- The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England
Derek G. Neal’s The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England takes its place among a number of recent books—notably, Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2003) and Isabel Davis’s Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages (2007)—that consider the ideologies, practices, and experiences of masculinity in medieval Europe. Neal’s book makes significant contributions to this field of inquiry, closely examining English materials from about 1350–1530 and developing a persuasive account of both the social and psychological functioning of masculine gender during this period.
Making good use of recent work in the masculinity studies that has followed on scholarship in women’s history and feminist theory, Neal approaches “masculinity as identity” and emphasizes both its “exterior” (social) and “interior” [End Page 262] (psychic) dimensions (p. 6). The chapters are organized to move from outside inward, defining first a “social self” in which individual subjectivity is always in negotiation with its social world (pp. 8, 28) and moving ultimately to consider what we might know about a late-medieval “interior masculine subjectivity” (p. 9). The first two chapters look mostly to the material of social history—especially legal testimony and surviving letters like the Pastons’—in developing an account of a late-medieval masculine “social self.” Chapter 1, “False Thieves and True Men,” examines especially the “masculine insult vocabulary” deployed in defamation suits (p. 30), showing that accusations of falsehood and thievery are particularly common, and that “furtive” activity is held up against an ideal masculine posture of straightforward and open “truth.” Neal concludes: “Trueness and falseness traced the sensitive zone of the masculine social self at its points of contact with others. . . . Trueness . . . provided a regulatory standard for social relations” (p. 57).
The following chapter, “Husbands and Priests,” continues to investigate how masculine selves negotiate their social world, arguing that proper “husbandry”— defined by “moderation, self-restraint, and self-control” (p. 58) and distinguished from an “aggressively self-gratifying masculinity” (p. 63) associated with “untrue,” “extortionate” behavior—grounds masculine claims to social “substance” and significance. Neal also, however, identifies a competing discourse of masculinity, which “located manhood . . . in being seen to get what one desired” and which might conflict with the discourse of “responsible moderation” (pp. 78–79). Most controversially, Neal argues that “husbandry” strongly characterizes the masculinity not just of laymen but also of priests, challenging views that would define clerical and secular masculinity as opposed. For Neal, celibacy functions not within a distinctive, clerical masculinity but rather as “an extreme form of the self-command that lay society demanded of all men, with respect to both sexual and nonsexual behaviors” (p. 101).
Neal goes on, in his third chapter, to assess “Sex and Gender: The Meanings of the Male Body,” treating, alongside the sources of social history, material from natural philosophy, physiognomy, and medicine, as well as literature (notably, Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale and the portraits of the General Prologue, especially that of the Pardoner). He considers the complex ways in which male bodies, touching both “exterior” and “interior” experiences of gender, participate in the formation and operation of masculinity, and he notes that the penis (rather than the testicles) takes pride of place in definitions of manhood. The self-control that defines masculinity more generally is also, Neal shows, crucial in the maintenance of a properly masculine body. But again Neal notes a certain significant flipside to the discourse of self-control, demonstrating that, particularly among “young men and those in subordinate positions,” masculinity often also involved “riotous and self-indulgent behavior” (pp. 156–57). The highlight of this chapter is Neal’s treatment of an intriguing divorce suit in which the nature of a husband’s genitals—described as somehow deficient or even wholly lacking—is at the center of attention (pp. 142–50).
The book’s final chapter, “Toward the Private Self: Desire, Masculinity, and Middle English Romance,” turns to texts like...