Diss Talk: Katie Urquhart on ‘eighteenth-century lad culture’

My dissertation examines student behaviour at the University of Cambridge in the eighteenth century. In the period of the Enlightenment, you’d perhaps be surprised to learn that Cambridge was in many senses declining: its student populations falling; its academic standards criticised. My dissertation challenges this rather stoic perception of the University by examining the violence, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity of its students.

So far, my forays into the archives have revealed duelling between students, tussles over prostitutes, and letting off fireworks whilst rioting at Clare College Gates. Perhaps curiously, I’ve had this project explained to me as ‘eighteenth-century lad culture’.

The problem for a historian of gender here is that the University was a singularly male environment – with the exception of bedders and launderers. The question, then, is what does it mean to study masculinity without reference to a female counterpart?

The study of gender history was heavily influenced by feminist activism in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in ‘women’s histories’ that sought to reinstate women into the historical narrative that had so far privileged the position of men. Such publications in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the positions of women in the home, the workplace, and, ultimately, in relation to men.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that historians made men the subject of their research with regard to gender roles. Before this point, men were, in a sense, seen to be devoid of ‘gender’. There is now a wealth of publications on the history of masculinity. However, as with any growing field, there are a number of problems now facing the sub-discipline.

Gender history is now researched by a mix of male and female historians. However, there is a noticeable disparity in subject matter. The most notable works of gender history tend to follow a certain pattern: male and female historians alike research masculinity, where femininity receives almost solely female attention.

My dissertation research uses court records, as well as discipline accounts, from the University and various colleges. In these cases, students are violent, intoxicated, even abusive. The evidence I have gathered so far indicates that these riotous expressions of masculinity were common to the period. The drinking, whoring, and brawling of students lend themselves to a fairly straightforward analysis of masculinity – one that almost doesn’t need explanation here. To complicate this picture, I have introduced the idea of space and architectural development to map the limits placed on the movement of scholars in the University.

In recent years, the historical practice of examining men as separate from women has come under increasing criticism. Some historians have expressed alarm at the rate at which histories of masculinity are legitimising the neglect of women in gender history. To such scholars, the formerly subversive potential of gender history is being dulled by the focus on men. These histories of masculinity are accused of neglecting the original feminist aspirations of the sub-discipline.

A question that has occurred to me multiple times is: why am I, a woman and a feminist, content with leaving women out of my research into gender roles? My dissertation, in focusing on masculinity and discipline, has little space for female historical actors. I have at times regretted this situation, but I would argue that demanding a continually comparative framework of understanding gender roles is just as problematic as refusing to do so altogether.

In my dissertation I aim to embrace the feminist origins of gender history, and turn them towards the history of masculinity. In doing so, I seek not to reject the importance of women in the making of history, but instead, to recognise the role gender played in constructing the lived experience of male lives.

Gender is an inherently slippery topic, and one that we all feel we have a right to define. In studying gender history, the ability to remain flexible, and open to new interpretations, is vital in order to keep the discipline thriving in the coming years.

Katie Urquhart is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at Emmanuel College who works on gender history and masculinity.

Main image from David Loggan, “Cantabrigia Illustrata”, 1690

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