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Early Modern Gender

A/N: Part I, paper 16 essay from Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus.

‘Masculinity in Crisis.’ Discuss this verdict of male experience during the early modern period.

The idea that early modern masculinity was a construct in crisis appears, at first glance, somewhat ludicrous. Historians such as Wiesner have found that the early modern period was a time when the authorities, both state and ecclesiastical, were significantly biased towards the male. Contemporary women found, and some like Fonte articulated, that men, whether fathers, husbands or others, controlled much of their lives. Yet digging deeper the suggestion is more valid. The increasingly harsh punishments for women who broke out of ‘acceptable’ notions of womanhood suggest that men feared usurpation. If women were capable of masculine activities then how could those activities define masculinity? The research of historians such as Rocke adds an extra dimension to this supposed ‘crisis’. It was not just women who posed a threat to masculinity, men too through homosexuality could threaten the established ideas of masculine behaviour. But the existence of alternative forms of masculine behaviour need not imply a ‘crisis’ of masculinity. As modern sociologists have discovered, gender is not a construct that is set in stone, never changing. What makes a man a man differs between classes, age groups, geographical regions and, perhaps most crucially, alters over time. I would contend then that masculinity was in flux, but not crisis.

To consider why early modern masculinity might be thought to have been in crisis, it is first necessary to unravel what is understood to have constituted early modern masculinity. Lyndal Roper stresses the importance of ‘honour’ to masculine gender identities. Honour had to be upheld at all times and all threats to it dealt with. This might mean, for example, an insult could not go unchallenged; Cohen points to the practice of ‘house scorning’ in early modern Rome. By attacking the house men (and women) could bring public shame on the inhabitants, thereby restoring their own honour after an earlier insult from the victim. Also linked to this idea of honour was the idea that men, as superiors, should have control over others. The obvious manifestation of this ideal is in the patriarchal family and state structures found across early modern Europe. Following the Council of Trent in the mid sixteenth-century for example many countries not only abolished the binding nature of betrothals, they also demanded parental consent for marriage. Such developments gave fathers more control over their families, and at the same time, freed young men from undesired marriages (in the medieval period an exchange of promises would have constituted a legal marriage). Using honour and dominance as the fundamental characteristics of masculinity it would appear that early modern masculinity, if anything, should have been becoming more secure rather than less.

Contemporaries were certainly aware of the inequality between men and women. Domenico Bruni de Pistoia claimed in 1552 that male dominance was necessary; women had to be prevented from moving unfettered in the public sphere as it put their honour at risk. A woman’s honour was understood in simpler terms than that of men, it referred to her sexual modesty. Whilst a man might prove his masculine honour by sleeping around, especially if the woman challenged him, a woman needed to have this virtue guarded. Its loss could unbalance her humours and corrupt her mind. Contemporary women such as Moderata Fonte disagreed; she claimed that men merely hid behind the excuse of protection to justify controlling women through tyranny. Women had their rights curtailed by both church and state, male controlled institutions. Italian convents were made increasingly austere places throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries and in England Henry VIII even went so far in 1543 as to forbid lower born women from reading the bible. ‘Noblewomen and gentlewomen’, who stood a much higher chance than their lower born counterparts of being literate, could read the bible ‘privately, but not to others’, effectively preventing women from educating others in religious matters. The status of masculinity then was protected and celebrated in both law and practice, why would anyone suggest that it was a construct in crisis?

The answer lies, perhaps, in the reasons behind this flow of controlling measures put in place in the early modern period. If masculinity was strong and unquestioned surely there would be no need to enshrine its privileges in law. Fonte, through her character Cornelia argued, ‘they’re [i.e. Men] hopeless without us… Take away that small matter of their earning money and what use are they at all?’ Here Fonte hints that men strive to control women in order to remove the threat they pose because if women, who she argues are just as capable as men, were free to engage in business and trade they would surely perform better than men. The idea that masculinity was threatened by women finds support in the hostility towards women who took on masculine roles. In Germany for example, female homosexuality was a capital offence but in practice severe punishment was reserved only for cases where dildos were used; the act of penetration was seen as an attempt by women to usurp the role of men. Similarly Tomas Sanchez argued that women should not go on top during heterosexual intercourse as it was not natural for the man to be ‘an inferior position’. The same attitude is apparent in other aspects of early modern society. Education was deemed to be unsuitable for women, some felt that women were ill-equipped to cope with the intellectual demands, but the overwhelming sentiment was that it was simply pointless; what could a woman do with an education? Juan Luis Vives felt no need to include rhetoric in his ‘Instruction of a Christian Woman’, written for Mary Tudor in 1523 ‘for woman needeth it not’. Could this anxiety over women rising above their station have been enough to put notions of masculinity under strain?

It is certainly the case that some men at least regarded women as dangerous. Women were understood to be imperfect men, dangerously ruled by their passions rather than reason. This was linked to current medical understandings; women’s humours were cold and wet which, so it was believed, led them to be temperamental and deceptive. The internalisation of their genitalia was thought to result in ‘magical’ knowledge; that is knowledge of how to manipulate men and make them fall in love for example. Hacke describes the case of Oratio Fugazza who began an extra-marital affair with a midwife named Angela Zaffo in the early seventeenth-century. After seven years Zaffo ended it to embark on an affair with a younger man but Fugazza was unable to stay away. He told the court that he was so desperate to be with her that he performed domestic, female, chores whilst she had sex with her new lover. Fugazza blamed this infatuation on love magic; his neighbours were less convinced and made fun of him for being cuckolded by a woman. Fonte, too, has Cornelia sneer at the idea of love magic: ‘all that talk about magic spells is just words: men do what they do because they want to.’ Yet it was taken sufficiently seriously by men to be used as a defence in law courts. It would seem then that early modern masculinity was constantly under threat from women and had to be protected.

