Laurie Finke

title.none: Cohen and Wheeler, eds., Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (Finke)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.011 98.02.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laurie Finke, Kenyon College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Pp. xx, 387. $62.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-32836-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.11

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Pp. xx, 387. $62.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-32836-2.

Reviewed by:

Laurie Finke
Kenyon College

During the last decade, it has become fashionable, among both feminists and non-feminists, to take 'gender' rather than 'women' as the primary concept of analysis for feminist theory. The rise of gender studies as an alternative to, or alongside of, women's studies was, no doubt, spurred on by the poststructuralist critique of essentialism [1], as well as by certain theoretical and political impasses within feminism itself. The turn to gender has been met with anxiety and even hostility by many feminists. Those who resist the new critical paradigm fear that the shift of focus from 'women' to 'gender' will depoliticize feminism. Worse, it may render women once again invisible as subjects and objects of knowledge.[2] They fear that discourse about gender will be used to wipe out the previous three decades of scholarship on women and return us to the good old days when men were the universal norm and women were silent. Even proponents of the turn to gender worry that, untheorized,the term simply becomes a more politically acceptable euphemism for women. In the absence of a clearly articulated theory, the concept of gender simply becomes another example of semantic neutralization: gender refers only to the marked term, 'woman,' while the unmarked 'man' is conceived of as ungendered and universal -- mankind.

The eighteen essays collected in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler's Becoming Male in the Middle Agesplace themselves in the midst of this debate. In their introduction, the editors locate their project within the poststructuralist critique of essential gender. For them, "identity is a field across which gender is plotted asymmetrically but relationally, and is therefore subject to disruption by the identities and possibilities they exclude" (x); gender's most intelligible identities, the masculine and feminine, must be seen "as multiple sites for the production of cultural meaning" (x). To examine the constructedness of gender, however, does not dismiss the oppression inherent in particular historical configurations of gender, as many feminists fear. "Theorizing gender," they argue, "does not sublime the body's solidity to melt, suddenly, into air. The conceptual categories 'man' and 'woman' have profoundly material effects on the production of human subjects, and theorizing gender (femininities, masculinities, and all the possibilities those terms exclude) only historicizes the process of this sedimentation" (x). The introduction promises a collection that melds the insights of poststructuralist critique with those of recent historicist and materialist scholarship.

The editors insist that 'gender' is a critical tool for feminist theory; it is not enough to study women in isolation. If gender is a relational system in which terms become meaningful only in relation to one another, the term "woman" can have no meaning in and of itself, but only in relation to "man" and, of course, vice versa. To understand women's oppression, feminism, they argue, must explore the construction of men and masculinity just as rigorously as it investigates the construction of women and femininity. One might reasonably ask why, if the above is true, the editors chose to focus this anthology exclusively on men and masculinity? Why not Becoming Gendered in the Middle Ages? Their response is that although gender is relational, it is neither egalitarian nor symmetrical (xix). The most elementary deconstruction of any gender system will demonstrate the hierarchy implicit in the binary opposition's illusion of symmetry. As Michael Uebel writes in his concluding essay, "The norm for medieval personhood was defined -- needless to say -- as masculine: femininity was construed as imperfection, incompleteness, passivity, childishness, failure" (Uebel 370). Man, as D. Vance Smith argues in his essay, was the ideal. What medieval writers felt needed explaining was how women derived or deviated from man. The contributors to this collection attempt to turn the tables on androcentric assumptions about norms and ideals by interrogating masculinity, exposing this ideal which, Smith argues, was never as stable or immutable as it might seem. Because masculinity has been rendered nearly invisible -- or at least inevitable -- by its presumed universality, the essays in this volume illustrate what is not obvious: the variety of ways in which men are gendered and the historical effects of that gendering. I use gender in a verbal rather than nominal form because the editors stress that their interest is not in the products of gender -- men and masculinity -- but in the process by which men and masculinities are created; becoming male, as Uebel argues, is a continuous project whose outcome is never assured and whose trajectory can be plotted along many lines.

