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Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England$

Alexandra Shepard

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199299348

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199299348.001.0001

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Conclusion: Manhood, Patriarchy, and Gender in Early Modern England

Conclusion: Manhood, Patriarchy, and Gender in Early Modern England

(p.246) Conclusion: Manhood, Patriarchy, and Gender in Early Modern England
Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The concluding chapter reviews the ways in which meanings of manhood were shaped by age, householding status, and social status as well as concepts of gender difference. It argues that the differences between men were as critical to constructions of early modern masculinity as those between men and women. It also argues that social differences between men played a growing part in producing conflicting codes of manhood, and were linked to the increasingly uneven distribution of patriarchal dividends along class lines.

Keywords:   patriarchy, manhood, social status

IT seems entirely fitting that manhood was often referred to in early modern England as an ‘estate’. Manhood was a positive category of status and a form of privilege associated with a complex range of attributes and myriad processes of inclusion and exclusion. One of the primary distinctions upon which it was founded was, evidently, gender difference. There was no comparable sense of womanhood as an ‘estate’, and, in prescriptive commentary at least, women who displayed some of the attributes reserved for manhood were reviled as monstrous rather than celebrated as manly. Yet concepts of manhood were not premissed simply on a gender hierarchy. This was an estate that was neither equally shared, nor, as a consequence, uniformly defined by all men. In its dominant forms it was mapped along three other central axes of difference: age, householding status, and, often less explicitly, social status. The ‘estate’ of manhood was associated with adulthood, corresponding to a phase in the life course that was often deemed not to begin until 30 or 35 and was considered by many to be over at 50. It was also linked to householding status, which most men achieved through marriage. Finally, many of its attributes—such as ‘honesty’—were more subtly and exclusively aligned with the self-styled respectability of the ‘better sort’, also informing a critique of those men who were by contrast designated ‘mean’, ‘rude’, or ‘base’.

When configured within these parameters, concepts of manhood coincided with patriarchal principles that both privileged males over females, and favoured particular men above others. Patriarchal manhood endorsed a gender hierarchy that exalted maleness as a cultural category by ranking men generically above women. This was patriarchy in a feminist sense. In its early modern sense, however, it most frequently served the interests of middle-aged, householding men, and, increasingly, those considered of ‘able and sufficient’ means. Furthermore, it was a complex compound, associated with a range of attributes that were selectively invoked and applied, and not exclusively associated with manhood in (p.247) its patriarchal formulations. Strength, thrift, industry, self-sufficiency, honesty, authority, autonomy, self-government, moderation, reason, wisdom, and wit were all claimed for patriarchal manhood, either as the duties expected of men occupying patriarchal positions or as the justification for their associated privileges. These qualities held a range of associations; access and aspirations to them varied; and different configurations served different men in different contexts. Autonomy, self-sufficiency, or honesty all might have meant something quite different to a gentleman than to a master craftsman, for example. And a genteel reader of Sir Thomas Elyot's Castel of Helth might have aspired to manhood primarily rooted in reason, wisdom, and moderation, whereas an ‘able and sufficient’ husbandman was more likely to have identified with the merits of strength, thrift, and industry. In addition, patriarchal manhood was selectively applied and invoked—for example by university authorities who condemned violent posturing by students yet sanctioned similar behaviour by their own regulatory body, the proctor's watch.

Patriarchal manhood was not only contingent and multifaceted, therefore, but also often contradictory in its different emphases. Contradictions arose within prescription and practice, and not just between them. So, for example, prescriptive literature on marriage warned men of the dangers love posed to manhood, while emphasizing its fundamental necessity as the foundation for marital relations. Husbands were instructed to be autonomous, yet also warned that they were mutually implicated in all their wives' doings. Conduct writers advised wives that husbands held absolute authority over them, to which they should submit without question, while counselling husbands that they would be foolish to exercise it and to exact this kind of obedience. Similar tensions seem to have existed between attitudes towards the violent correction of wives. Wife-beating was often represented as a vice exercised by ‘the common sort of men’, suggesting contradictions between commonly held expectations of male dominance in terms of men's power over women on the one hand, and more selectively applied associations of male authority with rational self-government and the moderate rule of a range of subordinates on the other.1 Here patriarchy in a feminist sense had the potential to clash with patriarchy in its early modern sense, which, increasingly, conceived of male authority in socially related terms.

