The Medieval Review 11.10.36

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. . Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages. Genders and Sexualities in History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp. xiii, 269. $85. ISBN 978-0-230-22220-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Lynda Coon
University of Arkansas
llcoon@uark.edu

Negotiating Clerical Identities is part of Palgrave Macmillan's pioneering series on genders and sexualities in global contexts. The editor Jennifer D. Thibodeaux has assembled ten intriguing essays on topics ranging from manliness and violence to the hyper masculinized cloister of imperial Germany to the gender bending styles of university theologians. The chronological range of Negotiating Clerical Identities covers the late Carolingian era through the fourteenth century with occasional movement into the early Renaissance. Geographically, the volume focuses largely on Western Europe, but does include territory typically not mentioned in scholarship on medieval gender, such as the frontier zone of medieval Scandinavia and the eastward route traveled by the armed penitents of the crusading era. Unlike a number of edited volumes, the contributors to this Palgrave tome deploy clear themes in a consistent manner: the multiplicity of gendered clerical styles, ca. 900-1400; the contested zone between lay and ecclesiastical masculinities; resistance to church mandated celibacy; and the legacy of Victorian views on parish priests in post-nineteenth century scholarly understandings of clerical gender. The authors avoid the trap of centering their work solely on medieval stars, such as Guibert of Nogent or Peter Abelard, and prefer instead the gritty work of "archive-trawling" (30) to unearth evidence for the lives of ordinary clerics. The wealth of sources used by the contributors illuminate the diversity of clerical experiences under investigation: hagiographical texts, chronicles, charters, monastic rules, sermons, exegeses, theological tracts, conciliar legislation, diocesan census records, episcopal registers, episcopal memoranda, visitation records, court books, and quodlibetal disputations. Analysis of these documents reveals the multiple masculinities produced during the time period under consideration, thereby enriching considerably existing work on gender and medieval Christianity.

All ten contributors engage key works in the field of masculinity studies, from R. W. Connell's groundbreaking study of hegemonic and subordinate Masculinities to JoAnn McNamara's provocative essay on the anxieties involved in producing medieval categories of virility to Ruth Karras's essential text on medieval manhood, From Boys to Men. The first two chapters in the collection, Thibodeaux's introduction and Derek Neal's analysis of the historiographical traditions informing scholarship on clerical masculinity, set the stage for the subsequent essays. In her introduction, Thibodeaux leads the reader through the theoretical complexities of understanding clerical masculinity in a pre-modern age, especially as there is no extant monograph on the subject. She warns scholars about the dangers of universalizing the masculine identity of priests. Thibodeaux vehemently objects to the idea that priests and ascetics formed a third gender in the medieval era, a theory proposed in a number of well-known works in the field. Instead, she and her colleagues propose that medieval churchmen envisioned priestly gender as militantly masculine and at times triumphant over that exercised by secular competitors. She exhorts scholars of clerical masculinity to situate the gendered performances of medieval priests within precise chronological and geographical contexts and to reflect carefully on the type of holy man under scrutiny (priest, monk, ascetic, bishop, crusader, or university professor).

Neal's exploration of the degree to which Victorian constructions of masculinity, especially the stereotype of the prissy, repressed parish priest, have enjoyed an unnerving afterlife in gender/sexuality studies up until the present day is invaluable. His essay is the only one in the collection that broaches the topic of queerness. Importantly, Neal notes that contemporary scholars of gender, the mavens of a supposedly revolutionary sexual age, have created interpretative paradigms which are tacitly heterosexist. Opposite-sex relations continue to be a marker of normative sexuality even in (supposedly) cutting-edge, leftist scholarly works. The suspect sexuality of the nineteenth-century vicar, heir to the unnatural celibacy imposed on medieval clerics, remains off the map of contemporary masculinity and sexuality studies, which tend to highlight normative males. After all, "all vicars were poofs" (22). And celibacy--a deviant state--caused the medieval church to totter (20). One of the main goals of Negotiating Clerical Identities is to bring priestly bodies, sexualities, and masculinities into broader surveys on gender studies and to expose the extent to which early Protestant narratives of the medieval church continue to control even the best scholarship on masculinities.

