Given that political authority has, over the centuries, largely been invested in men, it’s curious that researchers have not given a great deal of attention to the role of masculinity in politics and government. While studies in masculinities is now a vibrant field, much of the research by historians is focused on social and cultural history. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as my first book, Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts, is definitely centred on cultural experiences rather than political institutions (although I would argue that in the middle ages in particular, the line between the political and private is very difficult to draw – and I will be considering this more fully in my new project, The Medieval Homosocial Imagination).
Several years ago, I attended the fantastic What is Masculinity? conference organised by Sean Brady and John Arnold. As a PhD student, it had a huge impact on my research and the way I visualised my project. Sean and I have kept in touch over the years, and we’d said several times that another conference of that type – truly panhistoric and engaging scholars from many fields of history – would be a wonderful thing to run. Then I worked in Paris for a year with my colleague Chris Fletcher, who also works on medieval masculinity (he’s the author of a great book on Richard II). Through Sean I was also introduced to Lucy Riall, a historian of nineteenth-century Italian history. Anyway, long story short, we decided to run a conference entitled Leadership, Power and Masculinity: from Antiquity to the Contemporary World. The CFP gave the remit of the conference:
Papers are welcome on all aspects of leadership, power and authority, including areas where government is broadly defined – for example in ancient Rome or the middle ages – and encompasses rule of self and rule of the household, as well as rule of communities and rule of the nation. This conference also aims to focus on leadership and its relation to masculinities in formations as diverse as gangs, illegal militias and secret societies. Such formations are often inimical to legitimate government and prevailing models of masculinity, and they can form powerful counter-hegemonic masculinities, particularly where government and social structures are weak, and represent alternate forms of authority that are particularly attractive to young men.
What can we discover by focusing on ideas and images of masculinity at moments or sites of interaction: of acts of government and negotiation, of authority and powerlessness, of obedience and rebellion? Through its exploration of broad themes such as masculinity and national government, masculinity and local rule, masculinity and intimate authority, this conference seeks to bring scholars of diverse fields and periods together, and to provide a new forum for discussion on ways to ‘gender’ this most traditional of historical subjects.
Not a big challenge at all, right?! We got so many great abstracts, and had a lengthy discussion in January about which papers to accept. Chris worked like a champion to secure us funding, and so we were able to offer help with accommodation and travel to many delegates, prioritising early career academics. This was so important, and meant some people were able to attend who would not have done otherwise.
You can see the full programme here, and I’m not going to provide a paper-by-paper review. Instead I’ll give some general impressions of the conference. I was struck by how fully present people were – which can be a challenge at any conference, but when you throw in the additional difficulty of this being a bilingual conference, I was extremely impressed how focused and engaged everyone stayed over the two days. Everyone there gave the impression of being enthused by the questions the conference was raising. The question sessions following each paper were always energetic and thorough. One of the wonderful thing about conferences with a panhistoric remit is that you are inevitably listening to many papers outside of your period of specialism, which seemed in this case to give everyone the confidence to ask lots of questions. And what great questions they were! A frustrating element of many academic conferences is that the Q&A sessions can often be dominated by niggly questions only the person asking really cares about. They can also be an opportunity for academics to show off by asking questions that demonstrate their own specialist knowledge. A panhistoric conference allows academics to see beyond the narrow remits of their specialisms and to ask huge, thought-provoking questions. Not being specialists can also give us the confidence to ask smaller questions, too, that are put in unexpected ways. Something I love about teaching is that students will sometimes ask me questions that are superficially fairly simple, but that actively push me to reconsider assumptions I make about my period. I could see this happening at our conference. It’s easy to take certain things for granted when you specialise in a specific period, and your attention to a particular area can sometimes result in a can’t see the wood for the trees mentality. When you get asked a thought-provoking question by a colleague who has a related skillset to your own but no knowledge about your field, it’s an invitation to step back and look at the whole forest. That’s enormously refreshing.
It also allowed us to see many fascinating parallels between our periods. One of my favourite moments of the conference was the coffee break conversation between Pragya Vohra and Lina Britto. The former is a Viking historian; the latter works on South America. They live continents apart. It’s unlikely they would ever have met otherwise. But they had an excited conversation about the similarities in cultures of violence in medieval Iceland and 1970s Colombia. Conversations of this type were replicated throughout the conference. It was a small conference, mostly attended only by people who were giving papers, but that resulted in an intimate, friendly space for generous discussion.
As for the theme of the conference: did we come to any conclusions? In short – no. But this is just the beginning of a longer process. We’ll soon be asking attendees to submit updated abstracts and will begin the slow process of drawing these papers into an edited volume. It will be interesting to see what kind of tone emerges from the resulting volume. Some strands that stood out of being of particular interest to me included: the role of affability and comradeship in establishing political authority; the shifting boundaries of the household and the necessity of patriarchal authority; intersections of class and gender in allowing access to hegemonic masculinity; thinking about masculinity in terms of politics from the “bottom up”, not just that enforced from above; the effect of historiographical traditions on our reading of past masculinities. But these are areas that reflect my own research biases, of course. The shape of the future volume is still a long way off from revealing itself: but I think uncovering it will make for an exciting period of exploration.