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Manliness as a concept designates traits, both moral and physical, that a given culture views as desirable in a man. Although closely related linguistically and conceptually to virility and masculinity and occasionally interchangeable with those terms, manliness may carry a moral charge that the other terms, more descriptive in nature, do not necessarily convey. Virility is the more closely related of the two terms, designating in certain contexts a virtue viewed as desirable in women as well as men. More clearly a relational term, masculinity has been the focus of late twentieth-century scholarship in which scholars have sought to apply the insights of feminism and women's studies to the study of men so as to achieve a fuller understanding of the complex process of gendering. Manliness may most usefully be seen as entering into the construction of extremely varied masculinities across a wide array of social groups, in some instances as something to be valued or pursued, in others to be eschewed or redefined.


Physiological and moral conceptions of manliness in the Middle Ages were strongly marked by the heritage of the moral and natural philosophy of antiquity. Theories about masculine and feminine types in medieval natural science drew on ideas from anatomy, physiology, alchemy, physiognomy, embryology, and astrology, in a complex interplay of factors that included "four qualities, seven uterine cells, two seeds, seven planets" (Cadden 1993, p. 209) The four qualities or humors were a constant of the Aristotelian tradition, according to which males were hot and dry, females wet and cold. Planetary influences, the position of the fetus in the uterus, and the relative strength of the male and female seed (both of which were thought to be necessary for conception) all were held to play a role in determining the sex of the child and also the greater or lesser presence of masculine and feminine traits. While all creatures were seen as possessing a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, Aristotle and his followers considered the male principle to be superior to the female and men more "perfect" than women. Theories about the body were extrapolated to the moral qualities of the spirit or the soul. Thus the Italian physician and philosopher Peter of Abano (1250–1316) writes: "The male's spirit is lively, given to violent impulse; [it is] slow getting angry and slower being calmed. He is long-suffering at the tasks of labor; in deeds eager, able, noble, magnanimous, fair, confident; less flighty and less assiduous and maleficent than the female."

Natural philosophy was of course but one facet of medieval culture for which, broadly speaking, manliness was defined as the ability to impregnate women, protect one's dependents, and serve as provider to one's family (Bullough 1994). Or, in another formulation, for eleventh-century society the markers of manliness were "violence, the pursuit of wealth and—above all—sex" (McLaughlin 1999, p. 25). A great deal of the cultural work of the Middle Ages was the effort, in the service of different ideologies and to different social or political ends, to control and channel the given of violent and impulsive male behavior, particularly that of knights. Yet, it is also apparent that random violence and uncontrolled sexuality on a large scale posed the problem of intolerable social disruption. Beginning in the late tenth century, the Pax Dei (Peace of God) movement was an attempt on the church's part to protect itself and civilians from the violence that had become endemic in western Europe. In the mid-eleventh century, the Treuga Dei (Truce of God) sought to prohibit warfare from Thursday through Sunday, on major feasts, and during Advent and Lent, and the Council of Narbonne (1054) declared the principle that to kill a Christian was to shed the blood of Christ (Cowdrey 1970). The formulation of the triadic model at the same time, with its division of Christian society into oratores (those who pray), bellatores (those who fight), and laboratores (those who plow), was similarly an effort to control violence by assimilating knights into an order like the clergy and by making the former subservient to the latter (Duby 1980). The Christianization of knighthood through the dubbing ritual, with its establishment of the principles of hierarchical relations and reciprocal obligations between lord and vassal through the gestures of homage and the exchange of the kiss, was part of this broad attempt to curtail the ravages and exactions of uncontrollable knights.

Medieval literature, both secular and religious, abounds in expressions of how masculinity was articulated. In a French text of the twelfth century, Marie de France's Guigemar, the eponymous protagonist is sent by his parents to the king's court, as was the custom, to receive his education as a knight. He excels at the preeminent knightly pastimes, tourneying and hunting, but is indifferent to women, a failing that Marie ascribes specifically to nature. His encounter with a sexually ambiguous white doe while hunting and the symbolically sexual injury he suffers when he wounds the doe result in his healing and sexual initiation at the hands of his amie, but before his ultimately successfully integration into the heteronormative sex-gender system, he must win his lady by killing the knight who has kidnapped her. In Guigemar Marie thus traces both the path the young knight must follow and the pitfalls he may experience before fully achieving manhood, including the complete expunging of sexual ambiguity, or, in William E. Burgwinkle's reading: "What we have witnessed is a queer young buck led to the heterosexual trough and taught to drink" (2004, p. 160).

The church also led a campaign to eliminate clerical marriage and the keeping of concubines. This effort, which met with fierce resistance among the secular clergy, was part of a larger project of restructuring the medieval gender system that sought to limit severely the participation of women in the public sphere, to force an absolute separation of men and women in monastic contexts, to regulate contacts between the clergy and laywomen, and to limit lay sexuality to marriages sanctioned by the church (McNamara 1994).


