Portraying Male Gender Within Medieval Literature

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The history of masculinity seems to have piqued the interests of gender theorists in recent years. These theorists begin by analyzing the marginalized outlook of what it means to be a man. The construction of male power in society seems to have had quite the influence during the creation of atypical heroes found within literary texts. Although men have always been associated with a trait of dominance, no instance highlights this perception greater than when examining characteristics commonly present through hyper masculine behavior. Hyper masculinity is an exaggeration of stereotypical masculine behavior; certain concepts and theories of bravery, heroism, and brute strength may particularly stand out among a male so-called sister traits. Through a majority of medieval literature, it would seem as though contemporary audiences have generally been content with the idea that the male journey is classified as the text-worthy literary experience. This in part may be due to the construction of the masculine hero. A traditional hero is noted as normally being of superior social station, quite simply a leader in his own right. This man would normally be depicted as preeminent, or nearly so, in athletic and combat skills. The hero is sometimes outstanding in intelligence, yet there seems to be more to the heroic character than is conveyed by such simple prescriptions. To display his abilities the traditional hero needs some form of a crisis or war or quest, and typically arises victorious by displaying courage of heart. When examining literary texts, this outline as to what defines a hero has been concretely accepted by modern audiences; however, when did expectations of masculine heroism begin to change? Was it due to gender undergoing a paradigm shift becoming a social construct? Or perhaps were these common associations of male identity an illusion from the start?

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If gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style (Butler Gender Trouble 62).

Heroes are typically described as being these pure masculine beings incomparable among common men. Beowulf depicts this criterion fairly simply, as many commoners countlessly deliver praise to the many successes the hero proudly announces. The tale consists of the traditional hero encountering numerous representations of beasts, and overcoming said challenges to test the strength a man must achieve. However, while performing these achievements, the titular hero fails by the succession of achieving greater glory through attempting to conquer ‘a true beast.’ Despite failure, the performance is deemed admirable, and yet in the following years, a transition occurs in which individuals of the common folk begin to display characteristics of individual nobility. Men found within this period may be defined as stoic, committed, brave, or cooperative; all of these traits equating to what may be found within the position of a knight. Chaucer depicts this sense of duty extravagantly within both the General Prologue and The Knight’s Tale of The Canterbury Tales as he allows these noble men to flourish in their own right. The inclusion of the Knight signifies a sense of self-importance, as the merits and title come with responsibilities unlike any other. Following Chaucer’s male representation, readers then transition to Malory’s concepts that follow the initial idea of stoic behavior, but applying concepts of chivalry; all of which may be seen when examining the Morte de Arthur. Three beloved pieces of medieval literature, all of which emphasize the idea of masculine performance presented through their primary characteristics drastically changing. The struggling sense of identity that all of these men undergo further supports a level of performative action occurring. When analyzing these texts, ideas that the masculine image is purely conceived out of performance-based strategies is further supported through the female binary opposition intertwined within each piece of literature mentioned.

As mentioned, it would seem as though the medieval period assisted in the creation of the common referral of the heroic trope; however, it seems as though this period was also successfully able to reinvent social constructs expected from gender performance. In considering medieval English manhood, readers must examine daunting issues of identity, psychological manifestations, and more to uncover the meaning to what truly makes a man. Acting like a specified gender may be defined as a theory of performativity. This theory of performativity focuses in on the elements that pertain to acting similarly to what is expected of one’s gender; and while gender would not be as open to thought as modern society would believe it to be, the medieval era had very particular tasks assigned to those who were born into their path. This radiant path is reserved for those who clearly possess the capabilities previously mentioned, yet the evolution of what it means to be a hero shows there will always be that unachievable goal that presents itself within the masculine psyche.

The role of the male within the medieval era focused primarily on physical endurance in replacement of exposing emotional vulnerability or thought. Men were commonly seen as the most important figure within a family unit; these men were to follow “a system of patronage and deference, pederasty entailed the materialization and embodiment of patterns of dominance and submission and – conversely- favor and superordination” (King 25). The ongoing repetition of regulations established for men lead many males to focus more on issue of the world surrounding them rather than their inner turmoil. Male figures are to be seen “exhibiting patience amounts to a repression of emotions such as anger and frustration rather than a (perhaps cathartic) expression of them” (Waugh 46). An opposition is presented within the roles of women during this era; where men were expected to be the voice and brawn, females endeavored to please the male while being subservient to their individual needs. In comparison to their male counterparts, females of this era are typically depicted with emotional turmoil’s rather than greater scale issues in need of conquering. Though medieval writers were willing to criticize classical authorities on specific points, many of the basic physiological concepts were included to mirror the cultural influences present within this time.

