Talking Legs in the English Renaissance
: shifting concepts of masculinity in Tudor and Stuart England

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


‘Talking Legs in the English Renaissance’ is an exploration of the multiple presentations of masculinity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In it, legs are used as a metonym for the male body in its entirety, and looked at as a specific site of gender differentiation, a body part that in the early modern period was, I argue, closely tied to the expression of courtly and fashionable masculinity. My research merges sources and techniques traditionally pertaining to literature, history, and art history, such as close reading of literary and non-literary texts and of images, object-based investigations, reconstructions, and conversations with practitioners. Such a range of sources and perspectives is crucial to this thesis, which examines how the representation of the male leg in the context of a study of early modern fashion, medicine and surgery, and movement and physical activities can contribute to a reassessment of how the male body may have been felt and lived in in pre-modern England. In the first chapter, ‘Proud Lookes and Brave Attires: legs, legwear, and the construction of the fashionable man’, I examine the development of male fashion in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Through close analysis of the cut and style of hose and stockings, I pair work on portraits, extant garments, and reconstructions with close reading of literary and non-literary texts, including plays and moralist works. This analysis allows me to formulate new hypotheses on the reconfiguration of masculinity at the time of the crisis of the aristocracy, reframing the transformation of successful virility from courtly to civil and from civil to polite. The second chapter, ‘On the Anatomist’s Table, Under the Barber-Surgeon’s Knife: masculinity embodied and dissected’, traces the early modern efforts to better understandings of the human body, and is divided into two subchapters. The first subchapter looks at anatomical studies aiming to map the perfect body, and focuses on the various investigations into and representations of the lower body in medical and anatomical texts. This analysis sits alongside close reading of literary works, showing the investment that early modern culture at large had in the burgeoning medicalised discourse. The second subchapter explores the work of barber surgeons and physicians and is developed as a collection of two case studies looking at leg-specific conditions: lower limb amputation and gout. Here, I describe symptomatology, presentations, and possible cures, as found in medical texts, literature, and manuscripts. The two subchapters allow me to discuss the life of the early modern man in very practical terms, and additionally to create a parallel between fashion and anatomy when it comes to the description and representation of the male aesthetic canon. The third and final chapter, ‘‘One paire of legges is worth two paire of hands’: male legs and physical activities in early modern England’, explores physical movement as the natural point of encounter between the cultural considerations regarding fashion, and the mechanical ones that emerged when discussing muscles and bones in the medical chapter. I discuss walking, dancing, and sword fighting, showcasing extraordinary examples of such activities (such as for example Ben Jonson’s walk to Scotland, and Will Kempe’s dance to Norwich), as well as describing how more mundane instances of these types of movement would have been considered in everyday early modern life. I look at how learning and performing these activities conformed to prescribed behavioural codes of early modern England and contributed to shape a man’s standing within society. Having demonstrated the outstanding visual, social, and cultural relevance of male legs in the period considered, the conclusion, ‘The Last Two Pairs: beauty, sex, power’ applies many of the considerations brought forward in this thesis to an analysis of the portraits of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and of Captain Thomas Lee, who sport – respectively –the most celebrated and the most puzzling pairs of legs in early modern England. Choosing an object of enquiry as specific as male legs has allowed me to cast an all-encompassing look unto early modern English society and culture. By attending closely to the significance of legs in the history of masculinity, we can better understand the history of male bodies, stories, and lives.
Date of Award1 Mar 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEvelyn Welch (Supervisor) & Lucy Munro (Supervisor)

Cite this