Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy

Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy

Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy

Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy


The life of an aristocratic Carolingian man involved an array of behaviors and duties associated with his gender and rank: an education in arms and letters; training in horsemanship, soldiery, and hunting; betrothal, marriage, and the virile production of heirs; and the masterful command of a prominent household. In Be a Perfect Man, Andrew J. Romig argues that Carolingian masculinity was constituted just as centrally by the performance of caritas, defined by the early medieval scholar Alcuin of York as a complete and all-inclusive love for God and for fellow human beings, flowing from the whole heart, mind, and soul. The authority of the Carolingian man depended not only on his skills in warfare and landholding but also on his performances of empathy, devotion, and asceticism.

Romig maps caritas as a concept rooted in a vast body of inherited Judeo-Christian and pagan philosophies, shifting in meaning and association from the patristic era to the central Middle Ages. Carolingian discussions and representations of caritas served as a discourse of power, a means by which early medieval writers made claims, both explicit and implicit, about the hierarchies of power that they believed ought to exist within their world. During the late eighth, ninth, and early tenth centuries, they creatively invoked caritas to link aristocratic men with divine authority. Romig gathers conduct handbooks, theological tracts, poetry, classical philosophy, church legislation, and exegetical texts to outline an associative process of gender ideology in the Carolingian Middle Ages, one that framed masculinity, asceticism, and authority as intimately interdependent. The association of power and empathy remains with us to this day, Romig argues, as a justification for existing hierarchies of authority, privilege, and prestige.


I advise you so that you can be a perfect man. the man who wears
down his feet in the mud and the dust as he walks the earth is
blessed on account of his worthy merits. He already has his name
written in the heavenly kingdom.

— Dhuoda of Septimania to her son, William (ninth century)

Dhuoda of Septimania (d. c. 843/844) penned these solemn words to her absent son, William (d. 849/850), as her world was collapsing all around her. the year was 842 or 843, the most violent apogee of an era of anarchy and civil war that Dhuoda’s contemporaries would come to call their tempus perturbationum— their “time of troubles.” Dhuoda’s husband, once a powerful lord and trusted advisor to the emperor, now lived in exile. He had been forced to surrender William, a boy in his mid- teens, to live as a hostage ward in an enemy court. in his flight, furthermore, he had taken with him his only remaining heir, a baby born to Dhuoda no more than a year or two of age. Thus, Dhuoda wrote her words alone and bereft, left behind, sick in body and roiled in spirit, seeking what comfort she could in a final act of motherly love and protection. Her solace was the hope that her son might one day receive her little book of advice, learn from its wisdom, and live to become a vir perfectus— a “perfect man.”

What it meant to be such a man within the aristocratic culture of Carolingian Europe during the late eighth, ninth, and early tenth centuries CE— the history of its definitions, its symbolic valuations, and its metaphoric associations— is the subject of this book. the typical life of an aristocratic . . .

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