Such fissures within concepts of patriarchal manhood were minor in comparison with the friction generated by the explicitly anti-patriarchal (p.248) stances adopted bysomemen.Nightwalking, violentdisruption, immoderate drinking, and the rampant pursuit of illicit sex inverted the attributes of patriarchal manhood in celebration of counter-codes of manhood rooted in prodigality, transience, violence, bravado, and debauchery. While the excesses of youthful misrule offer the most vivid examples, these deliberately subversive actions were not exclusive to young men, but also included those disenfranchised on grounds other than age, as well as men occupying patriarchal positions who (temporarily or otherwise) flouted the codes of behaviour expected of them. Patriarchal discourse went to considerable lengths to condemn such excesses as forms of deviation in terms of puerility, effeminacy, bestiality, or degeneration. Yet, particularly when associated with and endorsed by the fraternal bonds of camaraderie, the perpetrators of such actions clearly derived a potent sense of manhood from them. This, in turn, illustrates not only the degree of explicitly anti-patriarchal resistance performed by men, but also the levels of conflict between different meanings of manhood.

Such conflict did not solely exist along patriarchal/anti-patriarchal lines. This is suggested by critiques of youthful misrule that, rather than condemning it in terms of unmanly degeneration, instead linked such excesses to other kinds of manhood. University authorities, for example, were concerned that students did not demean themselves by adopting codes of manhood that were beneath them, deemed ‘light’ or ‘lewd’, and contrary to injunctions for ‘decent behaviour and polished manners’.2 Similarly, concerns to discourage various types of male behaviour with the label ‘common’ conveyed an implicit recognition of alternative forms of manhood articulated along socially related lines.

The alternative meanings of manhood acknowledged by such critiques were not explicitly anti-patriarchal, and often incorporated attributes of patriarchal manhood as well as some of the values intrinsic to counter-codes. A wage labourer's concept of honesty in terms of ‘painful’ industry may have overlapped to a degree with the values of a ratepaying yeoman. The latter, however, would also have enjoyed more exclusive access to the respectability associated with the honesty claimed by ‘able and sufficient’ men. Respectability in these terms was also a far more gender-specific concept, since the narrower version associated with honest hardship was also claimed by many women who were as instrumental as men in provisioning their households. Conversely, a man consigned to perpetual journeywork may have adopted many of the same actions as rebellious youths—such as excessive drinking or macho posturing (p.249) —although as an expression of his independence from, rather than a direct critique of, patriarchal codes. Alternative meanings of manhood evolved as expedients, particularly amongst men excluded from patri-arichal privileges, rather than as explicit counter-codes. Shared household strategies that deviated from the nuclear model by pooling resources, for example, may have led to a greater emphasis on collectivism than self-sufficient mastery. Similarly, alehouse culture enabled the expression of manhood in terms of robust fraternity, carefree consumption, and at least temporary independence from the values of thrift, moderation, and painful drudgery.

Men, therefore, as well as women, undermined, resisted, or simply ignored patriarchal imperatives. Meanings of manhood did not always coincide with patriarchal expectations, but often existed in tension with them. Despite the force of patriarchal ideology, it was not successful in fixing manhood exclusively on its terms, and, as a result, it would be mistaken to equate manhood with patriarchy, or to view manhood as wholly defined in relation to it. Patriarchy itself was riddled with contradictions, in both its conception and practice. Men occupying patriarchal positions did not always perform the duties expected of them, but also drew on meanings of manhood contrary to patriarchal imperatives. Many others were excluded from patriarchal dividends on the grounds of age, marital status, and social status. They were not, however, excluded from claiming manhood. However powerfully it was articulated by contemporaries, we should not push the patriarchal model of gender relations so far that we are forced to categorize subordinate males as ‘pseudo women’ any more than we should view commercially active widows as honorary men, or politically vocal wives as ‘fictive widows’.3 Subordinate or marginalized men asserted potent meanings of manhood either in explicit resistance or as independent alternatives to patriarchal codes.