Several of the essays in the volume concentrate on "hybrid masculinities." Andrew Romig's examination of the tenth-century Life of Gerald of Aurillac takes the reader into the late Carolingian Auvergne where tensions between monastic and secular visions of manliness collide and fuse, thereby generating a fascinating--and simultaneously disquieting--model of holiness for noblemen in general. Oddly, Gerald lives as a monk in a warrior fortress, practicing his intense brand of asceticism while executing his vexing duties as a count. His hagiographer Odo of Cluny engages in literary "cartwheels" (46) to show his early medieval audiences that a count like Odo could lead men into bloodless battle and could look on female bodies as "hideously ugly" (46). Although extant scholarship on Gerald has underscored the layman's refutation of sexual activity as the key marker of his masculinity, Romig counters that comital duties remained the true obstacle to any aristocratic male's participation in Carolingian ideologies of holiness. Romig stresses that Gerald's peculiar hodgepodge of warrior and ascetic masculine styles were in part aimed at the lukewarm monks of the Auvergne, whose piety had grown cold and whose cloisters lacked manly vigor.

To avoid the fate of the tepid monasticism of the tenth-century Auvergne, the leadership of the German Empire of the eleventh century sought to "virilize the cloister" (60). Scott Wells's assessment of the monastic reform movement launched by Emperor Henry II (r. 1002- 1024) meshes well with Romig's study of the hybrid masculinity of Gerald of Aurillac. In this instance, the warrior fortress moves into the cloister as opposed to the cloister repositioning itself in a garrisoned castrum. In the imperial monasteries of Germany, monks serve emperor as a spiritual militia. Ascetic prayers and powers trump the "iron and steel" of ordinary soldiers (70). Significantly, Wells brings gender theory to the study of royal and monastic charters, the language of which is peppered with bodily metaphors utilized in the gendered rhetoric of reform. The emperor's attempt to impose militant models of asceticism on all the monasteries of the empire was met with opposition by some church leaders, who embraced a model of collective caritas. The friction between these two ecclesiastical camps lends credence to the main argument of this edited volume: medieval males frequently resisted hegemonic modes of masculinity.

Two other essays pursue the themes of martial monasticism and hybrid masculinity: Katherine Allen Smith's evaluation of the discourses of spiritual warfare in the high Middle Ages and Andrew Holt's discussion of crusader bodies. Smith scrutinizes letters, saints' lives, and sermons for examples of spiritual violence and martial imagery. While eschewing violence in any form, from localized warfare to tournament play, the monastic writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries realistically employed descriptions of the latest military technologies, "siege engines, coats of mail, spiritual horses, and vats of boiling oil," to frame their mystical speculations (95). Monks follow their general John the Baptist into battle (99), and virile ascetics march to the command of their spiritual "drillmaster," the Apostle Paul, for athletic training (89). Allegorical combat, Smith maintains, opens up a space for monks to assert their masculinity in ways recognizable to contemporary audiences. Holt's crusaders take the leitmotif of spiritual warfare into the actual area of battle, and the texts portraying their bellicose activities are rich in detail. The military orders couple corporeal purity, the rejection of women, and acts of self-abnegation with violent military skirmishes. In this regard, crusader piety brings to mind the secular-sacred "cartwheels" of Gerald of Aurillac. The Templars in particular push the envelope of medieval masculinity. In texts devoted to Templar military tactics, male parts metamorphose into talismans of victory. For example, when the Templar hero Jakelin de Mailly fell dead on the battlefield in the Holy Land, his Muslim adversaries cut off his testicles and preserved them as a guarantee of perpetual triumph, an unexpected twist to the medieval cult of relics (192).

Like Holt's Templars, Anthony Perron's Danish priests propel gender historians into unchartered terrain. In this provocative essay, Perron's hypothesizes that ancient Nordic legends of chaste kings, refined and refashioned in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, served as the political backdrop for the controversial importation of Gregorian reform agendas in twelfth-century Denmark. The lecherous Danish priest and his lusty concubine resonate among the lively characters of Saxo's mythical past, such as the warrior king who softens his body by frequent contact with a "savage bride," who "[trusts] in her buttocks," and "[rejoices] to take a penis in a shameful transgression" (123). The votary of clerical celibacy in the Danish church thus was more like the battle-hardened abstemious Nordic warrior, whose virility was based on the degree to which he has transcended the appetites of his body. Perron's essay charts the widespread resistance to Gregorian reform in Scandinavia and illustrates the creative strategies implemented by contemporary churchmen to bolster a Roman-backed drive for clerical continence.

