More on masculinity

More on masculinity:      

What is masculinity?

Though a person's gender is a matter of biology, making people either female or male, there are also ways of behaving that are thought of as being feminine or masculine. These can be culture-specific: in Soviet Russia being an engineer was often assumed to be a feminine role; in twelfth-century literature, men often swoon/faint when feeling strong emotions (behaviour more commonly associated with females) and this is seen particularly as a sign of a truly noble knight. Of course, many ‘masculine' traits may also have roots in biology: i.e. they may be ‘male' as well. Nevertheless, the cultural restraints on - or encouragement of - various impulses, shift from period to period.

Medieval masculinity

In the Middle Ages, it was undoubtedly assumed that men would be more dominating than women. In general, ‘masculine' traits in medieval literature include:

  • Aggression (culturally controlled, of course, in various directions)
  • Desire to control
  • Rivalry with other men
  • Physical strength
  • Boldness and courage
  • Sexual appetites.

Medieval society in general seems to have been relatively uninterested in homosexuality, though homosexual sex—like many other acts, including any form of contraception—was regarded as a sin. However, Chaucer presents the Pardoner as being effeminate, as being not completely male.

A matter of life and death

One critical approach is to see Chaucer making a parallel between the idea (in the General Prologue portrait of him) that the Pardoner lacks a fully masculine body, and the theme of death in his Prologue and Tale:

  • His body is one that will not produce fruit or engender new life. He is likened to a ‘gelding' and a ‘mare' 
  • His wicked practices deny Christian fruitfulness and deprive people of eternal life

Such a parallel is perhaps there as an underlying hint or resonance for the reader, not a heavy-handed ‘message'.

The unmasculine Pardoner and the hyper-masculine Host are two characters who illustrate Chaucer's interest in presenting a range of attitudes towards masculinity (in other parts of  The Tales it could equally be said that he explores different aspects of femininity).

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.