“Manly” Men in the Ancient World: Gender Roles and Male “Heat”

After a lengthy absence from this blog due to studying for comprehensive exams, I have returned. I covered many interesting topics and books in my studies, but probably no book was more intriguing and thought-provoking than Peter Brown’s The Body and Society. I highly recommend this book to all who have an interest in gender roles in late antiquity, as well as anyone who wants to learn more about how early Christianity employed principles and strategies relating to the human body, sexuality, and asceticism. See my “recommended books” link: https://dansalyers.wordpress.com/recommended-books/

One passage in particular stood out to me in my reading. “The medical entities of heat and vital spirit were imponderable elements in the makeup of the male. It could be assumed that men always had more of that precious heat than did women. But this heat, unless actively mobilized, might cool, leading even a man to approach the state of a woman” (Brown, Body and Society, 10). This passage illuminates the ways in which late ancient society saw men as opposed to women. Brown discusses the late ancient view of male “heat” as a commodity that was to be cherished and guarded. After all, men gained their “heat” from spending more time in the womb than women. There is a discussion as well about how male “heat” directly ties in to sexual activity and blood boiling in the heat of passion (as a word of caution, that part of the book is sexually explicit, but very interesting in how the late ancient society understood human physiology).

Returning to the passage quoted above, two points strike me: 1. that men had more “heat” than women and 2. that men, through inactivity, could allow their “heat” to cool and therefore become woman-like. In order to address the first issue, a quote from Brown earlier on the same page might help. Brown writes, “Women, by contrast, were failed males. The precious vital heat had not come to them in sufficient quantities in the womb. Their lack of heat made them soft… Their bodies could not burn up the heavy surpluses that coagulated within them. Yet precisely such surpluses were needed to nurture  and contain the hot male seed, thus producing children” (Brown, 10). We see here that although women had less heat than men, that specifically allowed them to bear children. Even such a superior/ inferior dynamic between men and women showed that women’s role was essential to the society continuing to produce children. I am not condoning such an attitude, but there is a degree of elevation of women even here. Elsewhere in the book, Brown observes that in the upper classes of society, men actually could only find true honesty from their wives and their parrhesia, even in public forums. Brown points to the Emperor Justinian being berated by his wife before the “full council of the state” (15). Women, and wives in particular, therefore had a very important role in society, despite their lack of “heat.”

The second point that men could allow their “heat” to cool is more complex. Brown draws upon the ancient doctor Galen who observed that a man would not become a woman per se, but that men might become “womanish,” and that “a man had to strive to remain ‘virile.’ He had to learn to exclude from his character and from the poise and temper of his body all telltale traces of ‘softness’ that might betray, in him, the half-formed state of a woman” (11). It was therefore important for men to engage in “manly” activities as they continued to cultivate their “heat” and remain virile through the way they walked and talked (11). This unfortunately has rather negative connotations to readers in today’s world. Ascribing to a “code of conduct” for each gender, noting that certain things are “manly” and others are “womanish” tends to oversimplify, exclude, and force people into roles for which they might not be best suited. While the notion of paying attention to how one’s words and actions speak about him or herself is not necessarily a bad thing, it remains dangerous to describe certain behaviors as “manly.”

I want to close by drawing a link to modern tendencies. Two in particular stand out. The first is the inclination usually found in churches for men’s and women’s roles. I have attended several churches which had specific men’s and women’s groups. This practice is rather common to foster community and fellowship without worrying about relations between men and women getting in the way (particularly problematic if the individuals are single adults). That said, I have been a part of a church that actually listed three women’s groups: knitting, quilting, and MOPS. I don’t want to dismiss any of these groups, but they were all offered in the middle of the week during the day. This completely excluded working women (as a matter of fact, I have heard from women before who have felt ostracized by MOPS in particular because they were working mothers of pre-schoolers). The same practice can be extended to men’s groups. I have been at several churches that consider “men’s times” to only include fishing/ camping/ golfing events. I know plenty of men who actually really hate fishing, camping, and golfing. Why not have a men’s time that includes simply getting together for coffee? Why does it have to be an elaborate event like a tough-mudder, or obstacle course (events that were the main focus of the men’s retreat at other churches I have attended). Why do churches continue to push the “manly” activities? Is it manly to simply be a father? A husband? A son?

I close by noting one last element. This is my own personal soapbox, but a trend has emerged in commercials over the last few years of showing the working mothers and the “idiot” husbands who can’t manage the kids or the house. I want to challenge such notions that if these men are stay-at-home dads, why do they have to be the clueless husbands who have no idea how to raise their kids/ keep them from completely destroying the house? Often the woman in these commercials will simply shake their heads as they grab the advertised industrial cleaners or vacuums to “clean up after the idiot husband who wrecked the house.” I think our society has come a long way in allowing people to do what they want with their lives despite (sometimes in spite of) preconceived gender roles, but there are still many for whom the words “manly” or “womanish” actually refer to specific tasks and interests.

I invite your comments/ reactions/ feedback on this topic. How do you see men or women being placed into gender roles today? Household? Workplace? Family Dynamics? Social Groups? Churches?


One thought on ““Manly” Men in the Ancient World: Gender Roles and Male “Heat”

  1. A gender role is not a bad thing, surely you are not suggesting that it is. God had a plan for Adam and Eve, and they were clearly not the same for each. The good Lord in His wisdom made women fit for caring for children and making a home, and this is seen in the curse that He gave the woman. Likewise, God cursed man differently, in regards to him being the breadwinner. To encourage a woman to take on BOTH curses, the curse of childbearing AND the curse of toiling and hard labor for bread is cruel and misogynistic. Only an unloving man who tell his wife to take his curse for him; to make her suffer so he doesn’t have to. I pray that the Lord gives us more Godly and loving men and women in this time of need.

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