Lees, Claire A.

title.none: Cohen et al., "Medieval Masculinities"

identifier.other: baj9928.9507.001 95.07.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lees, Claire A., University of Oregon

publisher.none: .


identifier.citation: Cohen, Jeffrey JeromeMembers of Interscripta. Medieval Masculinities: Heroism, Sanctity, and Gender.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.07.01

Cohen, Jeffrey JeromeMembers of Interscripta. Medieval Masculinities: Heroism, Sanctity, and Gender.

Reviewed by:

Lees, Claire A.
University of Oregon

In October 1993, the Interscripta electronic colloquium began a lively debate on medieval masculinities, moderated by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who has now edited the discussion in hypertext for Labyrinth--the invaluable Web site for all things medieval. "Medieval Masculinities" is located under the Labyrinth Electronic Center (, and is best explored using either Mosaic or Netscape.

Cohen has made full use of hypertext in producing "Medieval Masculinities", which is neither article nor monograph, but an electronic package comprising Cohen's article, an Archive of the Interscripta discussion (which has its own threads of Gender Theory, Dissent, and Weekly review), a Bibliography, and Follow-Up discussion (which took place in November 1994). Hypertext links enable readers to find their own way through all this material, though Cohen's editorial hand is, of course, evident throughout.

The result is impressive. I have browsed through "Medieval Masculinities" several times, sharply aware of the effort Cohen has put into this scholarly resource. As a taste of the future for electronic medieval studies, "Medieval Masculinities" sets a high standard. Hypertext encourages a different kind of scholarly practice and a different kind of reading, Cohen points out, and it will take some time to adjust to this difference. Negotiating Labyrinth could not be easier but I am still happier reading offscreen than on. A good compromise for other like-minded readers is to download a selection of materials, though this inevitably limits the potential of hypertext for exploring and creating links across and between sections.

Like any other scholarly collaboration, "Medieval Masculinities" depends for its success not just on its medium, nor on its editor, but on its co-authors. Collaboration on this scale (fifty-five voices were heard in the original discussion), within fixed time limits (the discussion took place in six weeks), and in this medium is not the same as collaboration in print. The article provides an overview, but readers can also follow the original discussion and subsequent responses in the Archive and Follow-Up. The contributors have produced a rich, hugely diverse amount of material on masculinities from many different times, genres, and cultures within the medieval period. The breadth of reference is stunning--an eloquent testimony to the vitality of medieval studies--but is also initially overwhelming. Cohen's article provides one interpretation of this material but, as he points out, there are many others.

"Medieval Masculinities" takes its cue from contemporary theoretical analyses of gender as well as from the increasing number of studies on gender in the medieval period itself. The article is strikingly au courant. Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, David Halperin, Marjorie Garber, Thomas Laqueur, Joan Riviere, as well as Carol Clover, Joan Cadden, and Caroline Walker Bynum, are some of the filters through which medieval masculinities are assessed. Accordingly, masculinity is presented as multivocal, relational, conflicted, socio-culturally specific, and performative. There are also some moderate challenges to contemporary theory. In the section on Theory and the Body, Cohen argues for a "more holistic approach to bodily identity" (5) in the Middle Ages, deriving from, for example, theories of the humors, astrological influence, and dress. In general, however, the article opts overwhelmingly for the performativity of gender: "gender study, like its very object, must always be in performance in order to be alive", concludes Cohen.

The decision to focus on the masculinities of heroism and sanctity is a useful one, both for the Interscripta discussion and for its subsequent article. Heroism is the one of the better known cultural formations of masculinity in this period, perhaps because the majority of us study literature and, within literary study, the heroic and romance genres wield a certain amount of cultural prestige. Heroism here prompts a wide-ranging survey of the evidence: from Beowulf and Charlemagne, to Celtic, Arthurian, Norse, and high medieval reflexes in English and French, for example. The hypermasculine, always active male hero is well drawn, as are the generic constraints on this kind of masculinity: its idealization and its inevitable reinvention. "Medieval Masculinities" divides into sections on Relationality: Longing and Absence (how the hero's identity is dependent in part on what he is not); Heroism and Masculinity (the gendered implications of the heroic code and its limits); Sanctity and Heroism; Signifying Manhood (the many varied signifiers of masculinity, which includes a fascinating analysis of the cultural implications of hairiness); and Heroic Endings (the death-centered nature of heroism and its implications). Prefatory material includes a brief account of hypertext (which draws analogies between hypertext and gender that did not convince all Interscripta members, as the Follow-Up discussion indicates), as well as sections on Theory and the Body, and Anatomy, Culture, Destiny.

The relation of heroism to sanctity is already well established, and is here analyzed more briefly by concentrating on the permeable generic boundaries between the male saint (the example is the Vita Antonii) and the male hero who offers a secular ideal of sanctity (based largely on the Middle English Sir Gowther). Cohen's point is that generic boundaries become increasingly hard to fix from the perspective of gender. Other boundaries also vanish in Cohen's analysis. In one breathtaking paragraph in the section on Relationality, Cohen moves very freely between, for example, the Bardic poets, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Illiad, Gilgamesh, Arthurian romance, Norse sagas, Bevis of Hampton, Beowulf, and La Dame escoilee. Similarly, Cohen seeks to demonstrate throughout the imbrication of masculinity with other categories of difference and identity, such as race, theories of the body, and sexuality. The crucial relation between masculinity and social and cultural power is less well developed, however, although the Archive indicates that there was plenty of discussion of this point.

That there is no single hegemonic construction of masculinities but rather a gender continuum of masculinities in the Middle Ages conforms neatly with current gender theory and with other studies of masculinity in the period. I use it myself in the introduction to _Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), and would make the same observation of that collection of essays as of the Interscripta material and article: this is a helpful though necessarily preliminary response to the many different masculinities of the period. Any comparison of the Archive with Cohen's article reveals just how difficult it is to provide a brief synthesis of the evidence. As an overview, the emphasis on the multivocality of gender accomodates this evidence well but, in demonstrating how masculinity is implicated in other categories of difference, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of its specificity. In an analysis that has to treat the Middle Ages as one unit, linguistic, historical, and cultural specificity is also hard to establish, in spite of the fact that Cohen works hard to persuade us of the conflicting nature of the evidence. Still, the medieval world that produced the Sagas is not synonymous with that which produced the Life of Charlemagne, for example.

* Cohen's emphasis on masculinity and its pervasiveness in the Middle Ages can thus obscure other key differences in social and cultural practices. Informative though the article is, his enthusiastic approach to gender lacks refinement. There is no discussion of patriarchy, little analysis of the ways in which heterosexuality was constructed and maintained or of the important question of homosexuality, only brief mention of the asymmetric relation between masculinities and femininities in the period, and inadequate account taken of the questions of reception and of class. Without engaging with these issues, the emphasis on heroism can assume a prominence that is belied by the cultural record. Cohen and the members of Interscripta have offered the medieval community an important archive and have thus begun a major study of an area that demands further investigation. I now look forward to more focused studies, which will yield particular insight into the many different formations of masculinity in our period.