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What Can Historians Do with Clerical Masculinity? Lessons from Medieval Europe

What Can Historians Do with Clerical Masculinity? Lessons from Medieval Europe

By Derek Neal

Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, edited by Jennifer D. Thibodeaux (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Introduction: The title of this essay is a conscious homage to John Tosh’s groundbreaking article of 1994, ‘What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?’, which set out the methodological issues and political concerns involved in what was then quite a new subject of historical study. Tosh’s eloquent argument that historians must recognize the complexity and multivalence of masculine identity has lost none of its relevance. It was, however, framed in comparatively modern terms, since Tosh, a historian of Victorian Britain, drew on nineteenth-century evidence and examples. Since the mid-1990s, medievalists and early modernists have been responding to the challenges Tosh laid out in that article. An important, if sometimes discouraging, lesson we have learned is the degree of difference in approach and assumptions between those who study masculinity in premodern history and their modernist colleagues. At some point between 1500 and 1700, as we define our periods of study, a dividing line still appears.

Clerical masculinity, the subject of this volume, has the power to revitalize connections between modern and premodern histories. On the one hand, clerical masculinity has meaning for the historical past, because as the latest research is establishing, clerics were not sheltered from contemporary gender roles and expectations. It could hardly be otherwise when their status as clerics depended on their being male.

On the other hand, clerical masculinity as a category of analysis also has meaning for the historiographical present. In order to understand and use it properly, we have to push beyond accustomed definitions and habits of mind, in our considerations of both gender and history. It forces us to conceive of gender categories and historical categories less narrowly and neatly, and so has the potential to help shape a new understanding of the European past. In fact, clerical masculinity could be just the category of analysis that we need to move the history of masculinity closer to the center of gender history, and in turn to move gender history closer to the center of the historiographical discipline.

Click here to read this article from Palgrave Macmillan

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