Behind the Boar-Helm: Examining Men and Performed Masculinity in Pre-Conquest England

Weese-Grubb, Anna, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hopkins, Stephen, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia

Through close readings, classical social theory, and Butlerian gender theory, this work examines the now-accepted image of hegemonic medieval masculinity. The poetic canon, through works like Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, and Maxims, reveals an archive fixated on the heroic, stalwart man whose word and deed hold weight amongst his peers. Cynewulf and Cyneheard investigates a similar proposition in prose, grounding a man’s honor in his oath during times of political turmoil. Judith bars off masculine traits from access by women, thus introducing the explicit notion of gender roles. These interventions seemingly uphold a static image of pre-Conquest England, elevating men to their patriarchal status and enforcing misogynistic readings of these texts. This status quo, however, leaves us with the question of what to do with the moments of non-conformity. Whose masculinity is admirable? Whose attempts receive scribal and poetic critique? What does this mean for the form of pre-Conquest society?
I argue that the Old English canon continually shatters the expectation of a static and unchanging masculinity by creating these works as representations of the ideal rather than the realistic man. Masculinity’s performance develops through constant negotiation and management of expectations; social pressures ebb and flow to influence the desired expression of traits in a multiple-theater war: self-perception, homosocial connections, heterosocial connections, political and legal duties, and religious expression. All these areas reveal the subtle shaping of expectations that form our modern perspective of medieval society.

MA (Master of Arts)
Masculinity, Gender Performance, Old English
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