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The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England

What did it mean to be a man in medieval England? Most would answer this question by alluding to the power and status men enjoyed in a patriarchal society, or they might refer to iconic images of chivalrous knights. While these popular ideas do have their roots in the history of the aristocracy, the experience of ordinary men was far more complicated.
            Marshalling a wide array of colorful evidence—including legal records, letters, medical sources, and the literature of the period—Derek G. Neal here plumbs the social and cultural significance of masculinity during the generations born between the Black Death and the Protestant Reformation. He discovers that social relations between men, founded on the ideals of honesty and self-restraint, were at least as important as their domination and control of women in defining their identities. By carefully exploring the social, physical, and psychological aspects of masculinity, The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England offers a uniquely comprehensive account of the exterior and interior lives of medieval men.

320 pages | 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Gender and Sexuality

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Medieval Studies

Psychology: Personality

Religion: Religion and Society


“A splendid study of the complexities of being a man in late medieval England. Neal’s vision of masculine subjectivity and identity is by far the most sophisticated, nuanced, and deep available on this period and will find a place on the must-read list of every historian of men and masculinity as well as sex and gender more broadly.”

Jacqueline Murray, University of Guelph

“Derek Neal keeps the focus on men and masculinity without forgetting the centrality of women to medieval culture and the importance of feminist theory to the study of gender. The fascinating stories he draws from a wide range of sources give depth and texture to his account of what it meant to be a man in one particular time and place. Ideas of masculinity that involved honesty, moderation, responsibility, and benignity were in tension—sometimes within the same individual—with ideas that involved dominance and aggression. Neal discusses both the outer or social self that men projected to the world and the inner self of wishes and desires. Anyone interested in the possibility of studying past human behavior within its cultural context will learn much about methodology from this book’s fine example.”

Ruth Mazo Karras, University of Minnesota

The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England is an unusual and compelling book—a combination of wide and careful research with subtle style. The book will provide many students and scholars with their first taste of the study of medieval masculinity and his work is a landmark in the field, a book that is by turns charming and provocative but always fascinating. This is partly because of how well and bravely he links archival research to social history and psychological history to literature, playing out connections few scholars are brave enough to develop. In revealing the contours of medieval masculinity, Neal reveals much about what made men tick and made the later medieval era distinctive.”

David Gary Shaw, Wesleyan University

"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."

Times Higher Education

"These stories are told well, in a prose style characterized by an admirable clarity and are. . . . Whether relating a court case or describing the field of gender studies, Neal’s style is accessible, engaging, and gently conversational."

Isabel Davis | H-Net Reviews

"Not so much an empirical study as a well-documented exxtensive essay recasting categories of gender historical analysis, the work is thought-provoking."


"Neal uses his gifted powers of synthesis and storytelling to write a clear, direct, humane, and accessible (but fully scholarly) book about the social identities of men in England in the late medieval and early modern periods. . . . Refreshing and unfreighted with anxieties of critical performance, The Masculine Self is a fantastic tool and great event in recent scholarly history. The book will, obviously serve social historians and gender studies scholars and will powerfully undergird the work of literary critics seeking to continue interdisciplinary studies on men. I cannot imagine talking or writing about men in medieval texts again without having it open on my desk."

Michael Calabrese | Clio

"[Neal] deserves real credit for being willing to think across disciplinary divisions as well as to synthesize disparate historical accounts of masculinity. This integrative hermeneutic is one of the great strengths of Neal’s fine book, which deserves the attention of medieval historians, literary scholars, and anyone interested in the history of identity, subjectivity, sex, and gender. Written with erudition, clarity, conviction, and occasional sly humor, The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England may well prove a landmark in the field of masculine studies."

Robert Stretter | Renaissance Quarterly

Table of Contents

Note on Primary Sources
Chapter 1 False Thieves and True Men
            Masculine Identity Formation in a Society of Stresses
            The Unknown Majority
            Manhood in the Towns
            Livelihood, Reputation, and Conflict
            False Thieves
            The Language of the Common Voice (and Fame)
            True Men
            Ideal and Reality
            The Legal Rhetoric of Masculinity
Chapter 2 Husbands and Priests
            Husbandry (I): Pollers, Extorcioners, and Adulterers
                        Pollers and Extorcioners
                        Polling, Cutting, and Loss of Substance
            Husbandry (II): The Household from Inside
                        Wives and Servants
            Priests versus Husbands, Priests as Husbands
                        Clergy in English Society
                        The Social Meaning of Celibacy
                        The Rector and the Bailiff
                        Clergymen and the Household
                        Blaming the Friars
                        Celibacy and Gender Identity: What Was the Real Problem?

Chapter 3 Sex and Gender: The Meanings of the Male Body
            From Physiology to Personality
            Medieval Maleness: Form and Meaning
            Manliness and Attractiveness
            From Phallus to Penis (or Vice Versa?)
            Husbandly Sexuality
            An Incomplete Husband
            The Male Body in Action
            The Uses of Misrule
            The Dangers of the Tongue
Chapter 4 Toward the Private Self: Desire, Masculinity, and Middle English Romance

History, Fiction, and Literature
            The Literary Subject
            The Romance of Masculinity
            All Her Fault
            The Dangers of Desire
            Narcissistic Masculinity and the Rape of Melior
            Lovers Invisible and Unspeakable
            Fathers Unknown and Forbidden
            The Father Unknown: Bevis of Hampton
            Better the Nightmare You Know: Lybeaus Desconus
            Father Forbidden, Father Created: Of Arthour and of Merlin
            Emplotted Desire: Sir Perceval of Galles
            Desire and Dread: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
            Beyond Narcissism? Ywain and Gawain
            What Has This Historian Done with Masculinity?
            The Other Half

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