Youth Groups and Society, Part 1: Youth, Age and Gender

This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part one, where I talk about youth in general terms. Part two will discuss how youth groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how they could reinforce it. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.

In this presentation, I will show some aspects of medieval youth organizations and their relationship with society, in order to establish parallels with contemporary student associations.

First, I would like to give more background so you know where I’m coming from when I talk about medieval youth and the student movement. I’m a history student at the University of Montreal, and I’m currently completing my master’s thesis on Venetian youth companies, which I’ll mention a few times in this talk. I’ve also been involved in the association of undergraduate history students at my university in the past two years, last year as Secretary General, and I’m also doing LGBT activism on campus. As such, although what I say is rather reliable when I talk about medieval youth associations, I only have my own subjective experience and my own observations to work with when I talk about the student movement.

What is youth?

The word “youth” has various applications and meaning, so I’d like to say exactly what I mean when I describe it as an age category, and explore what it can involve. To be precise, when I will say “youth” about the Middle Ages, I actually mean “male youth”, for reasons that will be evident soon, and because the organizations I study are male-only. When useful, I will oppose “youth” to “maturity”, for the humble reason that I know no better word.

When I say “youth”, I refer to a period in someone’s life which corresponds very roughly to their 20s, but it is not actually defined by age. Nor is it defined by economic or legal autonomy, marital status, or having children, even though, then as now, most young people did not have full autonomy, were not married and had no children (Gauvard, 1982). In effect, what defines male youth as a category is a set of behaviours and attitudes — in a way, age is performative, just as gender, in Judith Butler’s sense of the word. In the Middle Ages, youth was an age of freedom from responsibilities (or of irresponsibility), of unrestrained sexuality and frivolity. As such, it was associated with two special times : night and festivity — both of which could involve alcohol. As you may have noticed, this is not remote from our own understanding of youth. But youth — male youth, always — was also associated with strength and violence, and young men were thought the most adequate people to defend the community against external threat (Muchembled, 2008). Once again, this is still applicable today, as shown by recruitment in the army and the practice of conscription in the 20th century.

Youth and Gender

An important point to mention about youth is that its experience is differentiated according to gender. However, the relationship between youth and gender is more complex. In fact, medieval ideas of male youth and femininity were either identical or exactly opposite. On the one hand, both young men and women were seen as irresponsible, accused of spending in abandon and thought sexually insatiable. To young men and women was attributed a weakness of will and reason, which lead to dependency on older men — and most directly on the pater familias, the father of the family. Young men only stand better in this patriarchal system insofar as they are meant to take the place of their elders in an undefined future. As a result, women and young men were excluded of politics (to different levels) and targeted explicitly by anti-luxury legislation and moralistic preachers (Crouzet-Pavan, 1996).

This idea that young people and women are hopeless spenders is still very present, as some offensive stereotypes exemplify. For instance, dating a woman is seen as taking on tons of expenses, and women themselves are accused of shopping all the time for the most expensive dresses. The same applies to young people, who are thought of as spoiled and dependent on the newest Apple products. Specifically, this was used against students during the 2012 strike to discredit their aspiration to lower. A great example of this sort of rhetoric was used by Richard Martineau’s famous tweet: “Spotted on a terrace in Outremont: 5 students with red squares, eating, drinking sangria and speaking on cell phones. This is the life!” [My translation, original here]

Although the mind of young men was weak and incomplete like that of women, they were the repository of the community’s physical strength and violence — justified and defensive violence, of course. Young men were active, “fiery”, intense. As such, the representation of youth stands at the complete opposite of the representation of women as weak and passive. If you join all of this into a coherent system, to young men was given a special destructive force to defend the community against external threats; to women, a creative force, through procreation, centered internally in the community itself. But as they are both alike in their insufficient mind, this system justifies the monopoly on power of mature patriarchs, who did have the solid and clear mind allowing them to direct these destructive and creative forces, to have power over youth and women. This is well exemplified in this extract from the second of Leon Battista Alberti’s Libri della famiglia:

The beauties of a man trained in arms, in my opinion, are in a proud presence, in strong limbs and in skillful acts in all tasks. I judge the beauties of an elder in the prudence, affection and reason of his words and councils; and whatever is esteemed a beauty in an elder will assuredly be judged very differently from what is in a young gentleman [cavalier]. Thus, I judge that the beauties of a woman can be judged not only in the charms and nobility of the face, but also in a well-shaped body able to carry and produce for you very beautiful sons in abundance.

In a way, we see an intersection between age and gender, crossing gerontocracy and patriarchy into a sort of “mature patriarchy” — in fact, “patriarchy”, being etymologically about “fathers”, would express adequately this age/gender complex, but it is already given a wider meaning. In mature patriarchy, young men are only in a better position than women (young or not) in that they are expected to ascend to the dominant age category, while woman always remain in their oppressed gender category.

I think the same dynamic still works today. Don’t you?

Emerging adulthood?

Another interesting point of comparison is modern and medieval demographic and economic realities, which were rather similar for youth. Young men in the Middle Ages generally married in their late twenties. They normally had not inherited from their parents, which would give them economic self-sufficiency if they were of the more favoured classes. As described by Arnett (2004), this also applies to youth nowadays, and even more so to students. He describes the period between 18 and 30 y.o. as “emerging adulthood”, an age of relative freedom and self-discovery that stands between adolescence and full adulthood, neither really one or the other. It’s hard to know how much « self-discovery » happened to young men in the 15th century, as life occupations was more fixed than now, but they did have freedom, as we have mentioned earlier. They had licence to have sex as they desired (preferably with prostitutes or widows so as not to dishonour unmarried girls or married women), they could drink, challenge each other in games or in fights and have all the fun they wanted. However, this similarity does not hold for the period between the Middle Ages and the late 20th and early 21st century.

Works cited

Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen (2004). Emerging Adulthood, Oxford, Oxford Universtity Press.

Crouzet-Pavan, Élisabeth (1996). « Une Fleur du mal? Les jeunes dans l’Italie médiévale », in Giovanni Levi et Jean-Claude Schmitt (ed.), Histoire des jeunes en Occident : De l’Antiquité à l’époque moderne, Paris, Seuil, p. 199-254.

Gauvard, Claude (1982). « Les jeunes à la fin du Moyen Âge : une classe d’âge? », Annales de l’Est, 1-2, p. 225-244

Muchembled, Robert (2008). Une histoire de la violence : De la fin du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Paris, Seuil.


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3 thoughts on “Youth Groups and Society, Part 1: Youth, Age and Gender

  1. […] groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how they could reinforce it. Part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on […]

  2. […] groups could reinforce the established order. Part two described how it could subvert it, while part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on […]

  3. […] fits what I call “mature patriarchy” (as discussed in a previous article): the intersection between discourse against women and against youth, or the combination of […]

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