One of the basic assumptions to develop during this time centered on the idea that the male was not only different from the female, but superior to her in numerous ways. From intelligence to moral strength, men were deemed as the dominate gender presented during this period. To provide evidence to this claim, many pointed to “nature, where it had been said the male of each species were objectively more advanced than the female”- larger, stronger, and more agile (Strohm 32). Yet, when this opposition is presented in a fashion not familiar to the men, they become fearful to the unknown. The greatest enemy develops through the construction of women developing traits similar to that found within the worthiest of male specimen; however, this did not mean that women were equal to men. A perspective is then presented, where “grasping the performative basis of early modern desire, propelling movement toward the place of power […] the higher the place, the greater the desire invested in the body that occupies it” (King 25). Collaborating in tandem, gender performativity shapes both extremities within the spectrum of social construction.

Judith Butler’s Theory of Performativity

The theory of gender performativity defines gender as socially constructed through commonplace speech and nonverbal communication; all of which serves to define and maintain identities. Gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler is often credited towards this conceptual theory. Butler’s writings on gender, performativity, and subversion is generally accepted across the humanities and social sciences. Gender becomes naturalized, so strictly established within the social climate that it seems like a necessary part of our created framework. The dictation of gender roles have been preestablished for generations and there is no avoiding common perception that one must behave in a certain manner. In Gender Trouble, Butler rejects naturalistic notions of inherent gendered essence, arguing that distinctions between males and females create sheer illusions in the construction of gender normativity.

Given their construed nature, gender norms can change in any number of ways at any period of time. Therefore, according to Butler, “there’s not really any grounds, for saying that somebody’s doing their gender wrong” (Butler Gender Trouble 23). Through contemporary audiences, readers can see the multitude of different ways to perform said gender based on characteristics commonly associated with said gender; men are expected to be chivalric, courageous, so on and so forth. She continues on by stating how gender “is a performative accomplishment, compelled by social sanction and taboo […] Gender is an identity instituted through a repetition of acts” (Butler Gender Trouble 31). These actions are repeated so heavily in societal climates that one begins to unknowingly follow these sanctions in hopes of performing their gender ‘correctly’. Establishing these expectations of desire is where the performative element becomes more apparent. She claims that “the misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on […] there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender […] and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today” (Butler Bodies That Matter 220). In short, Butler’s theory of performativity sees gender as a phenomenon that’s being built and destroyed at all times.

The term performative for Butler relates to an act that primarily creates a sense of identity. We are not born a self, we become, or create a self through social pressure to conform, and through “reiterating and repeating the norms through which one is constituted,” we develop into our conceived perception of self (Butler Bodies That Matter 137). Throughout the theory of performativity, it becomes clear that “no author or text can offer such a reflection of the world, and those who claim to offer such pictures become suspect by virtue of that very claim” (Butler Bodies That Matter 45). Within the medieval texts chosen, many authors convey a performative sense of masculinity through an inherent progression of popularized male expectation. While authors cannot perfectly adapt the theory of performativity within their literary texts, they can provide insight as to what normative expectations were present for primary genders of their time.

The Performance of Beowulf: Conquering the Beast

The predominance of men was best characterized through their stature, speed, and strength. What instance would allow man to showcase these abilities more other than to face off in a fictional duel against a beast; a monstrous rival which grants the titular hero another success. The story of Beowulf introduces a warrior who is true of heart finding himself battling numerous beastly figures in order to protect the common people. Throughout the tale’s entirety there is nothing but praise for its main character and the many heroic deeds he performs; culminating in a lavish and mournful funeral that celebrates him as a cherished and now lost kingly figure. The readers can see through his actions what traits a man should display all while identifying the opposing traits through the beast he must overcome. Indeed, the natural progression of the tale showcases the needed attributes one must attain in order to overcome these challenges; however, it would seem as though the heroic construct within this narrative mirror that found within the natural acquisitions of the beasts presented through the oppositional forces our hero is meant to surmount.

One crucial attribute would be bravery which is established within the heroic deeds one must perform. Despite having allies that accompany the brave Beowulf on his quests, he demands them to fall behind; believing that no one can accomplish this challenge other than him, leading to him receiving praise.

This fight is not yours,

nor is it up to any man except me

to measure his strength against the monster

or prove his worth. I shall win the gold

by my courage, or else mortal combat,

doom of battle, will bear your lord away (Beowulf 7.55-61)

This bravery leads to a construct of superiority, even in comparison to those of similar genders. Within the beginning moments of the poem, it is said that “eager companions aid him requitingly/When war him serve him as liegemen/By praise-worthy actions must honor” (Beowulf 1.23-25). Though these individuals accompany the beloved hero, their abilities are undermined as their sacrifices of bravery are outweighed by the clearly superior specimen. This trait leads to a predominant Alpha being established within the poem; one of which is incomparable to the other men mentioned briefly within the text. So rather than accept the fate deemed by said Alpha, the other men scavenge for any redeeming qualities they can utilize by accompanying the pack leader on numerous quests. Yet when time comes to show the predominant traits established in nature, the hero takes the reigns. The natural inclination to do things as nature intended with those standing for valor, honor, and inclination to fight posing as dominate bring forth a different perspective that one must behave accordingly to that of which we were created to serve.

