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Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello (dir.), A History of Virility

Bounthavy Suvilay
Cet article est une traduction de :
Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello (dir.), A History of Virility
A History of Virility
Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello (dir.), A History of Virility, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016, 744 p., Traduit du français par Keith Cohen, ISBN : 978-0-231-16878-6.

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  • 1 Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes. Tome I : L’Antiquité, Paris, Plon, 19 (...)
  • 2 First published in French, in three volumes in 2011.
  • 3 « In saying all this, I want to take responsibility for the cuts I had to make, in the interest of (...)

1Echoing the Histoire des femmes (1991-1992) by Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot1, this translation of Histoire de la virilité2 condenses the major trends of the historical and cultural evolution of virility in the Western world, presenting how the concept has changed from the Greek civilization to our globalized world. The translator Keith Cohen has selected the most representative articles for each historical period3. Focusing mainly on social practices and representations in France and Europe, the studies follow a chronological progression. This condensed version (22 of the original 46 chapters) is largely concerned with the modern era. The different forms of archives consulted by the researchers show that it is difficult to reconstruct the concepts in their context. Indeed, the working classes and colonized peoples are relatively poorly documented compared to elites. Press articles and legal texts, private correspondence and newspapers, highbrow and lowbrow literature are consulted to define the ideal of virility. Official paintings, photographs, advertisements, contemporary art and other older iconographic sources are also interrogated. But quantitative or statistical data often fail to restore the full range of practices of all the social strata. This collection of articles presents global processes: the ancient origins of the ethos, changes related to the advent of the court, progressive militarization and downfall at the end of the 20th century. The contributions are particularly indicative of the transformation of the warrior model, of domination over others and of male communities.

2The first two chapters look at the difference between Greek and Roman education in order to demonstrate how the military model dominates the education of men. Male beauty reflects this trend: tanned complexion, bulging musculature and untrimmed body hair. These athletic bodies are exposed naked in the Greek gymnasium or the Roman baths. According to Maurice Sartre the initiation rites are an apprenticeship aimed at dominating one’s eros, and satisfying it according to the social codes. Jean-Paul Thuillier reveals that for the Romans, “the man is the one who sexually penetrates his partner, regardless of the method of penetration and regardless of the penetrated partner” (p. 51). Nevertheless, depending on the age and social class of the lovers, practices can be more or less reprehensible. Man also participates in public life and manages its oikos (house, slaves, women) in order to perpetuate his lineage. The idea of self-control (of body, of words, of sexuality) is at the center of these ancient ideals.

3With the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the establishment of royalty and of the court, the image of the warrior gradually gives way to the honest man, and brute force is replaced by the delicacy. For George Vigarello, the body becomes lighter as technical combat and modern weapons supplant physical strength. By examining the conventions in painting, Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen shows that the posture of domination (hands on hips) combines the idea of the warrior (one hand is near the sword), that of the courtier (the other holds gloves) and that of sexual power (legs apart, the codpiece highlighted). The representation of the hunt often replaces that of war during the ancien régime but the conflicts related to the French Revolution reactivate the image of the citizen soldier, according to Jean-Paul Bertaud. In contrast to the 18th century, which denounced war and condemned the soldiers, the militarization of society arose again in the 19th century. It is perceived especially in the education of male children, which included not only sports but also military maneuvers, as is recalled by Ivan Jablonka. The values of loyalty, honor and courage merge in an ideal of patriotism. François Guillet considers that in default of battlefield, duels in urban spaces were very common, especially in areas where different social classes intersected (dances, theaters, etc.). They acted as catalysts for such confrontations in which honor is defended and a shared virility is generated by both protagonists. Thierry Pillon studies the emergence of the image of the workers during the 19th century, along with the reactivation of the model of the soldier. These two icons are severely tarnished in the twentieth century. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau examines how the Great War broke the physical and mental structures of the soldiers returning from the front with disabled and humiliated bodies. Johann Chapoutot shows that a fanciful version of antiquity was summoned by Fascism and Nazism to justify the hardening of body and discipline of mind. It was to take a symbolic revenge and erase the trauma of that war by turning soldiers into war machines in the industrialization of death. The 1945 defeat ended this version of warrior virility. In a world in crisis, where unemployment has become a constant, the image of the worker is shaken by Taylorism, regulations and the rise of individualism at work (chapter 19). In our globalized world the media have popularized a simulacrum of the warrior, an image of a sturdy body molded into superhero tights or exhibited in bodybuilding contests. For Jean-Jacques Courtine the fitness industry and fear of aging reflect our obsession with muscle as a sign of modern virility.

