Are We Monks, or Are We Men? the Monastic Masculine Gender Model According to the Rule of Benedict

By Raverty, Aaron | The Journal of Men's Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Are We Monks, or Are We Men? the Monastic Masculine Gender Model According to the Rule of Benedict


Raverty, Aaron, The Journal of Men's Studies


By the beginning of the fifth century, monasticism had become the new Christian masculine ideal. (Roughgarden, 2004, p. 362)

Here was a new kind of hero [the monk], one who integrated masculine identity and religious identity: a man's man for a new age, a hero whose sexual prowess was reaffirmed by the temptations of the flesh and whose military prowess was demonstrated in the battle for chastity. (Murray, 2004, p. 37)

"Can the term 'monk' be assigned a distinct gender status?" was the initial question that spurred my investigation into this rather unusual title and topic. The question itself was born from the confluence of two major developments at Saint John's University (SJU) in which I had the good fortune to participate: the incipient men's studies program as a new curricular initiative and the ubiquitous reference to "Benedictine values" that seemingly permeated the fabric of everything from the structural reorganization of the SJU Alumni Association to the course requirements of the first-year symposium to the vocational project offerings of conferences and presentations to faculty and staff.

Interest in this topic was also piqued by reading the anthropological literature describing the gender plasticity among many indigenous Native American groups, meager data largely misunderstood, distorted, and even suppressed by the explorers and missionaries who first contacted their communities and lived among them prior to any other significant outside contact. Books like Will Roscoe's (1998) Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America and Sabine Lang's (1998) Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures unleashed a consideration of gender nuances and variants ignored or disdained by a cultural view essentializing the stark bipolarities of masculine and feminine. (1)

This paper is heuristic rather than empirical. By sifting through the Rule of Benedict (RB) for any cues it might yield about gender, it purports to construct a conceptual framework for articulating a gender model in the RB. The hope is that it will stimulate empirical investigations by those whose expertise in historical methodology allows them to extract data from legal, archival, and other literary sources that would either support or refute hypotheses generated from within this framework.

Some may consider this paper a sexist undertaking, but it has no intention of being so. The fact of the matter is that Benedict, as a man himself, originally wrote his Rule for men. (2) It thus seems reasonable to assume that he was attempting to outline, however unwittingly, a masculine model for monks of his day. (3) It is with this spirit of inquiry that the issues in this paper are pursued.

Gender versus Sex

Although current usage seems to prefer the term gender to sex (with some avoiding the use of the "s" word altogether), anthropologists make a distinction. (4) Gender implies a developmental trajectory. Sex, on the other hand, is fixed in biological reality (cf. Goldstein, 2001). In terms of sex, one is born either male or female (except in the rare case of the intersex or hermaphrodite (5)), but gender has a looser fit with such constitutional givens.

   Every person is classified at birth on the basis of morphological
   characteristics into one of two categories, male or female. But all
   cultures elaborate these basic biological differences between male
   and female into secondary, nonbiological differences--cultural
   notions of masculine and feminine. (Hunter & Whitten, 1976, p.
   348)

We can delineate the concept of gender even further: "[G]ender role is the expression of the gender identity (the subjective feeling of one's own gender membership) of an individual and represents the complex of culturally determined behavior patterns that are associated in a given culture with the corresponding gender status" (Lang, 1998, p. …

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