Masculinity in Medieval Europe

Unknown, Muscles strong man, n.d. Creative Commons

Unknown, Muscles strong man, n.d. Creative Commons

Masculinity in Medieval Europe

Whenever we speak about gender roles and issues during class discussion, we commonly, and almost instantly focus on how women were treated unfairly due to gender stereotypes. How about the males? One might think that males back then would have more freedom when it comes to gender rights, but upon closer look, the males did not have it any easier either. In Medieval Europe, being a male was both a dignified right and a heavy responsibility.

Below, we seek to explain how masculinity was viewed back in Medieval Europe (5th to 15th century), and also to debunk some of the myths about how males might have lived during the middle ages.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of Horaitii, 1786. Public Domain

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of Horaitii, 1786. Public Domain

Expectations for Masculinity

In Medieval Europe, masculinity was not an innate characteristic but rather something men had to work hard to attain. Men were seen as dominant and primary figures who held powerful and respected positions whereas women were generally considered to be less important.(Chapter 1, p.11) Thus, there were several high expectations, numerous assessments, preparation and hardship that men had to go through in order to attain the characteristic of masculinity.(Chapter 1, p.4)  For example, a capable and strong male was portrayed as one who was able to carry one’s self excellently and socialize well with other males who were labelled as masculine alike. The high expectations that males had to live up to, and the tenacious obstacles they had to go through typically set as a benchmark to determine if males were successful amongst their respective communities.(Chapter 1, p.4) Males with a relatively higher social status were typically those who were able to live up to the standards set and those who were resilient enough to pass through the difficult assessments and preparations that were set out for them.(Chapter 1, p.7) On the other hand, men who were unable to live up to these standards were typically deemed as second-class and inferior in their societies.

We can draw similarities when we look at the importance of men in Medieval Europe and men of other civilizations. For example, the Ancient Greeks also viewed males as a more superior gender; men were responsible for supporting their families and they often fought wars to prove their masculinity. The similarity in expectations for both males in Medieval Europe and males in other civilizations highlight the fact that men were typically more well-respected and important as compared to women.

Bellifortis, Chastity Belt, 2005. Public Domain

Bellifortis, Chastity Belt, 2005. Public Domain

Men’s Chastity

Many studies (including Kelly (2002) and Colton (2008)) have discussed the importance of women’s virginity during the medieval times – a virgin woman was deemed sacred and pure. However, little was shared on the value of men’s chastity during that period. Recent studies by Axelrad (2012), Stuber (2008), Cullum (2013) and Bitel et al (2013) have discussed the importance of men’s virginity in the past. The idea emerged during the high middle ages, around the twelfth century, where men’s chastity was seen as a form of masculinity.

This contradicts the most common point of view shared by people that medieval men displayed masculinity by engaging in sexual intercourse or impregnating women. “Without the male sexual organs or the capability to use them to impregnate a woman, a man is no longer masculine.”(p.72). Some historians, however, noted the contradiction in the meaning of masculinity during the high middle ages. In normal circumstances, the inability to reproduce was seen as effeminate. Yet, in the eyes of the church in middle ages, male chastity was celebrated. Masculinity and social power were connected. Virginal men gained greater respect in the eyes of church leaders because they were seen as capable of controlling their sexual temptations.(Chapter 5, p.101) Saints of the late medieval period such as Thomas de Cantilupe, of Hereford and Richard Scorpe of York were well-known virgins of the period. The fact that important figures of the medieval times kept their chastity, provided evidence for the interest of masculine virginity. Also, in the classic romance literature, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the virgin knights were looked upon by the people and many aspired to be like them. Historical texts designed to teach men of high status how to attain manliness which contained messages were found and were meant to dissuade the men from temptations of lust. It was written that succumbing to these temptations were deemed “unmanly and bestial”.(point 28)

DTR, Scales of Justice, 2007. Public Domain

DTR, Scales of Justice, 2007. Public Domain

Law Towards Men

Typically, when gender stereotypes are discussed in class, the common belief is that the male gender was favored and females were treated unfairly in the past. Indeed, women were treated unfairly and seen as the less important gender. However, does this mean that the men had it easier? At times, these gender stereotypes could backfire on the males as well. Let’s look into the gender disparity of sex crimes in medieval Europe to illustrate this point.

When we think of the consequences of adultery in the past, the common picture that comes to mind would be the adulterous wives getting burned at the stake while their husbands getting off the hook with the same crime. In reality, during the high middle ages, men were not let off the hook and in fact, men were more often prosecuted than women for sexual crimes. Detailed court records from England and France during the fifteenth century have shown that the man-woman ratio of those who were prosecuted for adultery was 80/20.(point 12) When a married man is caught having sexual relations with an unmarried woman, the married man is usually convicted. However, when the opposite occurs and a married woman is caught having sexual relations with an unmarried man, the unmarried man is prosecuted.

Men were more often convicted of these crimes because society expected the male to be the active and more responsible party in a marriage.(p.11-12) As the superior gender, they were expected to live a moral life, set a good example of sexual control, and also have the ability to control their wives. As the head of the household, he was responsible not only for his own actions but also for his wife’s. So if his wife committed a sexual crime, it is ultimately his fault for not being able to stop that from happening.(p.223) This can also be found in Christian doctrine, in canon law and theology. On the other hand, females were considered different from men. They were perceived as incompetent, feminine and fragile.(p.223) While this restricted what women could have achieved in the past, it also got them off the hook for sexual crimes.


Just like Uncle Ben’s wise words to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility”, men in Medieval Europe did not have it as easy as we thought; they had several expectations to live up to as well.  

The point we are trying to make is not about which gender had it easier. Rather, we hope to have helped you gain a better understanding of issues related to gender roles in Medieval Europe. Attaining respect could not be accomplished merely through being born male, it was earned through hard work and determination. This goes to show that struggle is not unique to any gender, and each side has their own share of difficulties and responsibilities to contend with.


Axelrad, Alison. (2014). Sexualized Masculinity and the Plurality of the Medieval Male (Doctoral dissertation, Wesleyan University). (Undergraduate thesis, only used the parts where inferences were made on medieval literature)

Bitel, Lisa M. Lifshitz, Felice. (2010). Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: new perspectives. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cobb, Morgan. B. (2010). Sex, Chastity, and Political Power in Medieval and Early Renaissance Representations of the Ermine (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).

Colton, Lisa. (2008). The Articulation of Virginity in the Medieval "Chanson de nonne" Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 133(2), 159-188. Retrieved from

Cullum, Pat. (2013). ‘Give me chastity’: Masculinity and attitudes to chastity and celibacy in the Middle Ages. Gender & History, 25(3), 621-636.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. (2003). From boys to men: Formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. (2002). Performing virginity and testing chastity in the Middle Ages. Routledge.

McDougall, Sara. (2010). Bigamy: A Male Crime in Medieval Europe?. Gender & History, 22(2), 430-446.

McDougall, Sara. (2014). The Opposite of the Double Standard: Gender, Marriage, and Adultery Prosecution in Late Medieval France. Journal of the History of Sexuality 23(2), 206-225. University of Texas Press. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Project MUSE database.

Stuber, Leann. (2008). The Contradiction of Masculinity in the Middle Ages. The Delta: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 4.