Jim Coons, George L. Mosse’s “Image of Man”: Fluid Masculinities

George L. Mosse. Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 240 PP. Cloth. $69.00. ISBN: 9780195126600.

Réception du Grand Condé à Versailles (Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1878)
Réception du Grand Condé à Versailles (Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1878).

The discipline of History is highly concerned with change over time. Though there are certainly examples of long-term stability in the past – farming practices, economic structures, family dynamics, etc. – historians usually look for difference, and try to analyze the causes and meanings of novelty in their subject. Especially in the realm of culture, ideas, and mentalities, changes tend to occur relatively rapidly, on the order of years and decades rather than centuries. George Mosse’s major finding in The Image of Man, therefore, is bound to raise eyebrows: “from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards[,] the manly ideal changed very little, projecting much the same so-called manly virtues, such as will power, honor, and courage.”[1] Across more than two centuries of epochal shifts in industry, communication, social structures, political norms, technology, and ways of life in the largest possible sense, how is it possible to assert masculinity as simultaneously central to Western culture, and unaffected by the swirl of change in that culture?

The response to that somewhat rhetorical question lies in the nuances of Mosse’s meticulous study. Ultimately, he does not claim that manhood never changed or adapted; while the core tenets of manliness did remain constant, at different moments emphasis could be placed on particular elements of the larger image. So, whereas socialists around the turn of the twentieth century tended to focus on self-control and dispassionate action – highlighting the “soft” side of manhood – fascists later ratcheted up a “hard” sense of dominance at all costs, mastery of violence, physical exertion, and masculine camaraderie, all bound up in the intensely martial culture of interwar Germany and Italy. Thus, the same core idea of manhood could play vastly different roles in each circumstance.

Such shifts in emphasis have been at the heart of my own observations about masculinity in seventeenth-century. For a host of reasons, the era of the Sun King Louis XIV’s long regency in the 1640s and 50s prompted key elements of masculine ideals to fall or rise in response to changing influences.

Across the seventeenth century, the “manliest” men in France faced substantial changes in their social, political, and professional roles. Noblemen were the privileged aristocrats who were supposed to defend the rest of society in battle, administer territory, dispense justice, and generally embody France’s highest masculine virtues. However, as the technology of war had progressed since the arrival of gunpowder in Europe, the nobles’ role as “fighters” evolved from knights personally dispatching violence at the head of their own troops, toward commanders and administrators for the armies of the King and his state. This shift was neither smooth nor uncontested.

For contemporary thinkers and writers who considered the role of noblemen, these former warriors should substitute the putative barbarity of their former profession for a more genteel, “civilized” métier at court. Though reality always fell far short of the now-debunked “domestication of the nobility” thesis – nobles in the mold of a Versailles-era, wig-sporting lackey to the Sun King, navigating a labyrinth of flatware and ritualized sociability – a weaker version of that story still holds. Many of France’s most powerful noblemen did spend more time at court, though many of those newly minted courtiers did not savor the experience. In pursuits as divergent as literary and artistic patronage, Parisian or provincial politics, personal duels, or in extreme cases outright rebellion against the state, some nobles sought to enact and affirm their independence as actors and fighters beyond the Crown’s expanding purview. (Others, it must be noted, gladly allied with the King, and enriched themselves by his largesse; many minor provincial lords, meanwhile, felt little of these changes.)

In summary, as a new, “softer” model of court-based masculinity came to the fore, those committed to the “harder” old model resisted the changing norms and all the distasteful baggage that came with them, sometimes violently. Both models proceeded from the ideal of manhood as mastery of self and dominance over others – but the courtly model emphasized self-mastery as control of emotion, gesture, and speech, while the martial model highlighted steely nerves, fearlessness in the face of death, and personal loyalty. Because the men involved were supposed to set the tone for France’s explicitly patriarchal society, these conflicts carried massive importance for ideas about manhood in general.

