03.11.02, Karras, From Boys to Men

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William Aird

The Medieval Review baj9928.0311.002


Karras, Ruth Mazo. From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. 246. ISBN: 0-8122-1834-5.

Reviewed by:
William Aird
Cardiff University

"Medieval Europe was a Man's world." So begins Professor Karras' study of the formation of masculinity in the later Middle Ages. The study of masculinity, taking its lead from the foundations laid by feminist historical scholarship, is at last receiving increasing attention from social historians and historians of gender. Whereas historians of the modern and early modern periods have been willing to employ masculinity as a tool of historical analysis, medievalists have been more reticent. Hitherto, students of medieval masculinity have had to rely heavily on a relatively small number of essay collections, such as Clare A. Lees (ed.), Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis and London, 1994), Dawn M. Hadley (ed.), Masculinity in Medieval Europe (London, 1999) and Jacqueline Murray (ed.) Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West (New York, 1999). Indeed, there have been few extended attempts to employ masculinity as a category of historical analysis for Medieval Europe.

Professor Karras' study follows her examinations of Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (1988) and Common women, prostitution and sexuality in Medieval England (1996). In From Boys to Men, she compares the formation of masculine identity in three social arenas: the aristocratic court, the university, and the artisan's workshop. One of the key theoretical insights offered by recent work on masculinity has been that masculine identity should not be regarded as monolithic, or merely a dominant oppositional construct against which to examine the subordination of women in past societies. The examination of the formation of masculinity in these arenas thus provides Karras with the opportunity to emphasise this situational and plural nature of masculinity.

Karras subscribes to the view that gender roles are socially constructed as the result of an ongoing dialogue between the individual and society, whereby the role is both internalized and imposed. Here, she engages with the essentialist debate, which questions whether any uncontested, innate, or essential differences between the sexes exist. Proceeding from an openly feminist standpoint, Karras states that medieval society was patriarchal and that men's social roles and expectations were constructed against this assumption. For Karras, then, gender and social power are intimately connected. Her study is related to the feminist historical agenda and her project thus grows out of the conviction that it is only possible to understand women's lives by understanding men as men in a more nuanced way, rather than viewing them as members of a homogeneous, undifferentiated oppositional category. That said, Karras is aware of the dangers of imposing modern conceptions on past society and that one must study medieval Europe on its own terms.

In her introduction Karras discusses familiar themes such as hegemonic masculinity, its correlative subordinate masculinity, and the idea of a medieval crisis of masculinity. However, the later Middle Ages did not see such a crisis, rather a period of the erosion of women's social power and status. In the formations of masculinity Karras identifies, the subjection of women was always a part of masculinity, but perhaps not always its main purpose or central feature. Men were often more concerned to prove themselves, not in contradistinction to women, but against other men. In such scenarios women might be used in this competition with other men. Age was also a factor in the construction of masculinity and materially affected the social meaning of an individual's masculine identity. Here marriage and fatherhood acted both as a gender markers and key transformative social engines.

The three case studies, then, deal with the formation of masculinity at the aristocratic court, the medieval university, and in the urban workshop. Knights expressed their masculinity through the use of violence in order to impress other men. Fundamental was the chivalric ethos, regulating not only the conduct of war, but also courtly display. This juxtaposition and overlapping of martial prowess and courtly love provides an opportunity to examine how literary motifs and lived experience were accommodated. Women, though seemingly central to courtly society, were, in fact, often merely elements in the social process, the currency, in other words, with which men proved themselves to other men. Karras questions whether the niceties of courtly behaviour represent a "feminization" of knighthood, arguing instead that gender expectations may be blurred without necessitating a re-gendering of the object of discussion. Knightly culture relied on social display, whether on the battlefield, at the tournament, or in the court and, therein, displays of honour, wealth and reputation were crucial elements of the knight's masculine identity. Homosocial bonds, developed through shared experiences, brought a sense of brotherhood in arms, and served to exclude not only women, but also other men.

Similarly, scholars at medieval universities competed with their fellows, although exchanging sword and lance for the intellectual weapons of the disputatio. Rationality distinguished men from both women and beasts. Karras admits that this masculine identity was not as widely admired as that of the knight, but, given the increasing influence of the universities on the clerical caste of the Middle Ages, its importance to medieval society demands a closer examination. Karras focuses on the mechanisms whereby men learned to be men in an environment where women were officially excluded, yet where it was recognised that scholars would interact with females. A scholastic misogyny, occasionally brutally manifested through sexual violence, seems to have been a constituent of this masculine identity and Karras asks whether this aggressive heterosexuality might have been seen as a corrective to perceptions of the celibate scholar as "e-masculine". In this environment homosocial relationships might be both agonistic (adversarial) and erotic, with students competing with their peers in disputation, but also finding themselves embroiled in the erotics of discipleship. Once again, homosocial bonds were created through shared experiences, such as feasts and drinking bouts, and initiation rituals, with the latter seen as cleansing the student of the influence of women, as well as underscoring his rationality and separateness from both women and beasts.

In the artisan's workshop, masculinity was again formed largely through competition with other men. In a hierarchical structure, young artisans served masters as apprentices or journeymen in the hope of eventually acquiring independence and a workshop of their own. There was a dissonance between expectation and reality, when many of these urban craft workers found themselves unable to acquire a fully adult status. The normative values of urban masculinity were established by confraternities of artisans, the guilds, and other civic authorities. Apprenticeship was ostensibly a path to masculine identity and, in a quasi-familial relationship, the young artisan learnt his craft, while being treated as a subordinate, and having to conform to the patriarchal structures of the workshop. Another sector of the urban male population, skilled labourers, many of whom were former apprentices, were forced to take paid work as journeymen, and thus occupied an intermediary status between boys and men. The reality of urban life thus restricted the possibilities of attaining full adult masculine status. In such circumstances, groups of young men sought solidarity with their fellows in collective action, whether officially or unofficially constituted. In urban society, women were much more visible, and, indeed, marriage was seen as a mark of male maturity, yet, once again masculinity, as characterised by Karras, was a question of acquiring "a skill and training available (notionally anyway) only to men, but also proving oneself mature, substantial, honourable and independent, in competition with other men" (150).

In conclusion, Karras reiterates that no single masculine identity is to be found in late Medieval Europe. In each social arena, men learnt to be unlike women in competition with other men, both their peers and their elders. The question of how the formation of masculinity relates to the subordination of women is explored, and Karras suggests that the discourse of the oppression of women also allowed men to claim dominance over other men. The exclusion of women was assumed, if not always made explicit. According to Karras, there was a depth of misogyny in medieval culture which accompanied the homosocial nature of many of its institutions. Ultimately, then, masculinity was as much socially constructed in the medieval period as in the modern world. Masculine identity was not a biological given, but a site of contention throughout the individual's life and needed repeated redefinition and demonstration. This, then, is a very useful study of the formation of medieval masculinities and demonstrates that gender is, indeed, a conceptual tool worth deploying by the medievalist for a more nuanced understanding of medieval society in general, and medieval men in particular.

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William Aird

Cardiff University