By becoming aware of the complex gender differences that existed between men, it becomes possible to categorize what R. W. Connell has called the ‘social organization of masculinity’. Attempting to chart the relations between different types of manhood, Connell has established a fourfold classification, at the pinnacle of which sits ‘hegemonic’ manhood. The three other categories over which hegemonic manhood dominates comprise complicity (through benefiting from the ‘patriarchal dividend’ without occupying a hegemonic position); subordination (often blurred with femininity); and marginalization through social (p.250) and cultural exclusion.4 While patriarchal manhood was undoubtedly hegemonic in early modern England, its dominance should not be overestimated by historians. A modified scheme is therefore necessary to account for the social organization of early modern masculinity, which does not over-prioritize hegemonic manhood, and which can accommodate anti-patriarchal and alternative concepts of manhood. Patriarchal notions of manhood were themselves undermined by internal inconsistencies and contradictions, and competing forms of manhood exerted a powerful influence. Conflicting meanings of manhood are not always easily categorized as subordinate, complicit, or marginalized in relation to patriarchy, since they were often articulated in terms of active resistance. In addition, alternative meanings of manhood exerted an autonomous authority, independent of patriarchal manhood, and not solely defined in its shadow.

The differences between men were as central to the practice of patriarchy as the differences between men and women—some of which were not always as stark as a dichotomous model of gender relations would have us believe. In defamation litigation there was a far greater degree of gender convergence in matters of sexual honour than in matters relating to debased status. There was also a considerable degree of overlap in the contributions that many men and women made to the household economy, which risks being masked by a literal reading of the prescriptive literature's insistence on a much stricter separation of men and women's duties. While it is clear that patriarchal manhood, particularly in its feminist sense, should not be underestimated, operating to the profound disadvantage of women and structurally reinforced at almost every turn, female subordination was also selective. Patriarchal principles were not always deemed relevant for women as well as men—for example when a household's subsistence was solely dependent on the labour of married women and children.

Besides an appreciation of gender convergence as well as divergence, a comprehension of the varied meanings of manhood and the complex links between them has far broader implications for approaches to gender relations in early modern England. Just as meanings of manhood were varied, unstable, and contradictory, and—most importantly—not wholly determined by their relation to patriarchal ideology, so the construction and experience of femininity occurred in ways which both countered and were independent of patriarchal prescriptions. Although the scope for deviation was possibly less broad for women than for men, they likewise either benefited from, were subordinated by, resisted, or ignored patriarchal (p.251) dictates. A multirelational model of gender relations in early modern England is therefore necessary, in place of approaches that merely measure the degree to which either men's or women's behaviour lived up to patriarchal prescriptions, or that weigh up the extent of male domination and female subordination. Such a model also takes account of the variations in gender identity within each sex as well as between them. As a result, it becomes possible to assess levels of resistance to and independence from patriarchal imperatives, as well as the basis of their authority. It also enables a more subtle analysis of the processes of inclusion and exclusion relating to the distribution of patriarchal dividends over time.

While it is clear that men were the primary beneficiaries of patriarchy, they were by no means privileged equally, and many instead derived a positive sense of male identity from alternative codes of manhood. Although meanings of manhood were multiple, highly contingent, and selectively invoked by different men either over the span of a lifetime or even during the course of a single day, it is possible to identify broader patterns to such variations. As a result, a more complex narrative of changing gender relations can be contemplated which is not solely premissed on the shifting dynamics between the sexes but which also takes into account the relations between different categories of men and of women. Tracing the ways in which different men either benefited from, resisted, ignored, or were subordinated by patriarchal codes sheds light on an important long-term shift in the gender history of early modern England. Recent discussions of long-term change have commonly involved narratives tracing a gradual transition from concepts of gender difference in terms of a hierarchy placing men above women to notions of incommensurability between the sexes.5 However, such accounts are beginning to be questioned as a result of more critical scrutiny of the complexity of gender change.6 A further corrective to arguments positing over-schematic patterns of change is provided by considering the shifting dynamics within each sex, as well as between them. This appears to have involved a transition from a situation in which patriarchal manhood was primarily conferred along the lines of age and marital status to a situation in which patriarchal manhood became increasingly class-related.

(p.252) The decades between 1560 and 1640 were pivotal to this longer-term redistribution of the benefits of patriarchy. Two details of the period's socio-economic history crystallize this point. First is the startling demographic data which suggests that well over a fifth of those born in England between 1604 and 1628 never married.7 These men and women were denied access to the normative roles of master and mistress, governing their own ‘little commonwealth’ of the household, and were, presumably, absorbed as subordinates into the households of the increasing minority of householders. Furthermore, as suggested by the evidence of broken households, increasing numbers seem to have been unable to maintain themselves as householders, even if they had once attained householding status. As marriage became a ‘privilege, rather than a right’, large numbers of men—and men of the ‘poorer sort’—were denied this particular form of patriarchal authority.8 Instead, alternative codes of manhood, rooted in values ranging across prodigality, excess, bravado, brawn, transience, and collectivism, were positively claimed by, and became increasingly associated (often negatively) with, the ‘meaner’ sorts of men.

