Conflict, Violence, and the Construction of Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe

Charles Homer Haskins Society
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Arkansas Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Robert F. Berkhofer III, Western Michigan University
Ruth M. Karras, University of Minnesota

Session Abstract

While medieval historians have contributed in recent years to the study of gender, less attention has been paid to issues of masculinity, particularly the masculinity of the clergy. Yet, examining clerical masculinity in the Middle Ages challenges historians to reevaluate the concept of gender as something much more multifaceted and interchangeable than succinct or static, and to go beyond sexuality and celibacy as the constitutive element of this gender identity. Even the term ‘clerical’ masculinity is a gross oversimplification, for medieval communities distinguished between different networks of clerics—at the very least between monks, who sequestered themselves from the world, and secular clerics, who lived among their more traditionally masculine male counterparts. How, then, did men of the cloth co-opt understandings of lay masculinity to construct their own clerical manliness? Why—and how—did knights and other laymen attempt to (re)emasculate clerics? What rhetorical strategies did clerics employ to emphasize or deemphasize masculine characteristics among each other?

A useful approach to these questions is to focus on conflicts: those acts of physical, verbal, and symbolic violence which laymen and clergy utilized to assert their gender identity. The three panelists place conflict at the center of medieval clerical masculinity by examining three different categories of interaction: cleric vs. layman, cleric vs. cleric, and layman vs. cleric. First, Hugh Thomas examines how clerics in medieval England used constructions of the post Gregorian Reform clerical hero—a Christian warrior who stands fast in the face of violence and even death—to defend their rights and liberties against powerful, belligerent laymen such as Henry II. Second, Jennifer Thibodeaux looks at how bishops asserted their power in conflicts with other churchmen by employing the language of virility which lionized their own manliness while enfeebling their clerical opponents. Finally, Andrew Miller explores how the mutilation of horses became an expression of English knightly masculinity at the expense of clerical manliness.  Altogether, these papers challenge historians to think about the clergy and masculine identity in a different manner, to remove celibacy as a primary definer of masculinity and instead look at the many ways that laymen and clerics expressed manliness and challenged such in others. With her comment, Ruth Karras, a pioneer in medieval gender studies, will point the way towards future directions in the scholarship of this field.