The case of Peter Abelard (1079–1142 or 1144) is emblematic of the problems the church and individual clerics encountered in defining maleness at this time. As a celebrated dialectician and theologian, Abelard had eschewed relationships with prostitutes, ladies of the nobility, and commoners, but when Fulbert, a canon in Paris, entrusted his niece Héloïse to Abelard for instruction, the two quickly became lovers, exploring all the delights of lovemaking. Once discovered, they consented to a secret marriage, although Héloïse argued against it on the grounds that it would interfere with Abelard's work as a philosopher and impede his advancement in the church hierarchy. After his castration at the hands of Fulbert's men, Abelard found consolation, despite Old Testament condemnations of eunuchs and others with damaged testicles, in the example of his predecessor, Origen (c. 185–c. 254), who had castrated himself to be rid of sexual desire. Abelard's greatest challenge, however, was determining how to fashion a new role for himself as a man, a husband, and a theologian (Irvine 1997). His special relationship with Héloïse and her nuns, despite the former's unhappiness over the circumstances of her changed relationship with Abelard after his castration and her entry into a convent, was paramount in that it allowed him to combine successfully these three roles in imitation of other men who had been spiritual advisors to holy women, St. Jerome (c. 347–419 or 420) in particular. Manliness in Abelard's case thus did not repose on procreative power or genital integrity but did embrace marriage and a striking deployment of male aggression in service, as he put it, not of Mars but of Minerva.

Abelard's example is useful for the way it so clearly illustrates that manliness or virility was not limited to procreation and violence. Nor was it limited to the male sex, for the manly woman, or virago, promoted by the early church as an alternative to the prevailing sex-gender system of late antiquity, remained a powerful symbol throughout the medieval period. Some medieval saints' legends recount not only the steely resolve of Christian women martyrs in the face of torture, usually because they refused to marry or to sacrifice to the pagan gods, but also cases of women who grew a beard to thwart their suitors or cross-dressed as men, living undetected in monastic communities until their death. For such women, cross-dressing was not only a practical solution to an untenable plight: It also allowed them to accede to what medieval culture generally held to be a higher social station, that of the male.

The reverse was, of course, not the case. Men who cross-dressed as women were objects of scorn because they relinquished the superior station that was "naturally" theirs (although certain "feminine" virtues, such as nurturing, were seen as a positive attribute in male religious from the twelfth century on). Historical and fictional examples of women who could "fight like a man" show that "family and class interests could supersede gender without threatening the right order of things" (McNamara 1994, p. 4). In the case of Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), doubtless the most famous virile woman of the period, both her success and demise depended heavily on national interests. Among literary examples of virile women, in addition to the eponymous protagonist of Le roman de Silence (thirteenth century; The romance of Silence), one may cite the heroine of Yde et Olive (thirteenth century), who cross-dresses as a knight to escape her father's incestuous affections and whose valor the poet attributes to her noble blood. When Yde hews off the hand of an adversary, she proudly proclaims (with unintended irony): "Well should I possess valor and courage when I am the daughter of the powerful king Florent!"

In sum, one can say that manliness was both a constant in medieval culture but also a forever shifting and at times elusive quality that was highly dependent on social context. The construct could be inflected in service of religious or courtly ideology, take on positive or negative value, or be applied to men or women.


In the court culture of the late medieval and early modern periods, there was a new emphasis on honor won through military or administrative service that complemented the continued importance of hereditary privilege. The valorization of inner moral worth, learning, and courtly refinement as desirable manly virtues was propagated throughout Europe in the sixteenth century by such works as the Book of the Courtier (1528) by the Italian humanist Baldassare Castiglione and the writings of the Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536). Nor was the gaining or defending of personal honor limited to the nobility, among whom the private duel became widespread at this time. The slander of a burgess's profession or guild was a serious offense that required redress, as were degrading remarks about one's wife or daughter.

The rise of the bourgeoisie and the generalization of the values of "polite society" brought about further shifts in the construction of manliness. In the eighteenth century, manly behavior was no longer limited to performance in the public sphere but embraced men's roles at home as husbands and fathers, and displays of sensibility, including weeping, were positively construed as signs of a refined and generous moral nature. Effeminacy, however, was to be eschewed at all cost, and perhaps for this reason the nineteenth century saw the resurgence of the cult of male virility, a particular concern during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in Great Britain. Emblematic of this trend was the "muscular Christianity" most often identified with the reform-minded English writers Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) and Thomas Hughes (1822–1896), which sought to combine Christian moral fiber with physical vigor. Sport was emphasized in England, where it was perceived as good training for empire building, and in the United States, where intercollegiate athletics, greatly developed at the end of the nineteenth century, were thought to prepare men for the competitiveness of public life. The cult of virile manliness was dealt a serious blow, however, by World War I, while in the United States the concept of the "man of action" was counterbalanced by that of the gentlemen guided by Christian values. In the late-twentieth-century United States, the men's movement of Robert Bly (b. 1926) sought to provide a virile response to the perceived threat of feminism.

Although somewhat demoded as a category of analysis in cultural theory of the early twenty-first century, by which time masculinity had become the term of choice, manliness and virility remain important and useful concepts in the study of medieval gender.

see also Heloise and Abelard; Ide and Olive; Le roman de Silence; Manly (Masculine) Woman; Masculinity: I. Overview; Medicine, Ancient.


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                                     Robert L.A. Clark

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