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Boswell Reviews


Bruce Holsinger

Dearly Beloved : SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE. By John Boswell.

The Nation,

Gay marriage didn't play in Peoria. On June 11, _The Journal-Star_ of Peoria, Illinois, became one of at least three dailies to announce a temporary ban on Garry Trudeau's _Doonesbury_ strip because of the recently out Mark Slackmeyer's blasphemous contention that "for 1,000 years the Church sanctioned rituals for _homosexual_ marriages!" The evidence, Mark claims, appears in "a new book by this Yale professor" announcing the discovery of "same-sex ceremonies that included Communion, holy invocations and kissing to signify union."

The Yale historian Mark refers to is John Boswell, and the book is _Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe_. In this long-awaited study, Boswell reveals the existence of dozens of ceremonies dating back to the early years of Christianity solemnizing "permanent romantic commitment" between members of the same sex (mostly men) that were "witnessed and recognized by the community." Examples of the ceremony survive in archives around Europe and the Near East, from Paris to the island of Patmos to the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai (delightfully, the Apostolic Library at the Vatican owns twelve of the manuscripts Boswell has uncovered). The rituals appear in many collections alongside heterosexual marriage ceremonies, and the two forms of union are similar enough to suggest "substantial mutual influence or parallel development" throughout the late classical and medieval periods. Although Trudeau's decision to feature _Same-Sex Unions_ in his strip certainly did nothing to hamper Villard's publicity efforts, Boswell's book was predictably notorious well before its pub date (it was featured on ABC's _Day One_ last fall), touching as it does on one of the most hotly contested issues dividing the gay and lesbian community from religious conservatives.

Boswell is no stranger to the controversy over homosexuality in the church. His monumental _Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century_, dubbed one of the eleven best books of 1980 by _The New York Times_, provoked many conservative Catholic scholars by arguing that for a significant portion of its history, Christianity tolerated and even, at certain moments, celebrated male homosexuality. Ironically, the conservative detractors of _CSTH_ found vocal allies among a number of gay academics and activists, many of whom were disturbed by what they saw as Boswell's misguided attempt to somehow exonerate the church and Christianity itself from a long history of homophobic oppression.

Anyone familiar with the continuing scholarly and political controversy surrounding _CSTH_ will discover that Same-Sex Unions, while sharing many of Boswell's earlier concerns, takes a much more cautious approach to written sources and refuses to make unequivocal claims about their meanings and implications. Those hoping for a strident attack on the church will be disappointed; but Boswell's scrupulous and often painstaking sifting of the evidence provides a fascinating read, and the result is a much more convincing study than the book's subject matter might lead one to expect.

Boswell's careful methodology is obvious in the very structure of the book. After a brief introduction, he begins not with the ceremonies themselves but with a comparative study of "the vocabulary of love and marriage" in the modern and premodern West. The author analyzes seemingly uncomplicated terms like "brother," "sister" and "friend," which often functioned in premodern societies as equivalents of the modern "lover" or "partner." A phrase such as "gay marriage," for instance, could be only anachronistically applied to any premodern same-sex union: Not only is the term "gay" steeped in modern connotations but the contemporary Western conception of "marriage" bears only a vague resemblance to comparable ancient and medieval institutions.

Turning his attention to the Greco-Roman world, Boswell argues that the "_social institution_ of heterosexual marriage (as opposed to the personal experience of it, or its religious significance, etc.) has been in most premodern societies primarily a property arrangement," and all major forms of heterosexual union "were strikingly different from superficially similar modern counterparts." Moreover, both Greek and Roman societies were characterized by several forms of "permanent, erotic, same-gender" union that were as thoroughly mainstream as their heterosexual counterparts. Boswell argues for a basic continuity from antiquity into the early centuries of Christianity, when same-sex unions were on an almost equal footing with heterosexual matrimony: "The Christian Middle Ages had many reasons to contemn heterosexual arrangements, viewed as a terrestrial convenience or advantage, and at the same time to admire same-sex passion and unions."

This lengthy excursus (it takes up more than half of his study) provides Boswell with a rich context in which to situate the emergence of the same-sex ceremonies in early Christianity. He cleverly posits the development of heterosexual and same-sex nuptial offices as a single phenomenon, tracking the growth of the latter from "merely a set of prayers " in the earlier Middle Ages to its flowering as a "full office" by the twelfth century that involved "the burning of candles, the placing of the two parties' hands on the Gospel, the joining of their right hands, the binding of their hands . . . with the priest's stole, an introductory litany crowning, the Lord's Prayer, Communion, a kiss, and sometimes circling around the altar." Boswell devotes a full chapter to comparing these rituals with their heterosexual counterparts, revealing a number of extraordinary similarities between the two; in several appendixes totaling almost 100 pages, he has compiled numerous examples of the documents themselves (including heterosexual matrimony ceremonies and adoption rituals for comparison) to let "readers . . . judge for themselves," as he puts it. (Boswell translates most of the ceremonies, so general readers won't have to worry about brushing up on their Old Church Slavonic.)