4The idea of virility is associated with that of domination over others, whether women or other people. Analyzed by Bruno Dumézil, the external representation of barbarians by the Romans precedes the dehumanization of the colonized men. Georges Vigarello explains that savages are animalized: sometimes wild and cruel beasts, sometimes stupid and exploitable. They only gain a human body in the model of the noble savage (18th century) or in the theory of degeneration (19th century) in which western civilization can claim its superiority in a hierarchy of races. According to Christelle Tap, between the 18th and 20th century, colonization produced two complementary images of indigenous males, alternating between symbolic emasculation and promotion of their otherness through their supposed sexual violence. The descendants of immigrants from former colonies are still struggling today to reconstruct an image of their lost virility while the media tend to revitalize these old stereotypes about men from “difficult neighborhoods”.

5Relations between men and women can also help us to understand the limits and implications of virility. Maurice Sartre notes that among the Greeks, the wedding was more of a social obligation than the result of a loving union. Arlette Farge describes how, during the Old Regime, women were a threat to virility: unstable beings who were constant reminders of men’s potential sexual impotence and the threat of cuckolding. Debauchery before marriage was an opportunity for groups of men to sexually dominate as many women as possible while marriage was equivalent to the domestication of his wife. In the 19th century, the number of coitus demonstrated the vital energy of a man and sexual intercourse was considered as healthy: male bodies had to be active and face passive female bodies, which were not always submissive. As Alain Corbin points out, vigorous couplings were part of the daily hygiene, recommended by doctors as a means of treating the imagination. The 19th century also saw the triumph of the medicalization of masculinity with tools to prevent masturbation and nocturnal emissions treated as diseases. Régis Revenin indicates that homosexuality was then labeled as a reversal of “normal” sexuality. The interference of the medical in the intimate and ideologies of civilization’s hierarchy reinforced fears linked to impotence and degeneration. By combining women, homosexuals and colonized peoples in the same paradigm, these theories reinforced the connection between virility and the dominance of others while revealing that this ideal, reserved for the white man, was extremely fragile, threatened from all sides. The various struggles in the second half of the 20th century (feminism, decolonization, gay recognition) undermine the idea of white heterosexual male hegemony (articles Christine Bard and Florence Tamagne). Fabrice Virgili shows that domestic violence, at one time commonplace and intimate, has now become a social issue and a crime.

6In ancient Sparta, the men formed a separate group, raised together to enhance both the competitive spirit and the sense of community to create a good and disciplined hoplite enraged in combat when a comrade is in danger. This idea of masculine solidarity is also found in other Greek and Roman forms of education. As Arlette Farge observes, among the common people in the 18th century, groups of men competed in the conquest of women in an imitation of elite libertinism. “The gangs, the associations of friends or others youths, whether young neighborhood men or school children, form identifiable groups, hotheaded and aggressive, for whom the virile capturing of women is a fundamental prize” (p. 173). In the 19th century, boys’ education in secondary schools also promoted the cohesion of male groups who would then compete in duels (article by François Guillet) or on the battlefield (as analyzed by John Paul Bertaud). This idea of masculine community is probably what is most undermined by the evolution of the concept of virility. Sports clubs and superhero groups described by Jean-Jacques Courtine are only traces of these past brotherhoods in a world where individualism seems to have supplanted any idea of holism.

7This history of mentalities is based on the study of bodily practices and representations in order to demonstrate how societies build and dismantle the model of virility. It remains only to write a similar history for other geographical areas: what is virility in a non-Western society? At a time when globalization tends to unify customs, it is necessary to account for the diversity of ideals in other civilizations.

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1 Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes. Tome I : L’Antiquité, Paris, Plon, 1991 ; Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes. Tome II : Le Moyen Age, Paris, Plon, 1991 ; Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes en Occident. Tome III : XVIe-XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Plon, 1991 ; Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes en Occident. Tome IV : le XIXe siècle, Paris, Plon, 1991 ; Duby Georges and Perrot Michelle (eds.), Histoire des femmes en Occident. Tome V : le XXe siècle, Paris, Plon, 1992.

2 First published in French, in three volumes in 2011.

3 « In saying all this, I want to take responsibility for the cuts I had to make, in the interest of brevity and economy. If the reader senses that significant swaths of cultural history have been abruptly elided, I am the one to blame » (p. X).

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Bounthavy Suvilay, « Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello (dir.), A History of Virility  », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2016, mis en ligne le 19 juillet 2016, consulté le 20 août 2019. URL :

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Bounthavy Suvilay

Doctorante en lettres modernes à l’université de Montpellier 3 sous la direction de Marie-Ève Thérenty et Matthieu Letourneux (Paris Ouest), Bounthavy Suvilay étudie l'histoire de la réception de la licence media mix Dragon Ball (manga, anime, jeux vidéo) en France en travaillant sur les processus de recréation, réappropriation et légitimation d’un objet transculturel.

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