The second, and related, issue is the permanent dependence of increasing numbers of men on wage labour, as the system of transitional, life-cycle service gradually broke down and an incipient labouring class emerged. As a result, some of the attributes of patriarchal manhood in terms of orderly, rational self-control, and, increasingly, in terms of civility, were realigned with distinctions of social status, and became more exclusively associated with the ‘better’ or ‘middling’ sorts. By contrast, the patriarchal authority of labouring men became more exclusively focused on their relationship with women, and the meanings of manhood espoused by different social groups began to diverge. Lower-ranking men were increasingly denied access to the full patriarchal dividend, and their basis for complicity with the ‘hegemonic’ model became ever more narrow. This was a further dimension of the social polarization of the period, and helps to situate late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century anxieties about disorderly men.9 It also helps to contextualize the emergent discourses of civility, and, subsequently, politeness that have preoccupied historians of eighteenth-century masculinity, which need to (p.253) be approached as class-based codes of conduct and therefore part of this longer-term shift in the distribution of patriarchal dividends.10

While age and marital status nonetheless remained integral to male identities, the gaps within each sex were therefore becoming more marked in terms of social status. Married men of the middling sorts had increasingly less in common with their labouring counterparts, and it is possible that similarities of age were less likely to override social status distinctions. The one exception to this was in old age, which followed the opposite trajectory. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, social status and health appear to have been primary determinants of the degree to which older men maintained a stake in the patriarchal dividend. It is likely that, as chronological markers of age became more important and more fixed from the later seventeenth century, the scope for autonomy amongst the aged became more limited, regardless of their means.11

The period between 1560 and 1640 was part of a long-term shift in the relationship between patriarchal, anti-patriarchal, and alternative concepts of manhood and the groups of men with which these conflicting codes were associated. Aspects of patriarchal manhood, such as honest respectability and, in the longer term, civility, became reserved for the ‘able and sufficient’, rather than being more evenly distributed amongst adult married men. Alternative meanings of manhood, such as those associated with the alehouse, gradually became linked with particular groups of men—along contours of class as well as age—rather than being more broadly accommodated within a shared repertoire of male identity. Differences of social status became as important as distinctions of age and marital status as sites of conflict between meanings of manhood. The inevitable corollary was that the articulation of alternative codes of manhood was becoming both more class related and arguably a great deal more potent. It has often been observed that one of the most notable features of patriarchy is its persistence through adaptability.12 We should not forget that the same was true of its alternatives and the many forms of resistance adopted by men as well as women in early modern England.


(1) Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory (London, 1890), 537.

(2) Recordsof Early English Drama: Cambridge, ed. Alan H. Nelson, 2 vols. (Toronto, 1989), ii. 1144.

(3) Mary Prior, ‘Women and the Urban Economy’, in Ead. (ed.), Women in English Society 1500–1800 (London, 1985), 96; Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York, 1996), 162–4, 174, 316, 397–9.

(4) R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge, 1995), 76–81.

(5) See, e.g., Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sexand Subordinationin England1500–1800 (London, 1995); Michael McKeon, ‘Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660–1760’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 28 (1995).

(6) Karen Harvey, ‘The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in Eighteenth-Century England’, Gender and History, 14 (2002); ead., ‘The Century of Sex? Gender, Bodies, and Sexuality in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Historical Journal, 45 (2002).

(7) J. A. Goldstone, ‘The Demographic Revolution in England: A Re-examination’, Population Studies, 40 (1986), 17.

(8) Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580–1680 (London, 1982), 70.

(9) See also Susan Amussen, ‘“The Part of a Christian Man”: The Cultural Politics of Manhood in Early Modern England’, in Susan D. Amussen and Mark A. Kishlansky (eds.), Political Culture and Cultural Politics in Seventeenth-Century England: Essays Presented to David Underdown (Manchester, 1995).

(10) Tim Hitchcock and Michèle Cohen (eds.), English Masculinities 1660–1800 (Harlow, 1999); Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society: Britain 1660–1800 (Harlow, 2000).

(11) Keith Thomas, ‘Age and Authority in Early Modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 62 (1976), 248.

(12) e.g. Judith M. Bennett, ‘Feminism and History’, Gender and History, 1 (1989); Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination, ch. 20; Sylvia Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (Oxford, 1990).