Is it possible to study men from a gendered perspective when studying history?
To study men from a gendered perspective, historians must first acknowledge both gender history, and that men’s history is predominantly based on two component parts – understanding men’s relations with women and the relations they have with other men. Sonya O. Rose argues that “Gender history is based on the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman” across time and how this has or has not changed in terms of gender perceptions and stereotypes. The use if the term “gender” rather than “sex” within Rose’s argument is suggestive that to study gender history is to study more than issues of just biological differences. Therefore, to study men from a gendered perspective is of course possible as both men and women’s history throughout past and present communities was intertwined and not just based on “sex” but on how relations of the genders were understood. Harry Bod has noted that “Feminist scholars have developed a tradition of using the phrase “men’s studies” as a pejorative way of denoting the traditional academic curriculum” an a way of promoting women’s studies as a new revelation and progression away from a patriarchal led story of history. However, when looking at evidence from different historical periods, it can be seen that even so called “women’s history” and the study of it allows for men to be studied from a gendered perspective due to their interactions and the way in which history chooses to represent these men in women’s stories.
Understanding the concepts of gender history
When studying men from a gendered perspective, it is important to understand the concept of masculinity and what that meant in a selected historical context. Roper argues that “the concept of masculinity was a complex one because it was ‘the product both of a lived experience and fantasy’ and that further studies were needed to ‘explore how cultural representations become part of a subjective identity.” This is even ore so the case for medieval and early modern history as the majority of it was written by men about men, who in the process exaggerated and may have altered the facts to include personal bias and to improve the history of men, which meant that it focused on men and only looked at women in relation to men. History that focuses on men has had a tendency to focus primarily on political and military history and in some cases the religious sector. Whilst, women’s history where recorded appeared to be more social, emotional and based in its study. Yet as Martin Francis notes “While, as feminists have rightly asserted, there is no shortage of histories of men… the study of men as gendered beings – has been a relatively recent historical departure. However, in the last decade, historical interest in masculinity has dramatically increased.” With Francis’ assertion in mind it is possible to study men’s history from a gendered perspective by using the extensive evidence in a different way than it has been used previously, to study men as gendered beings, rather than the authors and protagonists of their own stories.
How gender studies can be applied to the study of early modern and medieval history
The remainder of this essay will discuss how men can be studied in the early modern and medieval periods in a gendered perspective. It is possible to do this by assessing men’s relations and actions towards other men and women. Nancy F Scott first, writes that men and women’s experiences throughout history were different but intertwined due to the nature of gender roles in the medieval and early modern periods. Cott argues “gender matters because the disparate situations of the sexes cause them to experience and perceive events or circumstances different.” There is evidence to support this when looking at the experiences of Robert the Bruce’s family’s experiences during the Scottish Wars of Independence during the 13th and 14th centuries. When Robert the Bruce took up arms against Edward I of England to gain Scottish independence, Edward sought to retaliate to Bruce’s actions by targeting those who supported Bruce, primarily his family.
The Chronicle of Lanercost acknowledges that Edward “hanged those who had part in the conspiracy and had assisted in the making of him [Robert Bruce] King, most of whom they caused first to be drawn at the heels of horses and afterwards hanged them… among those who were hanged were not only simple country folk and laymen, but also knights and clerics.” This harsh and gruesome treatment of Bruce’s brothers and other supporters regardless of their place in the feudal system suggests that Edward I was fearful of other men viewing them not only as a threat to his rule, but as a threat to his ability to control Scotland for his own. He viewed any man that rose against him as treasonous and violently treated them as a result. This could suggest that Edward during this time was cautious and weary about his position as King with a contender just in the North, or merely suggests that Edward wanted to portray himself as a ruthless and unmerciful ruler in order to keep peace within his realm. With Robert the Bruce’s rise against him, by treating his family and followers in such a cruel manner, attempts to prevent others from taking arms against him or to join the Scottish cause. By using Robert’s family in particular against him suggests that medieval men viewed family connections as a way of punishing their enemies if they weren’t able to harm the other man physically themselves. This evidence, therefore, suggests that unlike the early assertion that men are predominantly studied in military and political terms, that this evidence tells historians more about men’s emotional connections and how their enemies used this to their advantage.
