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Boswell Reviews


Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell. New York: Villard Books, 1994, 412 pp. N.p. (cloth).

Bennison, Charles, Book reviews.., Vol. 77, Anglican Theological Review, 04-01-1995, pp 256.

To have met John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale, whose premature death late last year is an ineffable tragedy for both the academy and the church, was to have come into the presence of a brilliant, learned, engaging, talkative, and insistent man. In his Sam-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, the much-anticipated and long- awaited sequel to his award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), Professor Boswell has left as his principal legacy a brilliant, learned, engaging, talkative, and insistent argument that the ancient and medieval church celebrated the same-sex equivalent of its heterosexual marriage ceremony.

One would not absolutely have to be gay to write this book, but it certainly helped. Boswell was gay--indeed, the first openly gay individual to be granted tenure at an ivy league university. While asserting that "it is not the province of the historian to direct the actions of future human beings, but only to reflect accurately on those of the past," the historical reality he in this book is able to construct is advantaged by his social location in a nation and church embroiled in a culture war over the issue of the normative status of homosexuality. In the face of "the psychological landscape of the modern West," which he describes as obsessed with romantic love, "causally interrelated and largely coterminous" with heterosexual marriage, and as filled with "a salient horror of homosexuality," he comes down on the opposite side of the "epistemological divide" among those for whom "it is relatively easy to recognize and absorb ideas about a ceremony of same-sex union, because they have a place to locate the information"

This is to say, not that Boswell is careless with history, but that he brings to the over sixty manuscripts "containing ceremonies of same-sex union" he consults a hermeneutic not exercised heretofore. One strength of the book, in fact, is the modesty of the claims he makes based on the texts before him. "Speculation," he volunteers, "has been kept to a minimum, although many questions remain unanswered by the sources."

Those who, cognizant of the widespread existence of gay and lesbian relationships today, have endeavored to draft new rites whereby the church can now bless God for the same, know that the first problem encountered in this enterprise is about what to call both the relationships of the couples and the liturgies celebrating them. Unless a reality is named, it does not, as far as we are concerned, exist, In a theological discussion a few years ago on what Boswell calls "same-sex union" I counted almost a score of terms being used to describe the reality a couple of dozen of us from across our national church were seeking to understand, though of course each descriptor whether "union" or "holy union" or "same-sex union" or "same-gender union" or "celebration" or "commitment" or "covenant" or whatever-connoted a slightly different understanding.

Boswell wisely begins his argument by observing that there has always been a baffling ambiguity in the vocabulary of love and marriage, and in his appendix of translations actually publishes two translations of an eleventh-century prayer for same-sex union, the one "anachronistically literal" as a "prayer for making brothers," the other "tendentiously slanted" as a "prayer for homosexual marriage." Out of fairness to his readers, moreover, he presents the key problematic terms from both his original texts and secondary sources in their original languages- -Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Russian, French-as well as their English translations. "Eros" and "agape," he argues, were "largely interchangeable," not distinct and contrasting, terms in the ancient world, C.S. Lewis notwithstanding. Greek and Latin vocabulary for both "marriage" and the parties entering into it was so fluid as to make impossible any determination of the character of the relationships from the words alone. For Boswell the most significant piece of "romantic slippage related to love and sexuality" appeared in the use of sibling terminology for romantic partners. This was especially true of the terms adelphopoieia, meaning "make brotherhood," which Boswell, in a turn crucial to his entire argument, takes to mean, "as seems inescapably clear," the formation of a "same-sex union," and adelphopoietos, translated as "same-sex partner."

Are such translations accurate? When two men, using rites like those Boswell, over a twelve-year period, resurrected from libraries across Europe, joined hands, wore crowns, circled the altar, received the sacrament, read from scripture, and kissed--all part of medieval heterosexual marriage rites--and, thus, were "made brothers," were they in fact entering into a "marriage," and, if so, was that "marriage" understood in the same way as "marriage" is understood today? With all due respect, perhaps it is best to say that what Boswell here believes he proves he, in fact, only opines. But if our respect is for one whose extraordinary erudition and social location equip him to understand what to most of us are only mysteries surrounding our sexualities, we must take his opinion very' seriously.

Take, for example, the rubrics from an eleventh-century liturgy in which the priest is instructed to "place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand and they that are to be joined together place their [right] hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands. Then shall the priest cense them and say . . . "In a prayer which follows the priest asks God, 'as Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together, bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit, granting unto them peace and love and oneness of mind.'" Was this just a male bonding ceremony as typical of earlier times as it would be atypical of our own ? Was it merely about "collateral adoption" or "blood brotherhood" or "spiritual brotherhood?" Boswell appears to argue persuasively against these alternative interpretations, but, in the end, one cannot be absolutely sure. As a pastor for over a generation to dozens upon dozens of lesbian and gay individuals and couples, however, it is not much of a stretch for me to imagine that outlined here in indirect and ironic language, and read aloud with perhaps a wink in the direction of the knowing, is a marriage of two men.

But even if such is not the case, even if Boswell has failed to make a watertight case for his interpretation of the evidence as proving that some priests at some times in some churches blessed same-sex unions, and even if proving that does not prove that the church ever bestowed upon such rites as did exist a normative status such as we would by including them in our Book of Common Prayer, he has still done us all an inestimable sen,ice by igniting our imaginations with his own and, further, by helping us to believe that if the past just might have been different than we once conceived, so, too, might the future. Like Columbus, who sailed off to find India and instead called "Indians" those whom he in fact found, maybe Boswell has not arrived conclusively at the destination he has essayed to reach. In fact, by moving many of us across the epistemological divide to an acceptance and celebration of what we in the post-modern West therefore now dare call "same-sex unions," he has in hand a far greater achievement. For Episcopalians Boswell's achievement could not be mere striking: in a triennium when there are those who interpret last summer's General Convention Resolution C-042a to mean that none is permitted to develop rites for same-sex unions, Boswell nonetheless gives us to read some as such--which is to give us some to read. Read them we should, not just out of curiosity, but--as Boswell in this, the fruit of his life' s work tried to insist, and now by his death from AIDS, as by so unthinkably many, makes urgent--as a moral imperative.