Jennifer Thibodeaux and Janelle Werner's essays pick up on the theme of opposition to the Gregorian reform movement but do so within the context of the local parish. Thibodeaux focuses on ecclesiastical sources from thirteenth-century Normandy while Werner tackles parish records from fourteenth-century Hereford. Both scholars find places where clerics resisted priestly styles of masculinity imposed on them from the top. While other historians cite the obtainment of a benefice and "fatherhood" over a parish as the attributes turning late medieval clerics into "men," Thibodeaux finds evidence that the secular clergy in Normandy routinely participated in acts of male- bonding parallel to those of their secular peers: tavern crawling, brothel frequenting, and gambling (among a host of other depraved deeds). Some of Thibodeaux's priests extended their adolescent brawling well into their forties and fifties, and their peripatetic lifestyles were similar to those of other notorious roamers of the day, such as university students, single males of noble birth, and journeymen (149). Werner's holy men of Hereford flamboyantly grafted sexual potency onto their identities as men and priests. Therefore, the line dividing clerical and lay was often blurred or even non- existent at the local level. Werner's research overturns the standard mantra that English clerics were more celibate than their Continental peers. Werner and Thibodeaux both urge gender historians to craft a "more flexible definition of clerical masculinity" (174)--one constructed around careful study of the extant archival documents.

Andrew Miller's essay on masculinity and violence in medieval England combines meticulous archival work with a keen theoretical agenda. Specifically, Miller examines how the private hunting grounds (deer parks) of the aristocracy played a role in formulating competitive styles of masculinity. Deer parks were incredibly expensive to maintain; therefore, these enclosures served as markers of the elite status of prominent noblemen, bishops, and even abbots. Ownership of parks also denoted gender status, because sharing salted venison with guests was an expression of masculinity in medieval England as was hunting women and game. Because deer parks invited blood sport, the clerics who owned them crossed over the gendered line into the aggressive masculine world of the secular elite. Conflicts between clerical and lay leaders often played out in these heavily manicured parks. English knights assaulted the estates of rivals, slaughtering prized deer collections and staging animal corpses in grotesque poses around the park. These gruesome rituals of violence contain shocking gendered implications. When attacking the deer parks of secular enemies, the hunters would stick the heads of bucks on pikes and scatter them around the estate; for churchmen, the knights preferred the heads of female deer to mock the ambiguous gender of holy men and to draw attention to the fact that not even an ecclesiastical potentate could defend his private lands. In retaliation, churchmen forced armed lords to enact outlandish acts of public penance, which could involve not only the practitioners of violence, but also their weapons of carnage and the siege-craft they used to attack churches. In this vivid essay, Miller depicts precisely where clerical and lay styles of manhood intersect (the havocking of the hunt) and diverge (public atonement for violence).

The final essay of the collection, Tanya Miller's engaging study of the gender-bending styles of university theologians in Paris, moves the reader out of the rural deer park and into a vibrant urban culture, where the mendicant orders and the secular clergy competed with one another vigorously for authority to preach. The medieval university offers gender theorists an exceptional occasion for testing theories of clerical masculinity. In this "world without women" (238), males expressed their virility through intellectual mastery performed in quodlibetal debate. Being a man meant subjugating other males. In order to temper the aggressive, competitive world of the university, Robert of Sorbon turned to the contemplative example of the beguine as a model for secular clerics and university theologians. He did so at a time when the beguines were setting up shop on the Left Bank and opening their households to university students so that these neophyte theologians could test their talents for preaching. Miller's inquiry opens a window into the medieval classroom, where final exams are compared to the Last Judgment and where faculty strikes against the university led to divisions between the secular clergy (who went on strike) and the mendicant professors (who refused to do so). By including an essay on the gendered styles of university professors, Negotiating Clerical Identities extends the range of more conventional treatments of medieval masculinity.

This excellent volume could be strengthened, however, by an additional essay or two on same-sex eroticism and clerical identity. As it stands, only one of the ten chapters raises the issue of queerness and does so within a historiographical context. Although there are many striking connections among the essays in this collection, nowhere outside of the introduction is there any attempt to link shared themes or approaches. While it is refreshing that a volume dedicated to sexuality studies published in the twenty-first century does not acknowledge the name Michel Foucault, I do think that the authors need to confront Foucault's theories about the pre-modern sexual past as an "alien" past as well as the notion that sexuality as a category of human identity does not fully exist before the nineteenth century. Andrew Miller's essay sets the bar high in terms of theory because he situates masculinity within the crucial contexts of space and ritual performance. In a volume dedicated to gender and sexuality, I would expect to see more essays delve into cultural theory. Finally, a few essays could be bolstered by greater consideration of the historical contexts informing the construction of masculinity under review, especially if an advanced undergraduate audience is envisioned.

Overall, I highly recommend Negotiating Clerical Identities to faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates who work in the fields of gender, religion, and sexuality studies. The volume fulfills perfectly the mission of Palgrave's innovative Genders and Sexualities in History Series precisely because the contributors contest the universality of medieval masculinity and do so with interpretative flair and scholarly integrity.