Heyam on Corbin and Courtine and Vigarello, 'A History of Virility'

Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello, eds.
Kit Heyam

Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello, eds. A History of Virility. Translated by Keith Cohen. European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 768 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-16878-6.

Reviewed by Kit Heyam (University of Leeds)
Published on H-Histsex (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Katherine Harvey

On the cover of A History of Virility, a man refuses to meet the camera’s gaze—not out of shyness, but more out of a comfortably held conviction that he is exempt from society’s injunction to smile, to make himself pleasing to the eye. His crumpled white vest has been torn at the neckline, exposing a thick crop of chest hair, and he stands at an angle that accentuates his muscular shoulders. He is bathed in a pool of moody grey light. He embodies the physicality of virility that this hefty volume, at its best, historicizes vividly and with sustained attention to detail. He also embodies the circumscribed nature of virility, the rigidly policed boundaries of who does, and does not, get to be called a man. In some places, this book analyzes these boundaries critically; frequently, however, it finds itself constrained by them.

A History of Virility is Keith Cohen’s translated and condensed version of the French Histoire de la Virilité (2015), edited by Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, and Georges Vigarello: forty-six chapters in three volumes have become an immense one-volume work of twenty-two chapters in 744 pages. It is structured as a series of loosely periodized essays by various authors, which still fall roughly into three parts along the same lines as the French original. The three French volumes are entitled “The invention of virility, from antiquity to the Enlightenment,” “The triumph of virility: The nineteenth century,” and “Virility in crisis? The twentieth to twenty-first century,” and the translation is devoted to each of these time periods, although it is not explicity partitioned in the same way. Its aim as stated in the editors’ preface is robustly historicist: “Our enterprise is based on the wish to introduce history into something that seems to have none ... [and] to show, beginning with Antiquity, across the archaeology of our societies, how much virility can change in relation to social orders, sub-cultures, urban or rural ideals, and ideals of combat or scholarship” (p. xiv). To do so rigorously, from classical culture to the present, is a bold and original proposition, and one substantially more difficult to accomplish in twenty-two chapters than in forty-six. “In abridging the original,” Cohen writes in his translator’s note, “I aimed at preserving what I perceived to be its greatest strengths: a comprehensive account of the idea of virility in the Western world from ancient times to today, based on documents and testimony; the contributors’ ability to mesh a general argument about cultural history with very specific revelatory examples and anecdotes; and a frankness about changes in behavioral and sexual mores, regardless of the people involved” (p. ix, emphasis added). The book is interested not just in tracking changing conceptions of virility but also in virility’s declining importance to an individual’s social worth—what Courtine memorably calls “a twilight of the penis in the West” (p. 587). Courtine sums up a key concern of many of the essays when he asks, “How do we understand that a representation based on strength, authority and mastery [that is, virility] should end up seeming fragile, unstable, and contested?” (p. 401).

A straightforward definition of “virility” is not easily forthcoming, and indeed the format of a multi-author essay collection means that no two chapters treat the term identically. Maurice Sartre, for example, simply offers the circular definition that virility is “the set of traits and behaviors peculiar to a man” (p. 1). Many contributors choose not to define the term at all. However, key aspects of it can be teased out. It is not the same as masculinity or “simply what is manly.” It is, the editors write in the preface, “an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination”; it comprises “sexual dominance mixed with psychological dominance, physical force with strength of character, courage and ‘greatness,’ accompanied by strength and vigor.” Though it must not show it, it is anxious and threatened, too: “perfection tends always to be threatened by some insufficiency.... Anxiety hovers over this supposed excellence” (p. xiii, emphasis added). But it is, of course, context-dependent: “The courtier could not have the same virile ideal as the knight” (p. xiv). Above all, as the editors’ reference to “an ideal” implies, virility is performative: “qualities that a man must know how to show” (p. 217).