Similar can be said of Robert the Bruce’s female connections and how Edward I treated them, except the fact that the women were not brutally murdered upon capture. Edward viewed the Bruce women as long-term captives and booty within the Wars of Independence. An ideal example for this is the treatment of Isabella MacDuff during the war. Isabella was captured for the “unpardonable crime” of crowning Robert, King of Scots. The fact that Edward I did not instantly murder the women is suggestive that he viewed them as less of a threat due to their gender, and that should the war not be won in his favour, that the women would be worth more to him alive. Isabella’s treatment, however, was still brutal and presents that Edward I still wanted to make an example of those who wanted to question his authority. Isabella was suspended in a cage off Berwick Castle depicted as “constructed of a little chamber… with latticed sides so that all might look in from curiosity…” This demonstrates that Edward still aimed to make an example of the women who had supported the men who acted against Edward, but that they were perceived in medieval society as damsels in distress or women who had transgressed their gender roles in Isabella’s case.
Women weren’t viewed as having the authority nor position to be able to crown a King, but Isabella was deemed to have that power in the absence of her father and brother who were the heads of her clan. Edward viewed this as unacceptable and that she had risen above her station in order to spite Edward and his power and so mistreated her and made an example of her. Her position at Berwick Castle, also tells historians on how Edward intended Isabella to suffer. Over Berwick castle across the sea was a faint view of Scotland. Isabella was made to be suspended in this cage here so she could be reminded constantly of home and the actions that had brought her there. Therefore, Edward intended to emotionally harm Isabella as well as keep her as a spectacle, suggesting that women were viewed as being emotionally unstable and manipulatable unlike men that were viewed as strong and aggressive. To summarise, men during the medieval period viewed other men as dangerous and threats to other men’s authority and control, whilst women were seen as victims, weak and manipulatable by men for their own gain and to use against their fellow man.
How gender can be studied and attributed to the study of the Tudor and Stuart Period
The remainder of this essay focuses on evidence from the early modern period and progresses into Tudor and Stuart history to study men from a gendered perspective. Firstly, to talk about Henry VIII and how he viewed himself, other men and how he believed other men perceived him. One of the main concerns of Henry VIII and his reign was his need to conceive a male heir. Antonia Fraser writes “the succession question began to permeate the politics of the English court in the early 1520s… Henry VIII did not have, and was not likely to have a legitimate male heir… it was a situation to arouse atavistic uneasiness in the country where memories of civil unrest, rebellions by claimants to the throne had by no means died away.” This statement suggests that early modern perception were that a King’s position was only guaranteed and secured if he had a legitimate male heir. If there was “uneasiness” and fear of “rebellion” because at this time Henry only had a bastard son and a female heir, the Princess Mary, it suggests that men viewed men who couldn’t produce sons as inferior and vulnerable in their positions of authority. This was especially the case, if other “claimants to the throne” had sons of their own as an option. Henry VIII became consumed by his need to have a son, which suggests that the alternative was not an option for a King in Henry’s eyes due to the way society perceived his lack of a male heir. Henry VIII broke with Rome in order to get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and risked potential war with Spain over this divorce to potentially improve his chance of having a male heir to secure his Kingdom, presenting the lengths a King would go to provide himself with the appearance of being a secure ruler by having an heir to carry on his lineage and family name. This presents to historians that men were viewed in higher esteem to women in this patriarchal society, and that Henry didn’t see it as an option to hand his crown down to his daughter. The birth of Edward (VI), Henry’s long-awaited son, was described by Richard Morrison as “We have a Prince! Can any man, that dare vouch himself to be a right English man, hear this and feel not within himself such a wonderful force… it was a carrier of good news.” This is suggestive of a society that viewed men as inferior, but that was critical of those men in power who couldn’t produce legitimate male heirs to inherit such power. It also implies that when men had daughters it was perceived by both them and others as a negative or disheartening experience, but that those with sons rejoiced and felt fulfilled. In this way, men can be studied from a gendered perspective by how they viewed each other and how men perceived men’s power in society.
