Be a Perfect Man

Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy

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Andrew J. Romig
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume is a finely-written and well-researched journey through a territory full of surprises, most unexpected is the thesis: Carolingian masculinity revolved, in its ideal form, around the notion of caritas, namely love for God and one’s fellow human being in a rather encompassing sense, leading to an existence marked by compassion and a willingness to forgive. In Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy, author Andrew J. Romig presents and substantiates this thesis in an introduction, five thematic chapters dealing with a variety of primary sources and conclusions, and plentiful endnotes and bibliography.

In the introduction, Romig discusses his methodology and how the view, that caritas is key, goes beyond the notion of a “warrior masculinity,”—and beyond the idea that religious and secular masculinities were at odds with each other—in the Carolingian age. Romig focuses on the developing discourse on gender, in particular masculinity in the Carolingian world, stating “we can study not only the ways in which particular individuals become positioned by gender ideologies but also the ways in which individuals actively exploit the constructed nature of ideologies and adapt them to their own purposes” (6).

Chapter 1 is dedicated to the “pre-history” of caritas, from Augustine of Hippo and the notion of caritas—his attempts to find a Christian way to address this concept in discussion with Stoicism and Manichaeism—to Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis, in which ideals of masculine (and male) leadership were closely associated with the exercise of caritas (through association with pietas, clementia and misericordia). Specifically, Gregory’s treatment of caritas retained its exercise as an achievable and desirable goal for all Christians, not just clerics and monastics.

Building on the first chapter, chapter 2 outlines how Carolingian intellectuals, first and foremost Paulinus of Aquileia and Alcuin of York, employed—in their “lay mirrors”—the powerful and evocative notion of caritas to “unite the Frankish aristocratic caste under a common Christian identity and shared sense of purpose” (8). The core of this ideology was that caritas was the “source of Carolingian authority itself” and therefore “emotional interconnection and care for the lives of others was more than just an ideal of spiritual enlightenment and personal fulfillment” (8). The chapter makes a point of departure in the Carolingian Admonitio generalis, however, and concludes with remarks on the work of Jonas of Orléans (De institutione laicali) that confirms the point of view of Alcuin and Paulinus (although not their attitudes) (65-66).

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the rule of Louis the Pious, often considered an unsuccessful heir of Charlemagne,—that depends, however, on one’s point of view, as Romig demonstrates by analyzing the (otherwise anonymous) “Astronomer’s” biography of this fated emperor. Here, caritas appears as a notion that can subvert one’s evaluation of a ruler: Louis’ apparent shortcomings—his willingness to forgive, reconcile, and compromise–—are not seen as signs of weakness, but as the performance of caritas through the exercise of clementiapatientia and misericordia. This, in particular, “demonstrated his divine authority even in political defeat” (8)—later authors would, however, stress the limitations of this approach for a politically effective style of leadership.

In chapter 4, which in ways is the most complex, Romig considers a “pair of cultural crises” following the demise of Louis the Pious. In one crisis, literature—both prose and poetry—is called upon to illustrate the assumptions underpinning the centrality of the concept of caritas for (aristocratic) self-understanding. The other crisis is caused by the activities of Gottschalk of Orbais, who preached the message that caritas stems from God, not human beings. Although Gottschalk and his teachings were condemned, they did undermine the role of caritas as the core of a(n attainable) practice of Christian existence. An emphasis on divine grace begins to dislocate the performance of caritas from the center of Christian identity and, with that, male (especially lay aristocratic) authority depending on it begins to become less self-explanatory.

In the final chapter the dynamics described in chapter 4 are further explored. With the “Monk of St. Gall” and Odo of Cluny being examined with a preface discussing the work of Ardo Smaragdus, a main point here is the increasing emphasis on ascetism as a source of authority and masculinity, namely an existence outside of “the world” which lessened the importance of authentic and authoritative (masculine) Christian existence enabled through the exercise of caritas.

This reviewer is not a medievalist yet, from the perspective of masculinities studies in religion and theology, a few comments are justified. First, the book is a very good read if one wishes to familiarize oneself with the “strange world” of “different” conceptions of (hegemonic) masculinities—certainly the centrality of caritas in Carolingian masculinity is as surprising as it is refreshing. Second, the focus on masculinity as a key issue—one that is closely associated with and even underpins authority—shows how important it is to include this often neglected aspect of gender studies. In fact, it is often overlooked, yet “hiding in plain sight” as an “invisible norm” undergirding societal structures and dynamics to a high extent. Reading Romig’s work makes one aware of this reality and might inspire scholars to do similar work in other areas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter-Ben Smit is Professor of Contextual Biblical Interpretation at Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam), Professor (ao.) of Systematic and Ecumenical Theology at Bern University and professor (by special appointment) of Ancient Catholic Church Structures at Utrecht University.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew J. Romig is associate professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.


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