Football is highly emotional, and as England's dreams of winning Euro 2004 died last Friday, players and fans may well have spilt a few tears of anguish. However, a University of Warwick historian researching the expression of male emotion through tears reveals there is a long history of men and crying, and that tears were for centuries a class issue.
New research reveals that while the phenomenon of crying men is hardly new, for tears to be acceptable in Early Modern England they had to be the right sort of tears, shed for the right reason.
Today, sport is an outlet of acceptable release for men's emotions. Men who win a major football match experience a great rush of emotions, laughing, crying, hugging. Footballer Paul Gascoigne became a national icon in 1999 after he cried in the World Cup.
In Early Modern England male tears were generally seen as a sign of weakness, a failure of masculinity. For well-bred Englishmen the control of passions was the essence of masculinity and gentility. However, the English emotional regime was complex, and 'macho' values were only one cultural influence. Christian values, for example, fitted uneasily with the culture of emotional repression.
Tears at the death of a loved one were acceptable, in moderation. But tears of fear were shameful. Felons at the gallows often shed tears, but they were acceptable only if read as religious feeling.
The acceptability of men shedding tears was class related. Contemporaries accepted that working men had little emotional control, but gentlemen were expected to govern their feelings.
Tears of pity and compassion were acceptable only in 'ordinary' men. Poet Richard Flecknoe drew attention to weak and sentimental 'common people'. Visiting a market in Surrey, Flecknoe describes a farmer selling his favourite cow, and bidding it farewell with a kiss and a few tears. The tone is gently patronising: such behaviour was understandable in a farmer, but unthinkable for a gentleman.
Moving up the social ladder, the young Samuel Pepys was 'ready to weep' when he heard Charles II describing his sufferings on the run after the battle of Worcester- but he restrained himself. King Charles I approached his execution in 1649 determined to conduct himself with self-control, and his dignity on the scaffold contributed to the cult of the 'martyr-king'.
However, the religious fervour of puritans and nonconformists frequently led to tears in public and private. Oliver Cromwell is a striking example. According to an editor writing in 1773, Cromwell's granddaughter had told a friend, 'that Oliver was one day seeking the Lord with such ardour of devotion, and … such vehemence of spirit, that the tears were forced from him with such abundance as to run under the closet door'. To the editor it was a comical anecdote – Cromwell's tears and religious 'extremism' demonstrated his lack of self-control and good breeding.
Professor Bernard Capp, from the University of Warwick, said: “Today, typical images of masculinity remain associated with the control of public emotion that might be perceived as weakness. Male figures who break that convention may not be criticised, but their behaviour is presented as exceptional and news-worthy. Modern men are still generally ashamed to cry in public, except in exceptional circumstances. Several commentators have speculated whether football is the new religion, and the parallels here are suggestive too: macho football fans can cry without shame after a major victory or defeat, just as Cromwell's macho 'Ironsides' could cry at a prayer meeting.
“Despite all we hear about 'New Men' engaging with their suppressed emotions, any prominent male shedding tears in public is likely to find himself a front-page story. Recently the media has carried the 'news' of Greg Dyke, forced to resign as Director-General of the BBC, and the King of Spain, at the Madrid memorial service, wiping away tears.”
Contacts: Professor Capp, University of Warwick, Tel: 024 7652 3410/ 01926 854622 or Jenny Murray, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255/ 07876 217 740
The conference paper “‘Jesus Wept' but Did the Englishman?’’” was delivered at ‘Masculinity, Patriarchy and Power’ at the University of Southampton, April 2004