a great summary! I was at some of the same sessions but missed others you write about here, so it’s good to get a feel for what they covered. On your last point (about Henry V) I’ve been doing some thinking lately on models of masculinity and the concept of hegemonic masculinities that you raised in another post a little while ago. It seems to me that once you take sex qua sex out of the picture, the models of ideal masculinity (at least in the later medieval period that I am most familiar with) for clerical men and for elite secular men are not actually that far apart. What I mean is that, in both cases, the value that is privileged is bodily self-governance / reason (coded as masculine) over fleshly weakness/ deviant will(coded as feminine). While for clerics, this control manifested in the commitment to celibacy (resisting fleshly lust), for elite secular men it manifested in knightly/ chivalric ideals of bodily discipline, prowess etc. This is an idea I’m still working through (doing some re-reading of Connell, Tosh etc.), but with the types of sources/ texts I’m engaging with – such as treatises on chivalry and ‘mirrors for princes’ – it seems to be holding up pretty well so far. As you are much more of a specialist in the other side of the equation ( clerical masculinities), I’d be interested to know what you think on this score.


  2. Leeds 2012 Report 1I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between givi…


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