The effects of the essay collection format go beyond problems of terminology, however. The back cover of the volume bears a quotation from Professor Todd W. Reeser: “A History of Virility provides a complete and coherent sense of the trajectory of French notions of virility from and across all periods.” On the basis of the condensed English translation, it is impossible to agree with Reeser’s assessment, or to conclude that Cohen’s ambitious aim of preserving the book’s “comprehensive” nature in less than half the chapters has been fully realized. The volume has been composed with a seemingly very light editorial touch, which leaves space for multiple perspectives on this frequently political issue, but means that the chapters vary widely in their approaches. The opening chapters, “Greek Virilities” by Sartre and “Roman Virilities” by Jean-Paul Thuillier, are systematic, historically rigorous, and informative; they use a wide variety of textual, visual, and material sources to piece together a multifaceted picture of virility in the classical world. By contrast, nearly one-third of the section “Absolute Virility in the Early Modern World” is devoted to two writers, Francois Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne, and this section does not contribute to our understanding of virility in its chosen period to the same degree. As a result of the condensed format, historical periods are given dramatically unequal treatment—just three pages are devoted to medieval France, as opposed to thirty-eight in the original French—and key contextual facts are unexpectedly missing. Claude Thomasset’s “Medieval Strength and Blood,” for example, eschews any mention of chivalry in favor of analyzing gendered gestures in a decontextualized and stereotyped way: men’s gestures are “ample [and liberate] energy from the body,” women’s are “short, repetitive, and [follow] a rhythm of coming-and-going” (p. 85). Similarly, Rafael Mandressi’s chapter from the original French text titled “The heat of men: Virility and medical thought in Europe” (vol. 1) is omitted from A History of Virility. This means that none of the three writers whose essays comprise the section “Absolute Virility in the Early Modern World” explore the prevalent Galenic understanding of physiological differences between sexes—men as hot and dry, women as cold and wet, and the vagina as an inverted penis—which were so key to conceptions of virility during this period.[1] This is particularly surprising given Lawrence D. Kritzman’s discussion of Marie Germain, who (according to Montaigne) spontaneously changed sex from female to male due to the vigorous physical activity of chasing pigs: the story’s plausibility to its early modern readers is inexplicable without detail on these physiological conceptions. When Corbin identifies the role of physiology in the nineteenth century’s increasing emphasis on virility, the reader would be forgiven for concluding that the Victorians invented physiological differences between the sexes.

The effect of these omissions is that, while many of the essays provide original analysis of substantial value to specialists in the period under discussion, many of the chapters also contain elements that are inaccessible to nonspecialists. Thomasset, for example, assumes knowledge of chansons de gestes (French epic poems of heroic deeds prevalent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), of the legendary hero Guillaume d'Orange, and of the twelfth-century Arthurian poet Chrétien de Troyes. Vigarello discusses anti-court discourse in early modern France without exploring the reasons for the existence of that discourse, and undermines his argument concerning Andreas Vesalius’s pioneering anatomy textbook of 1543, On the Fabric of the Human Body (the dissected figure on the frontispiece is female, not male). Knowledge of the eighteenth-century French journal Encyclopedie is assumed throughout. These are essays, then, to supplement wider reading concerning each historical period, rather than to provide a stand-alone narrative of how shifting contextual factors have changed what it means to be a virile man.

The field of virility—who is defined as a virile man and who is not—is repeatedly shown in this volume to be a very narrow one. Cohen’s translator’s note is vague on this point: “In its historical sweep this volume discloses the major trends of our cultural development using the unique portal of how men have modelled, exploited and worried about their manhood” (p. ix, emphasis added). It quickly becomes clear that the “we” of “our cultural development” is an exclusive one, and that admittance to the category of generic “men” is contested and circumscribed. The virile man is, first of all, intrinsically French. This is not a criticism: this is, after all, a French book, and it is a refreshing departure from the frequently Anglocentric nature of scholarship on gender. But the English-speaking reader must approach A History of Virility with this fact in mind. The authors stress repeatedly the prevalence of the concept of “virility” over “masculinity”: “masculine” was for the longest time no more than a grammatical term” (p. 400). This is not entirely transferable to the English language, in which “masculine” is an older and more commonly used adjective than “virile,” and therefore care should be taken when applying the authors’ conclusions across cultures.[2]

