High Anxiety: Masculinity in Crisis in Early Modern France

High Anxiety: Masculinity in Crisis in Early Modern France

High Anxiety: Masculinity in Crisis in Early Modern France

High Anxiety: Masculinity in Crisis in Early Modern France

Synopsis

This collection explores the evolution of notions about masculinity during the intense crisis of Renaissance and early modern France. Authors of the period reflect the anxieties about masculinity that became more pronounced against the backdrop of major events and innovations of the period: the religious conflict in France, the repeated questioning of religious and royal authority, the revival of Greek scepticism, the discovery of the New World, and the rise of clinical medicine. These events in turn fuelled growing doubt concerning the fixed and hierarchical nature of gender distinction; a distinction upon which many felt French culture was dependent for its very survival.

Excerpt

The past decade has seen explosive growth in the number of “critical inquiries” pertaining to gender, sexuality, and the body. These explorations reach as far back as the early modern period. Until quite recently, these issues were viewed predominantly from the perspective of feminism and queer theory, and the body itself theorized as transgressive or “other” than masculine. Ironically, this insistence on the feminine body in opposition to a little-defined masculine norm seems to retain the binary categories which have driven discussions of gender difference since the early modern period, categories of spiritual/physical, high/low, masculine/feminine, which one would assume postmodern criticism was poised to unravel. Recent studies have indeed raised the possibility of defining this abstraction known as masculinity, and of its problematic hold on culture; some of the most intriguing work in this field is being done in relation to the early modern period, such as the work of both Mark Breitenberg and Lynn Enterline. Nonetheless, the representation of masculinity in early modern French culture has received little attention to date.

Much of the work on the relationship between gender and identity formation in early modern Europe has viewed the Continent through predominantly English lenses, as if cultural specificities had no relevance to the understanding of particular cultural manifestations. This perspective effaces the issue of the very particular contexts in which gender identity (designated as sexe in early modern French, and thus conflated to some degree with essential biology) is problematized. The rigid hierarchies of church and state, which overlay a more fluid society and culture, privilege the masculine at the dawn of the early modern period. From Aristotle on, the male is defined as the ideal, the perfected state of humankind, but the vehement insistence on this assumption, echoed by the often violent misogyny of the querelle des femmes, reveals an anxiety about the status of masculinity that becomes particularly evident in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For a variety of reasons, most obviously the social disorder ensuing from the Wars of Religion, this anxiety seems to become quite acute in France subsequent to the Calvinist reformation, and does not abate even in the seventeenth century, perhaps from fear of a return to the upheavals of the preceding century. Rather, it becomes the grounding for an examination of the nature of political power, as Mitchell Greenberg’s article in this collection demonstrates.

Recent criticism links the rise of the modern subject and of a certain notion of individualism to the seventeenth century; this link is exposed clearly in the works of Dalia Judovitz and Greenberg. But, even if the modern individual was largely formed in the classical era, the crucible of this formation was the Renaissance, a period in which clear-cut distinctions of gender were already being questioned and . . .

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