Edward VI’s own reign was categorised by historians as a power struggle between men and provides great evidence of men being studied from a gendered perspective. Edward’s kingship was considered a minority government due to the King’s age (he was nine when he ascended the throne and fifteen at his death). D.E. Hoak argues that the Duke of Somerset, the King’s uncle controlled the boy King as his “regent” and “virtually ceased to work with the council and increasingly dispatched the King’s business through the officers and channels of his own household.” Edward Seymour (Somerset) viewed his nephew as weak and vulnerable due to his age despite him being the rightful King and used the King’s age as a way for Somerset to gain power and influence amongst the King’s council. If he had the ear of the King and power over him, he had influence over the council and the running of the country and policy. He abused his power of guardianship, in the absence of Edward’s mother and father, to gain political control and be a de facto King.
This evidence portrays that men in positions of power would manipulate others by any means necessary to enhance their own position and power, even if those being manipulated were family, young or even the King. Somerset’s actions show that he didn’t respect the King or his power due to the King’s inexperience and young age so took it upon himself to ignore the King’s wants and as a way of enforcing his own. Historians have also argued that Edward VI had be both been older and not under both Somerset and later Northumberland’s influences, may have chosen to adopt Catholicism as the religion of the realm as that was both his mother and father’s true faith, but that powerful men who wanted to further the Protestant Reformation, manipulated the King’s policy to suit the Protestant agenda. With this evidence, it can be displayed that men can be studied from a gendered perspective by looking at their abuses or power and their actions towards other men even their own family members.
In conclusion, it is indeed feasible to study men from a gendered perspective by looking at their relationships with women, how they treated both men and women enemies and how men treated other men who they were close to. It is also useful to look at how men viewed themselves and how especially for high-ranking men in medieval and modern society’s validated their own authority and security through their accumulation of a male heir, or through their close association and in Somerset’s case control over the King of the realm.
- Bod, Harry, The New Men’s Studies: From Feminist Theory to Gender Scholarship, Hypatia, vol. 2, no. 1, 1987, pp. 179–196.
- E.Hoak in Lee, Stephen, J., The Mid-Tudors: Edward VI and Mary I 1547-1558, Great Britain, Routledge, 2007, p.27
- Francis, Martin, The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity, The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2002, pp. 637-652
- Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1992, p.92
- Marshall, Rosalind K., Scottish Queens: 1034-1714, 2003, p.35
- Richard Morrison in Skidmore, Chris, Edward VI: The Lost King of England, Great Britain, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2007, p.1
- Roper, Michael, Slipping out of View: Subjectivity and Emotion in Gender History. History Workshop Journal, No. 59 2005, pp. 57-72
- Rose, Sonya O.,, What is Gender History, Polity Press, (2013), p.2
- Skidmore, Chris, Edward VI: The Lost King of England, Great Britain, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2007
- The Chronicle of Lanercost in Carmichael, Elizabeth K., Sources for the Study of the Scottish Wars of Independence 1249-1329, Dundee, 1998, pp.80-81
 Rose, Sonya O.,, What is Gender History, Polity Press, (2013), p.2
 Rose, Sonya O., What is Gender History, Polity Press, (2013), p.2
 Bod, Harry, The New Men’s Studies: From Feminist Theory to Gender Scholarship, Hypatia, vol. 2, no. 1, 1987, pp. 179–196.
 Roper, Michael, Slipping out of View: Subjectivity and Emotion in Gender History. History Workshop Journal, No. 59 2005, pp. 57-72
Francis, Martin, The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity, The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2002, pp. 637-652
 The Chronicle of Lanercost in Carmichael, Elizabeth K., Sources for the Study of the Scottish Wars of Independence 1249-1329, Dundee, 1998, pp.80-81
 Marshall, Rosalind K., Scottish Queens: 1034-1714, 2003, p.35
 Marshall, Rosalind K., Scottish Queens: 1034-1714, 2003, p.35
 Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1992, p.92
 Richard Morrison in Skidmore, Chris, Edward VI: The Lost King of England, Great Britain, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2007, p.1
 D.E.Hoak in Lee, Stephen, J., The Mid-Tudors: Edward VI and Mary I 1547-1558, Great Britain, Routledge, 2007, p.27
 Skidmore, Chris, Edward VI: The Lost King of England, Great Britain, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2007