Other aspects of the authors’ narrow definition of virility are more problematic. The generic “men” of the translator’s note are white and middle class. Exceptions to this rule are treated in discrete places as just that: exceptions. Vigarello’s “The Virile Man and the Savage in the Lands of Exploration” focuses on the indigenous inhabitants of colonized countries, making it clear that not just their virility but also their humanity was under question from the invaders. Vigarello is sympathetic, but he does not always help matters, conflating the inhabitants of most colonized countries. Chapter 11, “Virility in the Colonial Context” by Christelle Taraud, is more nuanced—Taraud reads France’s war on Algeria (1830-47) with a focus on the idea of colonization as a means of reinforcing and/or recovering virility, and provides some striking evidence from contemporary letters of the ways in which French colonizers’ virility was circumscribed and critiqued—but is woefully short at twenty pages. The prevalent view of working-class men, too, is not unsympathetic but is definitely from the outside: “In working-class milieus, virility is not a code to follow at all costs but rather an ordinary way of living one’s masculinity, strongly ingrained, even if men on the whole have also admitted that excessive violence towards women is to be condemned. But their real world, like their imaginary one, is filled with images of women to possess carelessly” (p. 169). It can also be sensationalized, particularly in terms of violence: we are told that “brawls, beatings, and disputes take place night and day, almost continuously,” and groups of young working-class men are “gangs” as opposed to middle-class “youth movements” (pp. 179, 472, 473). Chapter 19, by Thierry Pillon, does focus on working-class virility, but retains the middle-class gaze, exploring representations of working-class men (the Soviet Union’s “image of a strong, masculine workforce, ready for labor and fighting” [p. 515]) more than their experience (the section exploring how the move away from physical labor has affected virility is a welcome exception). Elsewhere, the book frequently homogenizes male experience as that of the wealthy: dueling, for example, is surely not a universal experience of virility.

The man of A History of Virility is also resolutely cisgender. It may well be the case that transmasculine people can never, in the eyes of prevailing French opinion, meet the standards of performative physical strength and sexual vigor necessary to deserve the adjective “virile”: while an exploration of this issue would have complemented the book, its absence in this condensed format is not the occasion for sustained criticism. What does deserve criticism is the frequent denial of transgender possibilities and identities—including the effective misgendering of a living trans man—and the misunderstanding of several key terms. The Chevalier d'Eon, who lived a large proportion of their life as a woman and put substantial effort into convincing King Louis XVI that they had been assigned female at birth, is dismissed by Régis Revenin as a “cross-dresser” (p. 365). Trans possibilities are similarly silenced in Christine Bard’s claim that “women” who have “assumed a male gender, at times going so far as to take on a male identity,” have done so simply because it “allows them to marry, get work, make more money, travel abroad, [and] fight in the army in a lovely uniform” (p. 459). Bard goes on to demonstrate a poor understanding of the issue with which she is dealing: “transgendered,” she says, is “a recent term,” while “‘intersex’ refers now to people who are between two genders” (pp. 463-464). Bard’s essay gives an excellent “history of the feminist critique of virility” (p. 441), as well as a much-needed female gaze on men’s bodies, but it is troubling that editorial oversight appears to have allowed her to base arguments on an issue about which she clearly understands little. More troubling still is what appears to be Cohen’s introduction of a deeply concerning level of skepticism about the gender of trans male writer Max Wolf Valerio. In the French original, Bard problematically refers to Valerio with female pronouns when describing him prior to transition, but affords him male pronouns afterward; in the English translation, Valerio post-transition is referred to as “‘he’” in single quotation marks, suggesting that his male identity is false. Overall, despite Claudine Haroche’s assertion that “virility cannot be a question of anatomy” (p. 415), little attempt is made to challenge—or even to consciously note—the assumption that the penis maketh the man.

This volume, then, offers “historical essays on virility,” rather than a history of virility (still less a histoire, with its additional connotations of coherent narrative). When approached in this way, and with the need for supplementary contextual reading in mind, there is much of value to be found. The opening two chapters on the classical world stand out in particular. Chapter 1, “Greek Virilities” by Sartre, considers the experience of Spartan and Athenian men: their upbringing, education, and military culture. It is particularly informative on attitudes toward Greek “virile education” and on sex between men, warning against anachronistic scholarly practices, such as the use of the word “homosexual” (which “presupposes permanent behavioral categories foreign to the Greeks”) and the assumption that sex between men belonged to the “private sphere” and constituted “an intimate love relationship” (pp. 9, 24). On the contrary, it is intrinsically public: “we are ... dealing ... with a conquest that makes no sense until it is brought out into the clear light of day” (p. 28). Chapter 2, “Roman Virilities” by Thuillier, contains a similarly interesting treatment of male sexual behavior and the parameters for different behavioral and judgmental categories. Male upbringing recurs as the subject of sustained examination in “Childhood, or the ‘Journey toward Virility’” by Ivan Jablonka and in Arnaud Baubérot’s “One Is Not Born Virile, One Becomes So,” which focuses on the twentieth century; Jablonka’s examination of “group debauchery” also provides illuminating historical context for students of contemporary “lad culture” (p. 217). Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen provides a wide-ranging tour of representations of men in early modern art: man is the image of God, the primary subject of first anatomy book (though not its frontispiece), and is geometrically perfect, while Laneyrie-Dagen also considers virile costume and stance, and men’s appearances alongside animals and family members. Chapter 12, Corbin’s “The Necessary Manifestation of Sexual Energy,” sees an original, lively proliferation of sources: “bawdy songs,” “various risqué pamphlets and collections,” “masculine correspondence,” and “personal diaries” are all used to reveal “the code of virility” with reference to sexual behavior (p. 276). Many chapters contain gems in the form of potted histories (such as Bard’s account of the growth of the men’s rights movement), though they lose something from not being linked together into a wider coherent narrative.