But, in spite of this, the threat from women was rarely explicit. Even extreme commentators like Fonte recognised that women’s position was necessarily stagnant for the present. Such women were looking for relatively small concessions not a total reversal of gender positions. We must then broaden the net to discover a threat to masculinity which could bring it to ‘crisis’. Looking further it is apparent that men themselves could pose a threat to the dominant ideals of early modern masculinity. Rocke, for example, found that in Renaissance Florence homosexuality was something of a rite of passage for young men. The average age of marriage in the city was fifteen for women compared to around thirty for men; this meant men had a long adolescence in which it was not uncommon for them to engage in illicit sex with both men and women. In a society where boys did not truly become men until they married it might seem that masculinity was not really being compromised; most of the cases that came before the courts involved youths in the passive role with older men taking the initiative. Where relationships were formed they could be seen as ‘practice’ for heterosexual marriage. The younger partner was kept by the older, who demonstrated his status and superiority be giving their lovers money and gifts. Twenty-five year old Luca di Matten gave his sixteen year old lover hats, slippers, coats and ‘a lot of money’ over a five month period for example. At twenty-five Luca still had plenty of time to grow out of homosexuality and enter the world of adulthood by marrying a woman.

The real threat to the supposed early modern ideal of masculinity was men who did not grow out of their homosexual activities. In some cases even when they were married, men continued their earlier lifestyle; thirty-eight year old Salvestro Alamanni for example was said to prefer his lover Jacopo da Verrazzano to his own wife, gifting him with over 250 Florins worth of clothing over a two year period. In this case Alamanni was rejecting his adult, masculine, responsibilities of protecting and providing for his wife in favour of Verrazzano. In some cases the situation was more complicated; in 1497 Michelle di Bruno da Prulli and Carlo di Berardo d’Antonio had a marriage ceremony conducted where they both swore fidelity to each other over a bible at the church altar. This case highlights the dangers of male homosexuality for masculinity; it cast men into the feminine role. This might be acceptable for a boy, but for a man it was a different matter. Masculinity then was not straightforwardly under threat. It was perhaps under pressure from the conflict between different masculine identities.

This idea that something that was acceptable for a young man was not for an older man should be seen as more than simple contradiction. The same is true of the way in which Humanist ideals of rational men, ruled by reason rather than passion, were at odds with the street brawling and sexual licentiousness of ordinary men. The point is that masculinity was not – and has never been – a homogenous construct. What constitutes masculine behaviour is not just one unmovable set of ideals. It changed as men got older; Matthaus Schwarz in the sixteenth-century contrasted his youthful ‘rascal’ years, when he proved his masculinity through trade and male socialising, with his more sober married years. Once married his masculinity was confirmed through his role as protector and provider. Masculinity also meant something different to different social groups. Educated noblemen, like the perfect courtier described by Castoglione, should let reason and wisdom rule their actions. For the mass of ordinary men preserving their honour was interpreted in a literal fashion; male sociability centred on the drinking culture and the fighting that stemmed from it. So whilst the church condemned excessive drinking these men saw their masculine honour as being more grounded in practical activity than in the intellectual masculinity of scholars. Masculinity meant different things to different men, at different times in their life; there was no real crisis only the struggle to incorporate these competing versions of masculinity into everyday reality.

In conclusion then masculinity appears to have been undermined in a number of ways; women were thought to want pose a threat to male virility through love magic and some, it was feared, were intent on taking on masculine identities for themselves. Similarly amongst men themselves what we might think to be the established foundations of masculinity were threatened. Homosexual activity cast men in feminine roles, and the contradictions between high and low culture ideals of masculinity might be thought to have been driving masculinity to crisis point. Yet, in truth, masculinity was not any more in crisis in the early modern period than it has ever been. In fact there were a variety of masculine identities that differed according to age, social status, and geographical position and, of course, changed over the time period. What we see in the early modern period, as we do today, is the inevitable overlap and conflict between these differing versions of masculinity. Masculinity was a fluid construct that could be adapted to changing circumstances. What we see in the early modern period is masculinity overcoming external threats (such as controlling women’s education) and redefining itself. It might have been changing, but it was not in crisis.

Sex and Gender Bibliography 

  • Wiesner, M; Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, (2000), chs. 2, 4, 6. 
  • D’Aragona, T; Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, (1547). 
  • Fonte, M; The Worth of Women, (1997 ed.) -Cox, V; The Single Self: feminist thought and the marriage market in Early Modern Venice, Renaissance Quarterly, (1995). 
  • Hacke, D; Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Venice, (2004), ch. 7. 
  • Roper, L; Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe, (1994), chs. 5, 6. 
  • Wunder, ‘What made a man a man? Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century findings,’ in U. Rublack (ed.), Gender in Early Modern History, (Cambridge, 2002). 
  • Cohen, E; ‘Honor and Gender in Early Modern Rome’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4, (1992), pp. 597-626. 
  • Davis, N.Z; Society and Culture in Early Modern France, (1975), ch. 5. 
  • Hanley, S; ‘Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France’, French Historical Studies 16, (1980). 
  • Strasser; State of Virginity: Gender, Religion, and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State, (2004), intro and chs. 1-3. 
  • Rocke, M; Forbidden Friendships: homosexuality and male culture in Renaissance Florence, (1996), ch. 5. 
  • Ruggiero, G; ‘Marriage, Love, Sex, and Renaissance Civic Morality’, in Turner, J. (ed.), Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, (1993).


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