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  • Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England
  • Ivan Cañadas
Shepard, Alexandra , Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England ( Oxford Studies in Social History), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003; cloth; pp. xii, 292; 11 figures; RRP US$74, €50; ISBN 0198208189.

This well-researched and wide-ranging study sets out to demonstrate that 'manhood and patriarchy were not equated in early modern England, and should not be elided by modern historians' (p. 1). The range of historical materials taken into consideration is extensive, encompassing medical texts, 'father-son advice' and marriage treatises, as well as legal records of the courts of the University of Cambridge, where deliberations about various acts of violence, slander, sexual misconduct, and so forth, enable the author to examine ways in which notions of masculine honour and obligation resulted in conflict, and cases where the collective honour of the institution, as well as social distinctions of rank and economic standing, contributed to decisions.

Part I addresses ideas about the male body, debates about the perfect age, education, morality and health, and the cultural importance attached to marriage. Beyond patriarchal contrasts between men and women, and the status attached to men of middle years, the concept of manhood intersected, or combined, with other social hierarchies, including rank, and, increasingly, economic standing.

A point that Shepard returns to throughout the book is that the ideals of manhood defined in such writings consistently implied the dominance of the obverse. For example, in Chapter 2, 'The Imagined Body of "Man's Estate"', she points out that the essentialist model of masculine balance and perfection espoused in early modern medical treatises simultaneously betrayed a sense of the distance between the ideal and the reality where real men were concerned – whether the subjects were too young, too old, or not sufficiently 'improved' by learning and education. In another example of this, Shepard observes that the excesses of young men – prodigality, aggression, and indulgence in sex and alcohol – argue the existence of counter-codes of manhood, diametrically opposed to official codes of religion and law; the fact that moralists protested so much at 'the excesses of youth' not being one with 'manhood' reveals that 'they were viewed precisely [End Page 278] in this way by their protagonists' (p. 88). Similarly, her discussion in Chapters 4 and 5 of the group-culture of young men and of the role of male violence in the articulation of masculine self-definition – whether socially condoned, or condemned – is fascinating. It is there that Shepard delves into the paradox that '[a]rguably the boldest resistance to patriarchal concepts of order was performed by young men' (p. 94).

Shepard's discussion of the institution of marriage and the household is also of great interest. Thus, in Chapter 7 ('Credit, Provision, and Worth'), Shepard explores the importance of the household, representing both the site of married life, and the ideal of financial independence, or 'self-sufficient mastery', the sites of both idealized self-assertion and full entrance into manhood, and of danger and anxiety. Similarly, she discusses the communal dimension of identity and honour among young men and among other marginalized groups, whether theirs was a temporary phase – a life-stage – or something long-term, as was becoming the case among increasingly proletarianized tradesmen. It is in discussion of such issues that Shepard provides a vivid and incisive account of a complex social arena in a period of ideological change.

On the whole, this study is a well-organized, thorough investigation of the concept of manhood, one that amply fulfils the stated objective to illustrate why 'manhood' and 'patriarchy' should not be elided. One general concern, though, is the persistence of terms like 'patriarchy' and 'patriarchal power', at a time when it is becoming something of a cliché in the humanities not only that men are also oppressed by patriarchy, but that it is not only men who wield patriarchal power. In other words, have these terms become sufficiently burdened by qualifications for historians and literary historians to find another term altogether, in the same way that 'early modern' has come to replace the time-honoured and possibly convenient, but historically inadequate, term 'Renaissance' in Tudor and Stuart...


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