- Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England
In this richly detailed book, Alexandra Shepard surveys the many ways that gender interacted with other status distinctions in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. She suggests that the "period between 1560 and 1640 was part of a long-tern shift in the relationship between patriarchal, anti-patriarchal, and alternative concepts of manhood and the groups [End Page 506] of men with which these conflicting codes were associated" (p. 253). Shepard acknowledges the importance of gender difference, that manhood was an estate that conferred privilege to those who held its status, and that there was no comparable estate for women. That said, she argues quite forcefully for a reexamination of the concept of "patriarchy" in early modern society, arguing that differences among men were, at certain times and in certain contexts, far more significant than differences between men and women generally.
The argument unfolds in two parts. The first, "Modelling Manhood," draws on prescriptive literature to chart the common assumptions about normative behavior by men. Shepard surveys the various expectations and experiences of men from youth to old age, indicating that differences between men were explained in environmental as well as moral terms, and that the full expression of manhood was conditioned by age, marital status, and behavior. The second part of the book makes full use of the local archives for Cambridge, including the university. It explores the ways in which the norms found in prescriptive literature were enacted in social settings, emphasizing the importance of reputation and credit to male identity. Shepard's chapter on violence and manhood in many ways serves as the heart of her argument. Violence was one of the chief means through which patriarchal codes were enforced, but at the same time "violence also informed alternative meanings of manhood, and was in addition widely appropriated by men otherwise excluded from positions of authority in deliberately anti-patriarchal stances" (151). Violence was often the language with which men communicated with one another their anxieties about status; it could be used by those accustomed to authority to discipline those they held to be subordinate, but it could also be used by those in subordinate positions to challenge those who were perceived to have been failing to uphold common standards.
The potential for misunderstanding was vast. Shepard begins the chapter on violence with a dispute in Cambridge in 1594 that started when tanner John Durant quarreled with waterman and constable Henry Elwood, who sought the arrest of one of Durant's friends. Insults were tossed, followed by punches. Despite Durant's apparent attempt to appear non-aggressive, Elwood bloodied his face and then challenged him to the field, which Durant accepted. Elwood relented somewhat, choosing a final volley of threats over an escalation in the violence, at which point Durant's wife entered the scene, first insulting then attempting to strike Elwood. Elwood responded to this attack by advising Durant to allow his wife to wear his breaches, for she was the better man in his household. Shepard returns to this story subsequently, using it to demonstrate the ways that men understood appropriate and inappropriate uses of violence. Surprisingly, Shepard does not consider the role of Durant's wife in the dispute. Why did she intervene in the matter? What does it indicate about female agency that she apparently felt the need to involve herself? Shepard's suggestion that patriarchal authority was not something that all men shared equally is noteworthy, but surely the study of relations among men—not to mention a study of the larger issue of gender relations more generally—would benefit from a sustained interrogation of incidents such as this when both male and female authority are in play.
It is also worth considering what Shepard might have found had she chosen a [End Page 507] slightly different time period for her study. Had she begun a bit earlier, she might have been able to gauge the influence of the significant controversies associated with the religious changes...