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  • Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England
  • Judith Haber
Alexandra Shepard . Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England. Oxford Studies in Social History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xii + 292 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $70. ISBN: 0–19–820818–9.

In Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, historian Alexandra Shepard joins the chorus of recent writers seeking to complicate ideas of gender in the Renaissance. The central argument of her book is that "manhood and patriarchy were not equated in early modern England, and should not be elided by gender historians" (1). Patriarchy itself was "muddled" and "contradictory" (1), and men as well as women experienced its imperatives in a number of different ways: they could be subordinates or opponents as well as beneficiaries. Shepard attempts to do justice to their varied experiences by complicating the gender [End Page 723] binary, investigating how hierarchies of age, social status, and marital status interacted with those of gender "to produce a complex multidimensional map of power relations which by no means privileged all men or subordinated all women" (2–3). This is, without doubt, an admirable goal, and Shepard succeeds in accomplishing it. One could only wish that the results of her researches were more surprising: Meaning of Manhood is a solid and useful book, but it is also a very predictable one.

The first section of the book focuses on the didactic literature of the period. Shepard looks at conduct manuals, advice books, guides to health, and sermons, examining their (often implicit) definitions of normative manhood, which were derived "through comparisons with a broad range of deviant 'others'" (8). She divides her analysis into chapters focusing on age, health, and marriage, and concludes that "despite their different emphases, all these works sought to define manhood in broadly patriarchal terms of discretion, reason, moderation, self-sufficiency, strength, self-control, and honest respectability" (9). Furthermore, she argues, they all demonstrate anxiety about the multitude of male departures from this ideal.

She then turns, in the second section of the book, to the social practice of manhood. Her evidence here is drawn primarily from court records, especially those of Cambridge University, which she persuasively argues are particularly revealing. She begins by examining how young men regularly contested the patriarchal ideals of self-control and thrift through a culture rooted in excess; she considers the fraternal bonds that facilitated this culture, noting how they themselves were threatened by persistent fears of male intimacy. In her next chapter, she explores the problem of male violence, which functioned both as a tool for enforcing patriarchal imperatives and as a means for undermining them. She then focuses — in the most interesting section of the book — on material derived from slander and debt litigation, considering the ways in which men asserted and contested honesty and reputation. She finds that honesty was a more multifaceted (and less sexually based) quality for men than for women, but that overlap between the genders did occur. Finally, she returns to the question of old age, which was often "a period of gender convergence," though not "a leveller of social status" (17).

Shepard argues well for her focus on the years from 1560 to 1640; the economic and social changes during this period, she demonstrates, worked to produce a situation in which patriarchal manhood became "increasingly class-related" (251). Large numbers of men became dependent on wage labor, and many of them never married; they thus were denied access to the patriarchal roles of householder and master, and forced to adopt alternative forms of manhood.

There is little in this book that should provoke disagreement — although, as I have intimated, that is not entirely a good thing. Too often, Shepard presents as momentous such unsurprising statements as the following: "In contrast to the codes of celibacy established by official regulations and moralists' exhortations to [End Page 724] chastity, powerful counter-codes of male sexual prowess and bravado were frequently asserted and maintained" (120). But if her conclusions are often less than revelatory, her research is potentially quite helpful: she provides many interesting and varied examples of alternative expressions of manhood, and these will undoubtedly be appreciated and...


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pp. 723-725
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Archived 2009
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