Manly Men of Yore

One of the most interesting and insidious aspects of complementarianism is its use of alternative (read: false) historical narratives to legitimize its claims about the timeless and universal nature of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Men everywhere have always been like X, and women everywhere have always been Y, and that’s that.

Of course, these kinds of ahistorical claims are hardly unique to complementarianism – you can see the same phenomenon at work in the counterfactual history promoted by the Tea Party and their ilk (Paul Revere’s Ride was about defending the right to bear arms against the British! The Founding Fathers fought tirelessly to end slavery!), or by anti-Muslim warmongers (Islam is a bloodthirsty religion that’s been hellbent on wiping Christianity off the face of the earth for over a millenium!). These kinds of narratives show how important history is, how powerful historical accounts – accurate or not – can be in lending credibility and influence to particular points of view and undermining others.

Unsurprisingly, the actual historical record completely contradicts complementarian assertions of a monolithic “masculine nature.” Sara Lipton’s recent New York Times article on ancient and medieval concepts of masculinity is a great example of this. Our current cultural view of masculinity holds that “all men” or “real” men are characterized by an insatiable and barely controllable lust for sex – which is why we often ascribe the sexual escapades (and far worse) of powerful men to their gender:

The conventional [explanation for political sex scandals] is that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.

But as Lipton points out, for much of western history, sexual restraint, not excess, was viewed as the hallmark of mature masculinity.

Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect….Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.

At the same time, lustfulness and sexual excess were in fact associated with women, not men:

Ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.” [Of course, this notion of female sexuality as a weapon used to subdue hapless men is still very much with us.]

Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.

Of course in a sense this trope is not so different from our current cultural framing of masculine and feminine sexuality. Both the ancient/medieval and our model are essentially misogynistic, blaming women for sexual indiscretions or outright crimes by men, whether because of imagined female sexual aggression on the one hand, or because women supposedly stir up uncontrollable male lusts simply by existing (I’m sorry, being “immodest” or “provocative”) on the other. Still, it’s clear that our modern understanding of gendered sexuality didn’t exist in the West as recently as a few centuries ago. Kind of calls into question claims that our notions of masculinity and femininity reflect some divinely created male or female nature, hmm?

5 Comments

  1. I took a Women and Their Role in U.S. History class my first year of college. The only reason my mother pushed for it (originally she was in gasp!horror! that my college would push the “feminist agenda”) was because it was taught by a Christian, and I think she thought it would enforce the Christian beliefs of everything, which it didn’t. I was so surprised to learn what you’ve written here, and how much of what we think is “natural” to women has only been around since the early nineteenth century I believe (I’m blanking on dates). Learning that the majority women always worked – even in the idyllic 50s – was probably the start of my first doubts about the things I was being told at church and their accuracy. Or at different times in our history and in different environments, what was considered “woman’s work” shifted. Like teaching was for men, and then we decided it was “natural” for women.

    There’s such a mistrust of education, at least at the church I was a part of, that it’s easy to accept that the world as it is now is the world that’s always been, and therefore, the ‘natural’ way that God created it. I bet my mother had no idea she was turning me toward feminism by encouraging me to take that class.

    • Yep, a lot of what we take for granted as “traditional” gender roles are really not much older than the Victorian Era and only ever applied to the middle and upper classes, anyway. Of course most complementarian leaders either don’t know that, don’t care, or don’t want their followers to know it…

      I think there’s a mistrust of education in part because they know that when they can’t control and filter what kids learn, they have much less of a chance of keeping them fundamentalists. They know on some level that the facts don’t line up with how they want to see the world. I guess the historical record has a feminist agenda :p

      There’s a tactical problem with teaching highly selective and misleading history (among other things), aside from the fact that it’s wrong. When someone gets out from that culture and learns that the real facts are more complicated than what they’ve been taught – if not completely contradictory to that – there’s no room for their faith to absorb that kind of nuance. It immediately opens the door to doubt – like it did for you, and me as well. Unless people stay completely sheltered, they eventually figure out that what they believe is a lie, and then what?

      • Yeah. Recently my mother was reading a book written by a woman who worked at Planned Parenthood and then became a Christian and now was “exposing the truth” about how “evil” Planned Parenthood was. My mother wanted me to read it and I told her no because I am tired of this side of things. I have read far too many skewed facts and misrepresentations that I do not trust most ‘facts’ I hear from Christians. She tried to tell me that I should be fair and give it a chance, but that’s the point – I already gave that side a chance.

        I was told that the other side – the nonChristian, liberal, evolutionist side – was a bunch of people lying through their teeth because they HAD to cling to their beliefs in spite of what was really true, because secretly, they wanted to reject God and live for themselves. And then I realized that of all people, it’s the ones who actually believe in something who have the most to lose.

        College destroyed my faith not because of the “liberal agenda” (geez everything non-Christian apparently has an agenda) but because I was introduced to facts and arguments I could not refute. My brand of Christianity was about searching for the truth, whatever it was. When I’m presented with a solid argument, I have to consider it. And well…here I am.

  2. Jenny Islander says:

    The Society for Creative Anachronism taught me a lot about traditional gender roles and also about what has been done to the teaching of history–in this case by the Victorians. Victorians invented the damsel in distress. The real damsels defended the castle with vats of boiling oil, and if that didn’t work, they waited until their abductors let their guards down and then pushed them into the river or cut their heads off with their own swords. Victorians wanted to think of themselves as men who braved the shoals and currents of the world and came home to women who presided over tranquil havens with a smile. They had no place for real medieval women who, besides fighting in sieges, also ran their own businesses, and not just the sort that produce dainty ruffled aprons and jam; medieval women sometimes became blacksmiths, actual hot-pounders, and they also bossed around male journeymen without the fiction of having some related man present to sign off on their words. But then, the Victorians had no place for their own contemporaries who worked all day in mines and factories while pregnant.

    Real medieval men, who knelt in prayer before the cross-shaped hilts of their swords before going into battle, ALSO, depending on time and place, wrote love poetry, knitted, did needlepoint, made perfume, wore perfume, wore brightly colored skintight clothing with padded crotches ornamented with little jingling chains, put bells on their shoes, and hugged and kissed other men.