Violence between men in medieval literature

Michael Ovens is a doctoral candidate associated with the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies and the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Western Australia. His dissertation adopts an interdisciplinary approach which fuses intellectual history, sociology, and literary analysis to explore the changing upper-class representations of violence in Europe from 1100 – 1600, with an eye to applying this work to the problem of violence in the twenty-first century. He is the General Editor of Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 2, a student of the historical European martial arts, and a lover of bookshops big and small.

Violence between men is everywhere in medieval literature, so omnipresent that the pages themselves sometimes seem to be saturated, as Huizinga put it, with the smell of blood and roses. As modern readers who are conditioned to treat violence as ‘senseless,’ ‘tragic,’ or ‘unforseeable,’ it can be difficult for us to understand how it is they are meant to make us feel, and what, if anything, they are supposed mean.

My preferred approach is to take a leaf from the book of evolutionary psychology. Among primates – that is to say apes, like you and me – violence between males is typically thought to function as a form of dominance contest, where the purpose is to cause not physical but social harm to your opponent. Although dominance contests may be fought with anything from rocks to rap lyrics, its real weapons are shame, humiliation, and submission; the ability to prove that one man is more of a man than another.
The idea that violence between men can be considered a form of dominance contest is not exactly shatter-the-earth original, but neither has it been applied to representations of violence in a way that respects the fact that there is not one ‘essential’ masculinity but rather a multitude of competing masculinities in existence at any one time.
Masculinity, like femininity, exists in multiple forms at the intersection of other socioeconomic identities such as class, race, and nationality – the much-lauded ‘intersectionality’ of today’s gender theory – and these intersections shape the way we perform and represent violence.

Imagine you’re a man in your early twenties out for a night on the town. You’re standing at a bar when a big, brawny man in a singlet comes up to you, accuses you of looking at ‘his woman’, and asks if you want to start something – a classic challenge to another man’s masculinity. Which of the following actions would constitute a ‘win’ in this situation?

A) Taking it outside and beating the man up;
B) Cutting the man down to size with a witty remark;
C) Zap him with your taser.

There’s no ‘right’ answer here. What you consider to be a ‘win’ depends on your understanding of ‘masculinity’. If your idea of masculinity is based on physical strength, then in order to assert your masculinity you have to demonstrate your physical strength. If your idea of masculinity is based on intellect, then you have to demonstrate your intellect. If your idea of masculinity is based on power and control, then you have to demonstrate power and control.

When it comes to representing this contest to other people, each party tends to put their own spin on events. Let’s say you chose to cut the brawny man down with a witty remark – option B). To your friends, you are likely to represent this as a victory of ‘brains over brawn’; but to his friends, the big man is likely to represent you as chickening out of a fight. Which version of the story gains more currency within the community will depend on a whole slew of factors, most of which can be summarised by the old saying that history is written by the victors.

This, I believe, is the key to understanding most of the representations of male-on-male violence we find in medieval literature. Very few of these representations involve positive models of knighthood defeating other positive models of knighthood; far more often you will find heroic knights (who represent the epitome of what’s known as ‘courtly’ masculinity) taking on and defeating giants, Saracens, and ‘fallen’ knights, all of whom can be read as models of alternative masculinity.

One of my favourite examples comes from the twelfth-century romance Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion by Chrêtien de Troyes. In this romance we find the protagonist, a worthy knight by the name of Yvain, fighting off against a giant known as Harpin of the Mountain. Yvain rides into battle with a head-on charge, attempting to overpower the giant with brute strength. In response, the giant delivers two good thumps with his club, almost knocking Yvain clean off his horse. It’s only when Yvain stops fighting with strength and begins fighting with skill and dexterity that he is able to defeat the giant by delivering a cut to the giant’s shoulder and a thrust through its liver.

What this combat does is to assert the masculine importance of skill-at-arms over raw strength. Physical strength had been one of the key elements of a masculine identity in the early Middle Ages, but as the aristocracy – the ones who funded the production of most of the literature of the period – stopped waging so much war and started spending more time socialising at court, they discovered that they were no longer the strongest men in the land.

Peasants – those men who spent every day ploughing, lifting, and working under the hot sun – would have been way stronger than the average knight, who had to balance their need for bodily strength with agility, dexterity, and skill-at-arms. Despite all the socioeconomic advantages granted to the martial aristocracy, the knights appear to have felt threatened by the masculine excesses of the peasantry; but rather than attempt to regain their superior strength, they pushed for a new form of masculinity which emphasised their own skill-at-arms over the bodily strength of the peasants.

Viewed in this light, representations of violence between men in medieval literature is not ‘senseless’ or ‘meaningless’, but rather part of a constant attempt to establish one’s own masculinity through the manipulation of the definition of masculinity itself – a practice which continues in the ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ posts of Facebook today.

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