Boswell tackles head-on the question that most readers will probably be asking themselves: "Was the ceremony 'homosexual' in an erotic sense? " Boswell's answer is once again cautious: "Probably, sometimes, but this is obviously a difficult question to answer about the past, since participants cannot be interrogated. When heterosexual marriages produced children, it is reasonable to assume that they involved sexual intercourse, but in the case of childless heterosexual couples (usually regarded as 'married' by their friends, relatives and neighbors) it is just as difficult to be sure as it is for same-sex pairs." Nevertheless he confidently dismisses the notion that these ceremonies were directed at cementing some form of "blood brotherhood," settling familial disputes or fashioning political alliances: "The same-sex union ceremony makes no mention -- in any of its varieties in any language -- of tribal, clan, or family loyalty or union: it is unmistakably a voluntary, emotional union of two persons." Boswell stresses that in premodern societies "few people married for erotic fulfillment" anyway; why, he asks implicitly, should same-sex marriages be dismissed on the grounds that they are not demonstrably sexual?

The reception of _Same-Sex Unions_ is becoming a story in its own right. Boswell's study may well be construed as a conservative argument for monogamy, and several scholars and religious conservatives have already dismissed it as "advocacy scholarship." Neither charge will be easy to dispel: Boswell himself is a devout Catholic, and he has stated that his work could help people "incorporate [same-sex love] into a Christian life-style." Although Boswell clearly presents his work as scholarly rather than political, it has begun to play at least some role in the current controversy over gay marriage: A male couple in Washington, D.C., chose to use one of Boswell's ceremonies for their wedding, and a priest in Hartford who used the rituals to perform a number of gay and lesbian marriages was recently excommunicated.

But if Boswell's book is to have any chance of intervening effectively in this debate (or any other, for that matter), it will first have to survive the slanted treatment it is receiving in the popular press. _Newsweek_ is an excellent case in point: Two of the ostensibly objective experts interviewed by staff writer Kenneth Woodward were a Jesuit employed at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, who claimed that "Boswell has discovered nothing," and a scholar of medieval canon law who had not seen the book but nevertheless felt comfortable labeling Boswell's claims "extremely dubious." When asked how the opinions of a Jesuit working for a Vatican-sanctioned institution might be expected to be more objective than those of any number of gay historians he could have interviewed, Woodward told me he found the question itself "outrageous." While Woodward's review concedes that the ceremonies "resemble rituals the early church used for heterosexual marriages," he notes triumphantly that "the texts make no explicit mention of sex" (and heterosexual ceremonies do?).

_Newsweek_ is not alone: _Day One_ interviewed two "eminent scholars" for its feature on Boswell who agreed to provide critiques of the book only if guaranteed anonymity. A syndicated _Los Angeles Times_ piece quoted an authority on Christian history dismissing the book with the proclamation that "an isolated manuscript or an isolated reference means nothing unless it has corroboration," leaving the clear (and uncorrected) impression that an "isolated manuscript" is all Boswell has. _The Washington Post_ ran a vitriolic and condescending review by Camille Paglia, who contends that "Boswell lacks advanced skills in several major areas" and "seems grotesquely incapable of imagining any enthusiasm or intimate bond among men that is not overtly or covertly homosexual."

Despite its fate in print thus far, _Same-Sex Unions_, like _Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality_, will unquestionably challenge a number of cherished assumptions about the nature and history of Christianity; once the experts cited in the popular press actually have a chance to read the book, they may find it difficult to dispute Boswell on any but the most technical grounds. In the end, critics will be left with the fact that he has unearthed eighty examples of the ceremony, a staggering figure for anyone aware of the survival rate of medieval manuscripts (Chaucer's _Canterbury Tales_, by comparison, survives in eighty-two manuscripts, _Beowulf_ in only one). While the scholarly reception of _Same-Sex Unions_, like that of any groundbreaking study, will certainly be mixed, Boswell's colleagues would do a great service to their profession by publicly challenging the pre-emptive dismissals of his work in the press and, like Boswell himself, basing their claims on evidence rather than their own preconceptions.

Bruce Holsinger, a Ph.D. candidate in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, writes on sexuality and cultural politics for a number of publications.