While it would seem as though men are performing as blind followers, the role of the common woman in the tale is simply fulfilled through infatuate remarks. This sharp contrast is purposeful as it solely places Beowulf in a position of power through the eyes of many. Furthermore, it starkly established Grendel’s mother as a superior being on the opposite spectrum of our hero. The largest role a female plays within the tale is pitting themselves as not only a monstrous being, but as the one Beowulf must conquer. Many gender theorists have claimed the importance in this rivalry, as it introduces readers to how hyper masculine behavior sees feministic rise as its largest challenge; however, this match up proceeds in challenging Beowulf’s determinacy and physical strength. A position of Alpha if you will. Both parties are using their rage and anguish to battle, and this confrontation convinces readers to believe this is Beowulf’s most difficult challenge to date. This can be seen being addressed within the lines “be mindful of honor, exhibiting prowess/watch ‘gainst the foeman! Thou shalt want no enjoyments/survive thou safely adventure so glorious!” (Beowulf 10.100-103). In the closing moments of the duel, it takes the miracle of a blade to bring the battle in the hero’s favor, though the hero was previously able to defeat Grendel through hand to hand combat. The story of Beowulf presents the ideals of manhood very clearly. He should be brave, self-sufficient and powerful; and while biology assists those immediate traits, they may be challenged by an opposition of extremities. The feminine perspective within this tale showcases how masculine figures would have to adopt newly acquired behavior due to their strengths being matched within the females of this era.

Recent Beowulf criticism has become reliant on how this binary approach is used to create a greater scheme of masculism. A formal insight that provides much needed perspectives comes from theories of gender: more specifically noting the categories of manhood or masculinity are to be deconstructed in ways similar to femininity. Both these gender categories seem timeless within their creation in literary history, yet both continue to be redefined and reinterpreted through textual evidence. Having these roles be interpreted in numerous ways further supports theories and ideas pertaining to performativity. While one perspective might indicate the more masculine traits that Beowulf seems to be portraying, the rivaling perspective comes from the over anticipated feats that a woman is more than capable of accomplishing. Although, this accomplishment is committed through portraying the opposition as beast-like.

Of all the characters in Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is by far one of the most interesting and ambiguous- and therefore one of the most difficult to properly define. Her characterization stems from a combination of seemingly contradicting aspects: she is not only a mother and a monster; she is undoubtedly female and portrays common traits exemplified within masculinity. However, since she behaves accordingly to what performativity would deem a monster to act as, she has been somewhat overlooked historically by critics. It may be said that “while physical aberration is the primary attribute of monstrosity, deviant behavior can serve to emphasize or exaggerate monstrosity. Monstrous behaviors help to mark the monster as a cultural as well as a physical Other” (Oswald 6).

This conception that rivals the masculine figure is found between the line of what is considered to be monstrous and what is considered to be female. Grendel’s mother is therefore too monstrous to be female, and too female to be truly monstrous. One author, Dana Oswald comments on this paradox by stating “once monstrosity is no longer a strictly physical quality […] then anybody, at any time, might be monstrous. Transformation seems a humane way of ridding medieval texts and towns of the problem of monsters, but that transformation also means that no body, even a human one, is ever truly stable” (Oswald 195). It is this disparity between aspects of character that makes Grendel’s mother so fascinating.

Yes, she is a female character- but she repeatedly takes on various male roles throughout the duration of her presence within the story. Upon recognizing the fall of her son, she firmly takes matters into her own hands and battles among what is seemingly deemed the worthiest warrior. In nature, this battle holds more stake than what is initial presented; readers see two Alphas in their own respects clashing for superiority due to actions committed through rivaling sides. More importantly, she exists as a monster in the physical sense of the word, but not in the modern sense. She is not especially monstrous or evil in her nature, and so, does not perform the role of ‘villain’ as modern audiences might expect. It can be said through “what normal human boundaries are presented; these details act as traces of the monstrous body, visible to Beowulf and, on occasion, to the audience within the text, but never to the reading audience. The reading audience witnesses not the monstrous body itself, but rather the destruction and chaos caused by and originating in the bodies of Grendel, and ultimately, his mother” (Oswald 67). Sheer descriptions cement the construct that this character is indeed a monster, but the ambiguity behind their characteristics is left untapped. This ambiguity is what acts as the hero’s greatest fear, as these characteristics cannot be identified properly. The limited descriptions of physicality are “which makes his [her] body more understandable, but also more uncanny” (Oswald 71). The unknown truly acts as the vulnerable point within masculine figures; readers begin to see that the greatest rival to present itself to a stoic figure is that of the strongest possible opposition to what is known.

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Portraying Male Gender within Medieval Literature. (2020, Apr 23). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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