Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Suits Make the Man: Masculinity in Two English Law Courts, C. 1500

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Suits Make the Man: Masculinity in Two English Law Courts, C. 1500

Article excerpt

SUITS MAKE THE MAN: MASCULINITY IN TWO ENGLISH LAW COURTS, c.1500 (1)

"Thou art an arrant strong thief. I get my goods truly, but so dost thou not, in for thou hast a saddle to ride to the Devil upon to fetch money." (2) So said John Goodhyn, a Somerset man, to John Horssington on a June day in 1515, witnesses tell us. Five centuries later we are left with a flickering glimpse, of a moment of stress between two men, one of many such quarrels to land in various parts of the justice systems of late medieval England. This quarrel was about words, and also about livelihood, and that is obvious; it was also about selfhood and gender, and that is not so obvious. The moment it signifies can stand for so many other moments when ordinary individuals marked out their sense of themselves in their communities. For men, that sense of self was and is what we call masculinity. Goodhyn and Horssington were men living in a society where power and authority were highly identified with maleness. And when Horssington decided to take Goodhyn to court, he engaged a legal system where men comprised the vast majority of the litigants and 100 per cent of the staff. Before masculinity caught the attention of gender studies, this would have seemed unremarkable, merely a fact of patriarchal life. It is that, and also more. It allowed Horssington, and the scores of men like him who litigated over quarrels like this, to make use of deep-laid linguistic and cultural meanings of masculinity.

To show how this worked, I offer here readings of some similar disputes--not the florid outbursts which led to violence or bloodshed, but that more mundane, slow-burning, complicated kind of quarrel over the social faces of men's lives. At issue are good name, household order, and the shifting complex of community relations, as recorded by two very different but important late medieval courts during the years around the turn of the sixteenth century, much-debated decades in most branches of medieval and early modern history. My interpretations are pointed toward a growing historical concern. While scholarship about the history of masculinity proliferates, a general haziness persists about just what the word "masculinity" means. This is not surprising perhaps, given the term's breadth of meaning in popular use, which its appearance in academic writing simply reflects. Masculinity can mean what men are, what men do, what men think they should be or do, what others or "society" think men should be or do: bodies, behaviours, roles, defensive protestations and prescriptive critiques, all rolled into one spiky ball, very easy to fumble.

Perhaps this is why historians have so easily discovered masculinity in "crisis" so often throughout recorded Western history, up to the present day. Many of these purported crises have socio-economic roots, especially changes in employment patterns. In this analysis, men's self-worth is highly invested in their ability to provide for a family through honest work. Economic change threatens such a role, and therefore also imperils masculinity. (3) This makes a kind of sense. Yet, the conclusions of these masculinity-crisis studies always seem pat and unsatisfying. In their desire to generalize about men, or even about one class of men, and in their focus on social consequences, they flatten out the complementary perspective of interiority and individuality. The individual subject is there (albeit silenced) by implication, in the very assumption that men "perceive" or "feel" or "experience" a crisis. But the real texture of interior life which would follow from a more concerted attention to how those perceptions and feelings work, or are co-ordinated, gets lost. If the study of historical masculinity is to go very far beyond reproducing fairly predictable ideas--beyond telling us, in effect, what we think we already know--it needs to take account of this other side. …

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