10 December 2003
New book uncovers “lad culture” in Tudor and Stuart England
A lad culture of binge-drinking, gambling, street gang-style vandalism and illicit sex is uncovered in a groundbreaking new book by University of Sussex history lecturer Dr Alexandra Shepard.
The book, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, £45) reveals that it wasn't just women who were marginalised by a male-dominated culture in Tudor England. Other men who didn't fit the masculine ideal - or who rejected it - also felt excluded and would often use rebellious behaviour to kick against the patriarchal system.
Her research, based on evidence from court records from the 16th and 17th centuries, shows how these men - usually young, economically disadvantaged and dissenting - indulged in drinking, sport and gambling or other "bad" behaviour to express their own brand of masculinity, as opposed to the sober, God-fearing family man of means who held all the power.
Dr Shepard argues: "Male anxiety about manhood is nothing new - there is evidence of this sort of behaviour in any age, just as there always seems to have been a rising middle class. But what does emerge is a picture much more complicated than that of men merely maintaining and benefiting from a patriarchy. Certain groups of men - for instance, students, apprentices and the labouring classes - undermined and opposed those who held economic or political power."
Male frustrations were made worse, says Dr Shepard, by the fact that "youth" in this period extended far beyond the teenage years, as many young men lacked the means or the independence to escape the family home and "be their own man". This, says Dr Shepard, resulted in the "many different ways in which manhood was expressed and competed with the accepted hierarchy".
Dr Shepard's research, drawn from court records from around the country but primarily from Cambridge, is illuminated by sources that give first-hand accounts of boozy students, fighting, vandals attacking shops and the original meaning of "street walker" - a young male out on the prowl at night with his friends, looking for mischief. Sources also include the growing fashion for practical manuals offering "fatherly" advice on everything from the evils of drink to what to look for in the ideal wife.
"There was a fear that subversive behaviour needed to be dampened down. The writers argued that drinking was beast-like and effeminate, as it led to the surrender of your will, a loss of control and licentiousness," says Dr Shepard.
Dr Shepard also points to a change in attitudes as religious practice and the class system evolved. She concludes that her findings offer an alternative view to the "sex blindness" of the traditional theory that all men were viewed as intellectually and morally superior to women, thereby creating a system that benefited all men at the expense of all women. "We need a multi-relational framework when assessing gender relations," says Dr Shepard, "it involves a great deal more than the simple opposition of women and men."
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