There is a common idea in contemporary society that, in the “olden days,” men were men. This seems fairly self evident. What else could men be? If men were women, we’d just call them women and move on.
I’m joking, of course. The phrase “back when men were men,” does not refer simply to one’s own self-determined gender identity. Rather, the phrase asserts a standard of masculinity and implies that men today do not meet that standard, but that men in days past did. Most recently, I heard this sentiment expressed in reference to the Middle Ages and knights.
At this point, I laughed. It’s true that people today often like to view knights as emotionally distant, stoic, hypermasculine beefcakes. They’re not often thought of as having “fine loins and fair waists” but that’s how King Arthur is described in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Still, just because Arthur is described as being in the “first flower of knighthood” and is portrayed as being slender and a little dainty, rather than being buff, that doesn’t mean that masculine behavior in the Middle Ages was thought to be anything less than stoic, badass, and macho. I mean, this section of Alliterative Morte Arthure is about Arthur wrestling a giant (who wears a coat of beards, for some reason). It’s not like they’d get all emotional or sentimental with their bros.
“What?” Gawain exclaimed./ “Who are you?” “I am Yvain,/ Who loves you better than anyone/ In the world, however far/ It may stretch, for everywhere we’ve been/ You’ve always loved me, and honored me.” (lines 6283-6288)
Or maybe they would. That passage is taken from Chretien de Troye’s Yvain: The Knight of the Lion (the Burton translation), which is from the twelfth century CE, in France. The scene referenced features Yvain, the story’s protagonist, revealing his identity to his friend and comrade Gawain. The two had been serving as champions for two different maidens for a trial by combat, but they had not known the identity of the other until after a day of fighting. Upon learning that he is fighting Gawain, Yvain ceases fighting and proclaims his love and affection for his companion.
That’s not such a big deal, though. Guys today are often saying things like “I love you, man,” and whatnot. Declarations of fondness are still common, if less common than in Chretien’s day, and they’re still in the “manly man” spectrum, right? It’s not as though they got touchy or anything.
And as he spoke he dismounted,/ And each embraced the other,/ And kissed the other, their arms,/ Around each other’s necks,/ Each continuing to insist/ That he’d lost. (lines 6309-6314)
Whoops. Still, that’s just from one poet. And he was French. French! No doubt other writers from other times and places wrote about knights who were manly men!
Then firmly, like good friends,/ they hugged and held awhile. (lines 840-841)
That’s from the Armitage translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in northern England circa 1400 CE. In that passage, Gawain is meeting with his host in a castle he is staying in, whom he “hugs” and “holds.” Of course, even hypermasculine badasses can hug their buddies sometimes, right? That’s not weird, even if he does later “squeeze Gawain’s arm and seat him at his side.”
So he held out his arms and hugged the lord/ and kissed him in the kindliest way he could. (Lines 1388-1389)
He catches him by the neck and courteously kisses him,/ then a second time kisses him in a similar style. (Lines 1639-1640)
He clasps him tight and kisses him three times/ with as much emotion as a man could muster. (Lines 1936-1937)
Admittedly, there are circumstances the accompany these six kisses. Gawain and Bertilak (Gawain’s host) agree that they will exchange whatever they gain that day, three days in a row. While Bertilak goes out hunting, and brings Gawain freshly caught game every day, Gawain stays back and fools around with Lady Bertilak, passing on the kisses she provides him. This is not just a case of Gawain and Bertilak kissing for the fun of it. That said, Bertilak does not voice much surprise or confusion regarding his male friend up and kissing him a lot, nor does Gawain express any reluctance to do so.
Clearly, Medieval ideas about what it meant to be masculine and manly differ somewhat from the common concepts of manliness and masculinity today. Furthermore, those Medieval ideas about masculinity and manliness are, by common contemporary standards, more feminine than what would be thought of as “manly” today. Does this mean that knights were any less badass? No. Does this mean that knights were somehow less of men than men today? Most certainly not. What does it mean? It means that being a hypermasculine, homophobic, macho douche is not characteristic of “the good old days” when “men were men.” Arthur, Yvain, Gawain, and their real world counterparts did not need to establish their masculinity through macho posturing or being emotionally distant, because they could instead establish their worth and masculinity by actually accomplishing great things.