A History of Virility is at its best when discussing physicality—disability, stance, athleticism, clothing, body hair, sex—perhaps because this is what most clearly sets virility apart from masculinity and foregrounds the originality of the book’s perspective. Thuillier provides a detailed and multi-sensory view of Roman culture in “Physical Portrait of the Virile Man”; Taraud analyzes the relationship between the body, health, and work, with implications for perceptions of race (Arab men were viewed by the French as both lazy and infected). Corbin fascinatingly evokes the terror of masturbation and wet dreams during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries—“I saw my health, my happiness, my life drain away” (p. 350)—which he locates in fears of women and of syphilis. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s “The Great War and the History of Virility” explores the implications for virility of military stance, uniform, and aesthetics, as well as dismemberment (“We are no longer men now that half our organs and half our limbs have disappeared” [p. 395]) and mental and physical disability. A sustained interest in fascism reads totalitarianism as “the apogee” of many twentieth-century “great virile eruptions” (p. 401), examines women’s perceptions of and attraction to fascist virility, and notes Benito Mussolini’s emphasis on athleticism. The final chapter, Courtine’s “Brawn in Civilization,” reveals the fragile and at times ridiculous nature of the virility on display in bodybuilding contests. Competition and muscle, winners and losers, form an entirely fitting conclusion. This is a book with much to interest scholars of men, their gender, and their sexuality, but perhaps the most notable thing it tells us about virility is contained in its silences, and the men who are not represented in its pages.


[1]. Sophia M. Connell, “Aristotle and Galen on Sex Difference and Reproduction: A New Approach to an Ancient Rivalry,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 31, no. 3 (September 2000): 405–427.

[2]. “virile, adj. (and n.),” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/223796?redirectedFrom=virile (accessed August 10, 2016); and  “masculine, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/114561?redirectedFrom=masculine (accessed August 10, 2016).

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=46837

Citation: Kit Heyam. Review of Corbin, Alain; Courtine, Jean-Jacques; Vigarello, Georges, eds., A History of Virility. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. September, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46837

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This review opens with a paragraph focusing on the image of a man on the book’s cover: “He embodies the physicality of virility that this hefty volume, at its best, historicizes vividly...” The reviewer doesn’t acknowledge that the photograph on the cover is of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. Surely identifying this famous character and the actor playing him would add something to the review’s discussion of "historicizing" virility?

Thanks for this, and for your tweet - as I said, it's not an image I'm familiar with since twentieth-century film is far from my specialism, so I'm grateful for the extra information! As you say, it's an apposite choice for the cover image and Stanley embodies some of the anxiety and violence that the book's treatment of twentieth-century virility focuses on.

You still seem hazy about the significance of Brando’s charisma and general cultural importance. Images of Marlon Brando, particularly in the role of Stanley Kowalski, are iconic. This is the reason for the astute choice of the book cover by the publishers of "A History of Virility." The actor has had a long-standing cultural impact on a global scale and his image continues to be an influence on various cultural discourses since his death—he was the subject of a recent well-reviewed documentary film and biographies continue to appear (I recommend "Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work" by Susan Mizruchi). This star is not merely a figure from twentieth century film!

He was "somebody" (see his role as Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront") and I found it troubling that a reviewer would fail to recognize his photograph and go on to discuss an image of Brando as though he was an anonymous male model. Nevertheless, your review demonstrates a knowledgeable understanding of masculinity in various historical periods and offers solid evidence of why we shouldn’t just judge this complex book by its cover alone.

Thanks very much for the extra contextual information on Brando: you're right that this knowledge does add a lot to our understanding of the cover photograph and its significance for the book as a whole. I'm sorry that you found the omission troubling. It's perhaps inevitable that any reviewer of a book that spans 'antiquity to the present' would be more well-versed in some of the periods under discussion than others, which is why comments and discussion from other scholars are so valuable in situations like this.