Amanda Vickery on … Men

I have been listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme on iPlayer for the past few weeks and more or less enjoying it.  The premise is that the historian Amanda Vickery examines six archetypes of masculinity, the knight, the gentleman, the lover, the sailor, the explorer and the suits, through a combination of historical experts and readings from primary sources.  This past week, the explorer, was especially fun for me as it included contributions from Max Jones, my former PhD supervisor, and John Tosh, with whom I have worked.

In general, the programme works well, although the conclusion at the end of episode two, that men defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women was something of a ‘duh’ moment for me, although that is me talking as an historian of masculinty.  There are, however, some bigger problems with I am having with the programme.  The first of these is the association of each archetype with a particular period in history: the knight with the middle ages, the gentleman with the Renaissance, the lover with the eighteenth century, the sailor with the early nineteenth century, the explorer with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the suit with the mid-twentieth century.  Archetype does, of course, refer to the prototype, the original pattern on which all subsequent types are based, so examining the period of emergence is what the programme sets out to do.  But surely to understand the significance of any one archetype to our current view of masculinity we need to see how the pattern developed over time?  In other words we should probably think about the reimagining of the knight and courtly love in the nineteenth century to grasp the full significance of the twelfth century model to our ideas about masculinity and its cultural significance.

My second gripe is about the archetypes chosen for discussion.  All of them are archetypes of public masculinity, with the possible exception of the lover, the discussion of which included the most fabulous diary of a Manchester wigmaker who noted down every time (and position) he had sex with his wives (there were four in total).  Given the argument that men have, over time, defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women, it seems odd not to have looked at what those other types of masculinity might be.  Especially in light of John Tosh’s contribution this past week, where he argues that the explorer was a form of escape from the domestic, why have we not heard about the archetype of the husband and father or patriarch?  For that matter, after the knight and the sailor, where are the scholar, the craftsman or engineer, the administrator?  Above all, if you are going to discuss the lover as a masculine archetype that is defined against woman, why is there nothing on the householder, the ultimate archetype of mature masculinity that separates the man from the boy throughout modern history? As far as I can see, the archetypes have been chosen to illustrate the thesis that men define themselves primarily within all-male hierarchies, a reasonable argument but definitely not the whole story.  So, here is to the return of an interesting series with an expanded cast of men (and their others) in the future.

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