Given that the title of the Birkbeck conference included the question Ďwhat is masculinity?í, itís not surprising that there was so much discussion of definitions and approaches, until at times my eyes started to glaze over. Should we be looking at masculinity or masculinities or gender history or menís history or Ďcritical studies of men and masculinitiesí (which was Harry Brodís suggestion, taken from the title of one of the journals in the field)?
My normal take on masculinity is that what I am studying is an ideology, and that therefore my work comes under cultural history, but John Tosh, among others, made some quite pertinent comments about too great an emphasis on the Ďcultural turní, as though masculinity and gender was purely a rhetorical effect. So I am coming to think that maybe masculinityís better seen as a matter of three components/levels: ideology, practice, subjectivity. (This breakdown isnít exactly the same as anything discussed in the conference, though it owes a lot to Joan Wallach Scott, among others).
The ideology component of masculinity is relatively easy to see in most historical periods: a cluster of norms about what men ought to be like and ought to do. As Judith Butler and others have pointed out, however, gender needs to be performed: men and women need to act like men and women in order to be accepted as such. So you get a second component/level of masculinity: practice, how men (individually and in groups) actually behave. Finally, thereís subjectivity: the ideology only really Ďworksí if it gets into menís minds (or at least some menís minds). But this doesnít necessarily happen: norms can be (to some extent) ignored or resisted or subverted, practices can be purely external.
I think John Tosh is right that the main emphasis in the historical study of masculinity has been on ideology, and that male subjectivity has been neglected. There are two reasons for this: the origin of the field and the nature of the sources themselves. The history of masculinity, as was pointed out several times, developed from womenís history. Womenís history to a large extent started from an exploration of womenís past experiences: the urge to discover what previous women did and also what they thought. Womenís subjective experience was thus embedded in the field from the start. (In contrast, I think conceptually the study of menís subjective experience has always suffered from a) the vague feeling that men donít have much of an observable internal life (coming from the stereotypes of men as less emotional or emotionally self-conscious) and b) the rather more substantial point that part of male privilege may be not having to think about oneís own gender, just as in societies where whiteness is normative, whites donít need to think about their colour to the same extent that blacks do).
If womenís history started with female subjectivity and practice, the link to the history of masculinity was via ideology. Once you move from the reality of womenís subordinate position to explore historical ideologies of why women are subordinate/inferior, itís obvious to link this to ideologies of why men are dominant/superior. (There is still intense debate in looking at how ideologies of masculinity relate to ideologies about women: Iíll discuss that more in a further post).
Looked at like this, then womenís history has moved from the personal to the political (which makes obvious sense in the light of feminist slogans), while the history of masculinity still tends to stick at the political level, and needs to look more at the personal. The problem in doing this is the sources (at least for medievalists and early modernists).
Itís relatively easy to study dominant ideologies of masculinity in most historic societies. If there are subcultures that have their own ideology, but that arenít writing it down, this can be far harder to see. We donít know, for example, what a peasant ideology of masculinity might look like, until at least the early modern period.
With the second component, the practice of masculinity, there are even bigger gaps. We know things about some aspects of some menís lives, but there is an awful lot that we donít know. Iíve tried to look at what happens in ninth century marriage disputes, but this relies on a handful of cases from elite men. If you want to look at medieval father-son relations before very roughly 1000 AD, youíre limited to discussions about kings/rulers; for the high middle ages you can start discussing noble/knightly families, from the late Middle Ages you start to have sufficient information to look at gentry families (there was an interesting paper by Rachel Moss on the Cely family).
As for male subjectivity, Iíve argued before that we just canít get access to it for the medieval period. You need to be able to compare substantial collections of personal documents (such as private letters or diaries) to be able to say much useful. Thereís a team down at Exeter University looking at seventeenth to nineteenth century gentry in this way, but Iím not sure you can get much further back. (My impression is that medieval private letter collections, such as the Celys, the Pastons etc by and large donít give you much in the way of emotions beyond the conventional).
What all this means is that the study of medieval masculinity is inevitably going to be the study of the elite (although this elite gradually expands) and that itís not going to get as Ďpersonalí as we might like. But it does challenge those of us working in the field in two ways. One is to see if somewhere, somehow, we can squeeze a few case studies or even an emotion or two our of our recalcitrant sources. The other is that even if we canít answer these questions about practice/subjectivity, we should at least remind ourselves of them occasionally. Derek Neal asked the question of whether it mattered to (late) medieval clerics if laymen made them feel unmanly? He didnít have an answer (and Iím not sure there is the evidence to find one), but itís still one of the many questions worth thinking about.