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The term Herrenfrage (the question of men) was coined by historian Jo Ann McNamara as a counterpoint to the better-known Frauenfrage (the question of women) to express a crisis of masculinity in the Christian West at the end of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Expanding populations created new conditions, especially in urban centers, where the high status of the warrior class diminished and a higher premium was placed on learning, creating new professionals with high stakes in the leadership of all Church institutions. A campaign waged to extirpate marriage among secular priests and impose celibacy throughout the clergy met fierce resistance. The 1074 Roman Synod proclaimed the degeneracy of Nicolaite (married) priests, but that same year, the Paris synod rejected clerical celibacy as contrary to reason and human nature (Dalarun 2006). Bernard of Tiron (1046–1117), preaching celibacy in Normandy, was almost killed at the instigation of the wives of the priests (Dalarun 2006). McNamara observed that monastic orders rejected the presence of women among the monks, as women in clerical texts of all types were depicted as polluting, aggressive, and dangerous. Whereas Frauenfrage refers to the sudden "surplus" of women in Christendom, as a result of enforced clerical celibacy turning many women out on the street, and of the mobilizations of large numbers of men for the Crusades, Herrenfrage refers to male efforts to reshape threatened masculinity. For McNamara, "the newly celibate clerical hierarchy reshaped the gender system to assure male domination of every aspect of the new public sphere" (1994, p. 11).

The Aristotelian model of gender and the sexed body posited maleness at the core of the human person and defined women as an accidental deviation or defective male. But women would then be justified in returning to "natural maleness" by shedding all their "womanly" functions, in particular, having sex with men and conforming to the imperative of procreation. Some medieval women could thus "renounce" their inferior status as women, and, acquiring a "manly" status, could rule, lead troops, or be included in the praying order. In the early eleventh century, women still had opportunities within the Church; women ruled convents while secular canonesses of cathedral chapters shared the functions of male canons, except for sacramental activity. In the early Middle Ages, celibacy was the purview of women as a virtue of sexual abstinence leading to sainthood. Now, men were claiming celibacy as their own. As monks rose in the clerical hierarchy and the monastic orders were clericized with the co-option of monks into ordained priesthood, nuns were disqualified from access to higher orders of learning, and, beginning in 1059, then in the 1120s, canonesses were attacked and chapters dissolved (McNamara 1994).

Yet some saw sexual renunciation as a means to free all, men and women, from traditional gender roles. The number of women hermits, anchoresses, and recluses multiplied, including repentant prostitutes and abandoned priest's wives. For men, abstinence was a way out of the burdens and corruption of government (McNamara 1994). Hermann of Tournai, regarding women adopting the Cistercian rule, said women were fit for the hardest ascetic practices and manual labor, and in 1131 young women gathered around Gilbert of Sempringham (c. 1083–1189) to cultivate a piece of land so unyielding that monks had abandoned it (McNamara 1994).

The Breton priest Robert of Arbrissel (c. 1047–1117) renounced his former sins, became an apostle for celibacy and purity (Dalarun 2006), and, in 1095, went "to the desert" in the forest of Craon, at the Anjou-Brittany border, to implement his own doctrine of ministering to women, including the most destitute (Dalarun 2006). He formed a mixed monastic community at Fontevraud where men and women were separated by walls, and women became leaders, ruling over men (Venarde 2003). He also spearheaded a bold syneisactic experiment in which a mixed community lived side by side. This term refers to women and men living chastely together for religious purposes, or more precisely, cohabitating to test their chastity (Ranft 1997, p. 1445). As Duby puts it, "at night the men slept on one side, the women on the other, and the leader in between, presiding over an exercise in self-control that had spread to France from Britain." This was a community "in which men slept near women in order to defy the lusts of the flesh" (Duby 1983, p. 157). However, Robert was fiercely attacked and had to desist. A letter to him from Bishop Marbod of Rennes lambastes him for underestimating the evil of women and the power of lust, for taking pleasure in women's company, and for committing the cardinal sin—pride (Venarde 2003).

Church authorities reinstated the idea of man's "raging uncontrollable lust" against women (McNamara 1994, pp. 15-16), whom Marbod characterized as poisonous snakes (Venarde 2003). Around 1136, Bernard equated syneisactism with heresy: he could not prove wrongdoing on the part of pious women and men, but declared himself scandalized and thus that these men and women were "heretics subverting the Church through scandal." Men began deserting the cause of women in droves, leaving syneisactic communities they had founded, shutting down mixed orders under stricter claustration, and enforcing the gender order (McNamara 1994). Thus, when the lady Ermengarde (c. 1067–1147), daughter of Foulques Rechin (or Fulk IV of Anjou), repudiated by William of Aquitaine (1071–1126), was married again to the count of Nantes, she tried to leave him and take refuge in Fontevraud, seeking an annulment of the marriage. It was denied, and Robert had to return her to her husband, with admonishments to "accept her lot in life, her 'order' as a wife and mother" (Duby 1983, p. 159). Thus, by the middle of the twelfth century, gender and male dominance were, for the time being, reconfigured and shored up.

see also Gender Roles: II. History; Gender Stereotype; Gender, Theories of; Middle Ages.


Dalarun, Jacques. 2006. Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages, trans. Bruce L. Venarde. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Duby, Georges. 1983. The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books.

McNamara, Jo Ann. 1994. "The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050–1150." Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare Lees. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ranft, Patricia. 1997. Review of Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia, by Jo Ann Kay McNamara. American Historical Review 102(5): 1444-1445.

Venarde, Bruce L., trans. and ed. 2003. Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

                                  Francesca Canadé Sautman

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