RHS Symposium: Masculinity and the Body in Britain, 1500-1900

18 June 2015

On 18 June the University of Northampton ran a 1-day symposium on the history of masculinity in Britain. Dr Tim Reinke-Williams, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton, reports:

The aim of this symposium, generously sponsored by the RHS, was to reflect on developments in the historiography of the body over the last 25 years, as well as allow a chance for early and mid-career historians to show-case their latest research.  2015 was a particularly significant moment to attempt to do this since it marked the anniversary of three landmark publications on the body and masculinity: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Gender and the Body from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1990); Anthony Fletcher’s Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 1995); and a special edition of  the Journal of British Studies, co-edited by Alexandra Shepard and Karen Harvey, in which the contributors responded to the question ‘what have historians done with masculinity?’

JenEvans Wellcome 2The symposium was structured chronologically with the first two papers focusing on the early modern period (c.1580-c.1770). Jennifer Evans (Hertfordshire) offered a detailed analysis, based on her examination of medical treatises and doctors’ casebooks, of the types of medical conditions which men were (and were not) comfortable discussing with their physicians, focusing in particular on urinary and sexual problems. Tawny Paul (Northumbria) approached the topic from the perspective of an economic historian, using evidence drawn from cases of debt litigation brought before Edinburgh courts to outline how the bodies of debtors were used as collateral for goods exchanged on credit through the processes of distraint and imprisonment.

The next panel moved into the Georgian era (1714-1837). Des Newell (Oxford Brookes) drew on evidence from overseas’ diarists visiting England, as well as trial reports, to discuss the significance of disrobement in plebeian honour fights, showing that such actions signalled the intention to fight, but also served practical purposes, such as allowing the combatants greater freedom of movement. Matthew McCormack (Northampton) examined the issue of masculinity and height, using satirical images alongside medical, political and conduct treatises to outline how height carried positive connotations in terms of social class, athleticism and health, but also might signify negative traits such as awkwardness, ambition, militarism and even castration.

Bailey, Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

Richard Humphreys, the Boxer

The second half of the symposium began with a lavishly illustrated keynote lecture by Joanne Bailey (Oxford Brookes) which focused on masculinity, emotions and material culture across the decades from 1756 to 1856, charting the development of an eighteenth-century ideal of the male body as graceful and dexterous, to a nineteenth-century model in which size, hardness and muscularity were valorised. These shifts occurred due to changing practices in war, empire, and labour, but also due to new understandings of science, sports, and aesthetic fashions.

The final panel focused on the late Victorian period and early twentieth century (c.1880-1916). Victoria Bates (Bristol) discussed how Victorian definitions of adolescence differed from those of the 21st century, but also how such understandings were debated during the Victorian era.  Medical discussions of male sexual maturity were linked to ideas about the gendered individual passing through boyhood into ‘early’ and ‘full’ manhood. Michael Brown (Roehampton) drew together the histories of science and warfare, focusing on the anxieties which arose around the impact of the development of new weaponry in the decades prior to the First World War, and how advances in military technology led to the bayonet being fetishized as a gendered weapon.

The symposium concluded with a panel discussion involving all the speakers, which began with some comments by Karen Harvey (Sheffield), who drew attention to how historians of masculinity have been revisiting their topic at regular intervals over the last quarter of a century.  Karen highlighted several themes which offered the basis for a lively subsequent discussion: men’s possession of their own bodies, and the notion of ideal types; the relationship between representations and practices of masculinity; the experience of embodiment; and ideas about continuity and change across time. Speakers commented on how their work had been influenced by recent developments in the histories of emotions and material culture, and the resurgence of the history of class as well as the need to use gender as a point of comparison in order to write women into histories of masculinity were topics which were commented upon too.

Overall, the symposium demonstrated that the historians working on masculinity and the body are able to approach the topic via the histories of medicine, economics, violence, and warfare.  Most practitioners would define themselves as social or cultural historians, and the relationship between the two can sometimes be fraught, but many of the participants also acknowledged the need to consider the topic from a political perspective, and to integrate the findings of scholars working in other disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology and medical humanities. It is to be hoped that there will be opportunities to maintain and continue these discussions in future.


Joanne Bailey, ‘Manly bodies in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’

Dr Jennifer Evans, ‘Shameful Secrets? Men’s sexual and genitourinary health in the long seventeenth century’

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