The historical study of masculinities, as with many areas of gender studies and indeed many other fields of history, must navigate between the Scylla of essentialism and the Charybdis of incommensurability. To operate with one definition of masculinity and measure all past societies by it imposes presentist and Eurocentric views on the range of temporal and global variation. On the other hand, to deny the applicability of all modern terminology to past societies that did not share the same vocabulary and outlook, and rely only on the internal categories and concepts of each culture to explain it, we are unable to compare, to identify difference and change, to theorize in any way. I try to chart a middle course, suggesting that a binary between the masculine and the feminine is a cultural universal, or nearly. Each culture constructs differently what constitutes masculinity and femininity. We do need to avoid another binary in the study of masculinity, however: between a very broad reading of the evidence (anything that men do is masculine activity) and a very narrow one (only that which a contemporary source labels manly can be understood that way). If men were admired for a behavior and women were criticized for it or excluded from it, it is masculine even if contemporaries do not specifically say so. Characteristics connected with exemplary men can also be considered as important masculine traits even if they would also be admirable traits for women.