The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England

January 8, 2009

Sometime during the 1340s, a child was born in Lincolnshire and brought up as a boy called Nicholas. In his twenties, Nicholas married a young girl called Katherine. Unfortunately, Katherine soon realised that her husband wasn't quite the man she had hoped for. According to the divorce proceedings that survive from the 1360s, she lamented that poor Nicholas "could not have carnal knowledge of her as a husband should of his wife, and that he did not have genitals, nor could he emit semen".

The tale of Nicholas the "incomplete husband" is just one of the many extraordinary stories uncovered in Derek Neal's exhilarating study of masculinity in England between the Black Death and the Reformation. For all the fascination of the individual case studies, however, it is the ordinary experiences of masculinity in the period with which Neal is ultimately concerned.

Moving from the outer world of a man's social identity (represented by chapters on relations between servants, husbands and priests) to the inner core of his gender (represented by chapters on the body and the psyche), Neal's argument culminates in an analysis that treats romance literature as the dream work of masculine selfhood in the period. The psychoanalytic framework adopted in this concluding discussion is one of the book's principal novelties and allows the author - a historian by trade - to get to grips with the otherwise unspeakable dimensions of his topic: the susceptibility of masculinity to Oedipal disintegration.

Neal's analysis is consistently engaging and will generate interest among medievalists of all stripes, as well as scholars in other periods wishing to rescue masculinity from a grid that simply equates manhood with domination. But The Masculine Self is not without its gaps and fissures. Neal's claim to be publishing the first, nationally specific monograph on masculinity for the period before 1530 is not strictly accurate: Isabel Davis' fine Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages preceded Neal's by almost two years.

I also cannot agree with Neal's assessment that there is not enough evidence to assess social attitudes toward same-sex relations in this period of English history. While we lack the rich legal records of Italian city-states, such as Florence, the trading of sodomy as an insult - notably in political contexts - is well documented. Literary treatments, such as the 14th-century poem Cleanness (which portrays biblical Sodomites as a hyper-masculine foil to the gentler courtly ethos promoted by the anonymous poet), curiously fail to make the cut in Neal's volume.

The biggest drawback, however, is Neal's reluctance to break the ties linking masculinity with men - a reluctance manifested most explicitly in the author's assertion that, as today, male bodies "all had penises". If, as Judith Halberstam has argued for contemporary society, masculinity becomes most legible as masculinity when it leaves the white, male, middle-class body, it seems odd not to put under the spotlight those moments in medieval culture where female performances of masculinity come to light.

While it is important not to exaggerate women's ability to appropriate masculine behaviour, dress and embodiment in social reality, medieval English literature offered a number of outlets for exploring the transformative potential of female masculinity: retellings of Ovid's myth of Iphis, as well as analogous tales of sex transformation, such as the romance of Yde and Olive (a lengthy printed version of which circulated in 1530s London), add immeasurably to our understanding of masculinity as an ideal with corporeal effects as well as causes.

The mismatch between "incomplete" Nicholas' masculinity and his wife's genitally defined notion of maleness may well look a little different when viewed against such a backdrop.

The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England

By Derek G. Neal. University of Chicago Press 320pp, £40.00 and £14.50. ISBN 9780226569550 and 569574. Published 29 December 2008

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