How sex, violence and exclusion shaped masculine expectations in medieval Europe

How sex, violence and exclusion shaped masculine expectations in medieval Europe was explored in an inaugural lecture by Ruth Mazo Karras, Lecky Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin.

Professor Ruth Karras. Photograph: Iain White, Fennell Photography

In the lecture, Professor Karras examined how masculinity can be studied across cultures. She identified areas of human experience in which societies typically have expectations for men and masculine behaviour and then looked at how those expectations differ between cultures.

“One such area encompasses strength, aggression, violence, warlikeness, dominance, competitiveness or prowess for short, as medieval people would have called it. A second area considers biological and social reproduction, which can mean both fathering families and providing for them. A third area could address the display of some emotions – including the masking of other emotions – and a fourth the display of intellectual qualities such as judgment, wisdom, reliability, and creativity.”

Professor Karras focused on the first two areas as medieval societies would have understood them bearing in mind the expectations for which of the men in that society.

“Medieval Europe was unusual in that it featured an elite class of men—in charge of learning, worship, and morality, including family life—who were in theory excluded from expectations in the area of prowess and of reproduction.”

While the clergy did not in fact abstain entirely from such ventures, Professor Karras said where they did abstain they compensated by participating in them metaphorically.

“By excluding women from their ranks, too, the clergy could turn their bar from participation in common masculine expectations into a virtue. Where women were affected by the ‘Eve/Mary dichotomy’ in which a woman was seen as either entirely pure or entirely sinful, men could fit into what I call a ‘Christ/David dichotomy’ in which men could be either virtuous in the imitation of Christ, or sinful but then repentant and demonstrating masculinity both in the sin and in overcoming it.”

The gender dynamics of medieval Christian society in western Europe can be brought into sharper focus by contrasting them with those of the contemporary Jewish subculture which did not draw the same sharp distinctions between laity and clergy.

Professor Ruth Mazo Karras gives inaugural lecture. Photograph: Iain White, Fennell Photography

Ruth Mazo Karras, the Lecky Professor of History, is a native of Chicago and grew up in the northwestern United States. She received her BA in History from Yale University, her MPhil in European Archaeology from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and her PhD in History from Yale. Before coming to Trinity in 2018, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University (Philadelphia), and for 18 years at the University of Minnesota, where she was named Distinguished Teaching Professor for her postgraduate teaching

Ruth’s areas of interest within medieval European history concern the way people in medieval cultures understood their own identities and those of others, how they constructed gender categories, and how they retold old stories for new purposes. She is particularly known for her work in the history of masculinities, in which she published the first book-length study dealing with the Middle Ages (From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Later Medieval Europe) and in which her forthcoming book on King David in medieval Christian and Jewish cultures is situated.