Ruth M. Karras

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2016/2017
discipline History
Distinguished Teaching Professor of History, University of Minnesota

Research project

King David as a Figure of Masculinity in Christian and Jewish Medieval Cultures


In medieval Christian Western European culture, King David was one of the Nine Worthies (Neuf preux), three Biblical, three classical, and three medieval figures who were held up as models of valiant and virtuous manhood. In medieval Jewish culture, he was the paradigmatic king. A cross-cultural investigation of central to later medieval texts involving King David (roughly, twelfth through fifteenth centuries) reveals a great deal about the construction of manhood. David is exemplary in both positive and negative ways, and the multifaceted depictions indicate that masculinity is more than just the military prowess, defense of honor, and sexual dominance typically connected with it. The result will be a book that traces a set of themes across time, space, and religious community.


In terms of Jewish/Christian studies, a treatment of how the same Biblical figure develops in different cultures raises questions about cultural entanglement. Recent scholarship has shown that Jews and Christians knew each other's texts better than is apparently obvious. This was not a matter of unidirectional influence. Sometimes it was convergence, sibling cultures using the same text similarly, and sometimes a matter of active intellectual exchange. A comparative method helps to elucidate these connections.


In gender studies, this project interrogates the idea of "hegemonic masculinity". Any given culture’s expectations are not the same for all men: masculinity helps maintain the privilege of some groups over others. David is a figure who represents an elevated social stratum whose expectations are different than those for his subjects; and yet, as a central religious figure he was used as an exemplar for all. The project will discuss the relation between typology and ideal masculinities.


In addition, the work counters two widely accepted ideas about masculinities in the Middle Ages. In Christian culture, the overrepresentation of clerical authors in extant texts, indeed probably in all the texts that ever existed, has led some modern scholars to the belief that marriage was in some way "queer" and celibacy the universal ideal. David demonstrates the erroneous nature of this conclusion while at the same time complicating ideas of male sexual virtue. In Jewish culture, the importance of learning and piety has given rise to the idea that ideal masculinity is bookish and nonviolent; here again, the military virtue of King David provides a counter-example.




Ruth Karras is Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the Department of History of the University of Minnesota, with affiliation in Medieval Studies, Jewish Studies, Feminist Studies, and Germanic Studies. She holds a Ph.D in History from Yale University. She is the author of five books and numerous articles on various aspects of medieval social and cultural history, gender, and sexuality. Her current research concerns masculinity in medieval Western Europe in both Christian and Jewish society.


Selected publications


'The Wife of Bath', in S. Rigby (ed.), Historians on Chaucer: The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014, pp. 319-333.


'The Christianization of Medieval Marriage', in D. Mengel & L. Wolverton (eds), Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 2014, pp. 1-24.      


Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, with J.M. Bennett (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.      


Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in Medieval Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2012.


Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, Routledge, New York, 2005; 2nd edition, 2012.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Religious Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Art History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Philosophy