Medieval Studies Masculinity and Male Sexuality in the Middle Ages
Jacqueline Murray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0251


The history of men in the Middle Ages is a recent field of study. Although men have traditionally dominated the historical discourse, they have done so as the universal, against which others—i.e., women—were measured. Thus, male experience has been universalized as human experience. Consequently, men have been overlooked in their sexed and gendered specificity. Men’s experience as men can only be recuperated when they are considered a marked category. For medieval men, this process began in the mid-1990s, although not without controversy. Some historians believed that so much was still to be learned about traditional history that focusing on men as sexed and gendered beings would distract from more important areas. Although the study of men and masculinity has continued to grow, it has not been systematic in terms of temporal periods or geographic locales. For example, few studies about men and masculinity in Byzantium are available because historians focus on the Islamic pressure on the Byzantine borders. On the other hand, there is considerable interest in social history, including masculinity and male sexuality, in Italy and the Anglo-French world. Importantly, these areas have rich sources to support research on men. The history of medieval men is also complicated by the intricacy of medieval society. Ecclesiastical and secular values had a tremendous impact on men’s lives, yet these were often in opposition. Moreover, these two segments of society were composed of men of different power, rank, wealth, money, and opportunity. Not all churchmen thought alike, and not all laymen performed their masculinity identically. Finally, the image of men, their beliefs, and their values varies with the sources. Sermons and saints’ lives provide different worldviews than do paintings, chivalric epics, or court records. The historical sources cited in this article represent a cross-section of research, not specific questions. Rather, representative studies provide an introduction and overview to questions that historians are asking about men and masculinity. The sources range from Scandinavia to Portugal to the eastern Mediterranean, from late Antiquity to the transformation of early modern society. The literature reflects on social ranks from royalty to rags and provides insight into cultural and sartorial expressions of masculinity. Finally, additional material discusses nonnormative sexualities and men otherwise considered to have been marginal. Thus, this article serves as a topical overview, a theoretical introduction, and a starting point for further reading.

General Overviews

The nascent and innovative state of research into medieval men and masculinity is demonstrated by the absence of books offering a synthetic overview of the field. In order to produce an overview of a topic, a sufficient body of research is necessary to support the process of synthesizing research to arrive at general conclusions. The historical scholarship on men and masculinities is a burgeoning field with a rich and diverse scholarship. Individual topics include secular men and ecclesiastical men and the way in which men are portrayed in specific genres of sources, such as law or theology, court records, or imaginative literature. The field awaits overviews similar to those available on other areas of social history, such as women or the family. Instead, a wide array of essay collections has opened multiple perspectives on men in their gendered specificity and on theoretical and practical views of their life experiences. These essay collections have opened the field, and even the earliest collection remains highly current (Lees 1994). The perspective of the volume—that the study of medieval masculinity emerged from feminist research—set the tone for much of the subsequent research agenda. The need to view men and masculinity from a critical and gendered perspective is evident in the collections by Murray 1999 and Hadley 1999. Although these volumes cross wide geographic and temporal divides and incorporate information from broad and diverse sources, the essays also denaturalize masculinity, as originally encouraged in Lees 1994. Cohen and Wheeler 1997 presents an equally broad cross-section, but the collected essays bring more theoretically inflected interpretations to the subject. Some authors have isolated specific aspects of male identity and provide analyses that are both synthetic and focused. For example, Murray 1996 is an essay on male sexuality that provides an integrated examination of sources and varieties of sexualities over the course of the Middle Ages. Neal 2008 presents a remarkable three-dimensional analysis of the interior life of men in England. Adding to the perspective of men as social actors is a psychologically informed analysis that reveals something of men’s beliefs, values, and interior life.

  • Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland, 1997.

    A rich collection of eighteen articles stretching from the time of the Anglo-Saxons to the end of the Middle Ages. It includes explorations of masculine physicality, including male embodiment, eunuchs, and three interlocking essays on Peter Abelard. Essays employ feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, literary criticism, and a variety of other theoretical approaches.

  • Hadley, Dawn M., ed. Masculinity in Medieval Europe. London: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

    Thirteen essays are organized according to these themes: “Attaining Masculinity” (Part 1), “Lay Men and Church Men” (Part 2), and “Masculinity and the Written Word” (Part 3). Essays range from the 4th to the 16th centuries and geographically cross from Byzantium and Italy to England, France, and Germany. The essays explore the manifestations of masculinity influenced by age, profession, and other social variables.

  • Lees, Clare A., ed. Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

    The earliest collection of essays on medieval masculinities, this volume set the tone for much of the subsequent research. It moved the field beyond the study of men in the guise of human history as broadly defined and argued that the study of masculinity originated as a result of the study of feminism. Of special note is the essay by McNamara 1994, cited under Theory/Medieval Ideals.

  • Murray, Jacqueline. “Hiding Behind the Universal Man: Male Sexuality in the Middle Ages.” In Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Edited by Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, 123–152. New York: Garland, 1996.

    One of the earliest examinations of medieval men as a marked category, this essay analyzes men in terms of the cultural construction of masculinity and male sexuality. Theological, medical, and secular sources provide a complex view that includes abstinence, aggression, and anxieties about impotence and sexual inadequacy. Male sexuality is revealed to be a social construction with unstable sexual identities.

  • Murray, Jacqueline, ed. Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West. New York: Garland, 1999.

    Twelve essays bring together a variety of methodologies and disciplinary perspectives to examine men and masculinity in western Europe, from the early Middle Ages through the 15th century. The collection touches on a breadth of social contexts, using a variety of sources: theological, scholastic, and monastic writers; sagas; hagiography; memoirs; material culture; chronicles’ vernacular literature; sumptuary legislation; and ecclesiastical court records.

  • Neal, Derek G. The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226569598.001.0001

    This monograph scrutinizes what it meant to be a man in England in the 14th and 15th centuries. Men are revealed not only as exterior, social beings but also as having complex psychologies and inner lives. Men’s social and gender superiority with respect to women is examined, as well as men’s interrelationships with other men and the values important for masculine respectability.

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