Judging the volume's success in accomplishing the ambitious goals its editors have set out is a more daunting task for the reviewer. The large number of essays works against any common sense of purpose. The eighteen essays collected here are not unified by subject matter, theoretical perspective, method, or discipline. There are three essays on Abelard and two on Chaucer. Beyond that there are essays dealing with Anglo- Saxon, Middle English, Scottish, German,and French literature, Jewish mysticism, the universities, Islam's and Judaism's relations with Christianity, and laboring-class festivities. Individually the essays are engaging and provocative but they rarely speak to one another and the spare editorial apparatus will, I think, discourage readers from venturing into the essays that fall outside of their own areas of interest and expertise. Uebel's concluding essay gamely attempts to articulate the connections among the essays. But while his own analysis of gender and identity formation as a process of spatialization is thought-provoking, his conclusions about the collections' common themes are fairly general: the contributors "see conceptualizing male identities in their state of becoming as a compelling way to dismantle the conventional linkages of the categories of sex and gender," offering "fresh readings of medieval sexuality and gender as dissociated and in dynamic relation to one another" (377-78).

If there is a representative medieval masculinity in this volume, it is not that the knight-warrior, but of the intellectual Peter Abelard. At first this seems odd; surely the hegemonic masculinity in the Middle Ages was that of the aristocratic caste. Yet the castrated Abelard is a fitting figure to preside over a volume exploring masculinity's instabilities. Long before his castration, Abelard had abandoned the warrior ethic of his class in favor of the battleground of intellectual debate. Even before his notorious affair with Heloise, Abelard was engaged in the task of refashioning masculinity. The essays on Abelard focus on the project of remasculinization that followed the public humiliation of his castration; they explore his "need to perform his maleness" (143) and testify both to the fragility and resiliency of that performance. Yves Ferroul's contribution, with its analysis of the medical details of castration, in particular provides a salutary warning against misreading the meaning of Abelard's specific mutilation and of masculinity in general. Castration involves the removal of the testicles not of the penis, as much of the scholarship Ferroul critiques suggests. In this regard, Abelard's story may belong less to the phallic discourse of psychoanalysis than to medieval science with its beliefs that "intelligence was directly related to the retention or the emission of semen" (140). In this view, Abelard's castration did not rob him of sexual potency, it rechanneled it toward intellectual pursuits, providing an important model of masculine identity that was able to transcend even religious identity. Elliot Wolfson's essay on Jewish mysticism, for instance, invokes much the same idea.

Perhaps it is, however, unfair to insist the volume display some kind of unified vision of medieval masculinity. The plethora of approaches bears out the editors' contention that there is no single masculinity in the Middle Ages, but many ways of becoming male that were responsive to time and place and intersected with other sources of identity like religion (in the essays by Krueger and Wolfson), class (Townsend, Sponsler and Goldstein), age (Frantzen) and professional status (Wheeler,Irvine, and Ferroul on Abelard, and Karras on the university). Marginal sexualities and gender identities are particularly interesting for what they can tell us about the instability of masculinity (see the essays by Franzen, Burger, Sturges, Putter, Epp, and Sponsler). Yet, I cannot help but feel that the reader's way through the collection might have been smoothed by a stronger editorial hand that offered more than summaries of individual contributions. The editors might have given readers some conceptual hooks on which to hang the various essays if only as an aid to memory. It will be difficult for the reader unschooled in the most recent gender theory to take away from this volume a coherent sense of the current state of theory about masculinity.

Taken together, however, the essays in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages do a remarkable job of demonstrating the relevance of masculinity to feminist concerns and of gender studies to medieval studies, attesting to the liveliness of the scholarship in this area. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages suggests that the risk of gender I referred to earlier in this review -- the risk that an untheorized gender studies might supplant feminism and exclude women by restoring the universal male subject -- might well be a risk worth taking if it results in a more nuanced analysis of the historical contingency of gender identity.


[1] Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity(New York: Routledge, 1990) is often cited as a foundational text of gender studies, but it is worth pointing out that the poststructuralist critique of essence predates Butler's book by almost a decade. Gender Trouble may more usefully be seen as a synthetic rather than an inaugural work in gender studies.

[2] Tanya Modleski's, Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a Postfeminist Age (London: Routledge, 1991) is perhaps the best example of this critique.