Many of the above trends came to a head in a civil war known as the Fronde, which ravaged France from 1648 through 1653. One individual came to embody debates over manhood: the “Grand” Prince of Condé, the royal cousin who had vanquished Spanish armies and built a glorious reputation in the years preceding the Fronde. When Parisian protests turned into open rebellion in early 1649, he sided with the Crown, drawing scorn for his allegedly bloodthirsty suppression of the virtuous people and his reliance on force against his enemies. Instead, the rebels argued in pamphlets directed at the Prince, he should proceed with circumspection, embracing moderation and generosity in his actions. That is, he should embrace a more self-controlled masculinity in place of the martial mode of a past age would rid France of the evil forces who misled the young King. And, after the Prince’s ultimate defeat by royal forces, the sentence for his obvious crime of treason accorded with the new principles of masculinity: evidence from royal prosecutors emphasized Condé’s wanton violence, his imprudence, and the lack of self-control that defined his rebellion.[5]

Throughout the Fronde, where to place the emphasis in French masculinity guided debate over which side to choose, how to proceed, and how to deal with rebels in the aftermath. Strikingly, all sides came to the same conclusion: the proper interpretation of the masculine ideal must focus on willpower, prudence, and generosity rather than self-actualization through pure dominance and especially violence. Though the courtly model had not (and never would) fully vanquish its martial counterpart, civility had nonetheless gained the ascendancy. The ramifications of that shift could be argued to account for wide swathes of the so-called “Age of Absolutism” and the continuing centralization of state power, to say nothing of trends in literature, art, science, exploration, commerce, and myriad other facets of life they spurred.

The Prince of Condé was a rarefied figure, and while the debates over how to emphasize his masculine virtues trickled down in important ways to a broader public, much of those ideas remained enmeshed with his status not just as a nobleman, but as a Prince of royal blood. In short, a society of strict social orders lends itself poorly to democratizing norms – on gender, or any other topic. But, George L. Mosse has showed convincingly that beginning about a century after the Fronde, shifting priorities in the “masculine stereotype” were adopted across a much broader swathe of European populations – thanks to new trends in the production and consumption of texts, cultural norms, artistic display, and myriad other factors. For historians of modern Europe, then, the notion of a stable core of masculine ideas, but shifting focus on particular elements helps to illuminate issues from 19th century abolitionism to the political crises of the interwar period. I believe a similar case could be made for most any historical example: wherever manhood is taken as an aspirational ideal (which is to say, most human societies), even relatively subtle adjustments in its constituent ideas can ripple out into unforeseen spheres of life. Amplified ideas of dominance support fascism in one context; focus on paternalistic breadwinning reinforces a “Leave It to Beaver” domestic ideal in another. But Mosse himself closes The Image of Man with a cautious observation that androgyny, equality, and a broad erosion of masculine stereotypes seemed to typify the close of the twentieth century. Looking back at that assessment from early 2018, what can we say about the present history of the manly ideal? My final post will briefly explore the history of masculine ideals since The Image of Man’s appearance.

[1] George L. Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York: Oxford UP, 1996), 3-4.

[2] Les Attaques et la prise de Charenton. La mort de Monsieur de Clanleau, la blessure de Chastillon, les plaintes & regrets quen fait Monsieur le Prince & la genereuse responce de Monsieur de Chastillon à Monsieur le Prince avant de mourir (Paris, Robert Feugé, 1649), 7-8.

[3] Derniere lettre de Monsieur le Duc de Lorraine à Monsieur le Prince, apportée par un Colonel de son Armée; En laquelle il declare plainement toutes ses intentions; Les sujets de son retardement; et sa marche a grandes journées vers Paris (Paris: Antoine Perier, 1652), 3.

[4] L’estat des veritez du Cardinal Mazarin apres son retour (Paris, 1652), 5.

[5] The lengthy record of Condé’s trial can be found in the Parisian Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Manuscript 2842-3.

Coons head shotJim Coons is an assistant professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His research focuses on the history of of France, especially in the early years of Louis XIV’s reign. His current project examines the ways that political ideas intersected with personal categories, especially gender, social status, and emotion, to build the culture of royal absolutism. Both historically and in the contemporary world, he is interested in the ways that self-concept and “irrational” ways of seeing the world help to shape political and social institutions.


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