From The Washington Post, July 17 1994
Review of John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe
by Camille Paglia.
In 1980, John Boswell came to attention with a long scholarly
book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay
People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era
to the Fourteenth Century, which won the American Book Award.
Even those who did not read it may have been aware of the controversy
over the appearance of the contemporary word "gay" in
a book about the Middle Ages, a usage criticized by some as anachronistic
As the first openly gay professor to win tenure at an Ivy League
university, Boswell made history. Many substantive questions raised
about his work have been eclipsed by his general celebrity in
a period when gay studies began to enter college curricula. Since
his big book, Boswell has published The Kindness of Strangers (about the medieval treatment of children) and been awarded the
A. Whitney Griswold Professorship of History, as well as chairmanship
of the history department at Yale.
In his new book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell,
conceding to his scholarly opponents, abandons his earlier reliance
on the word "gay." This retreat has scarcely been noticed
in the extraordinary notoriety the book has inspired even before
publication. Boswell's thesis-that homosexual marriages were sanctioned
and routinely conducted by the medieval Catholic Church-was aired
on network television, publicized nationally in the Doonesbury
comic strip and promoted in a full page of a major magazine by
his commercial-press editor, who is hardly qualified to vouch
for the book's arcane scholarship.
Evaluation of serious academic books does not normally occur in
such an atmosphere of highly politicized pressure. Boswell states
that Same-Sex Unions is directed toward "readers with no
particular expertise in any of the specialties" in which
he claims "mastery." But no one without special knowledge
could be expected to absorb, or even comfortably read, a text
so crammed with labyrinthine footnotes and ostentatiously untransliterated
extracts from ancient Greek and Old Church Slavonic.
The credibility of Boswell's book rests on three points. First
is the authenticity of the medieval manuscripts containing the
disputed liturgies, to whose existence in European archives Boswell
says he was alerted by "a correspondent who prefers not to
be named." Second is the accuracy of translation of those
manuscripts. Third is the interpretation of the texts.
I have no reason to doubt issues one and two. Boswell has told
reporters he daily photographed the relevant manuscript pages,
lest they be sabotaged. I also accept his claim of fluency in
many languages. However, in my opinion, this book, like Christianity,
Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, demonstrates that Boswell
lacks advanced skills in several major areas, notably intellectual
history and textual analysis. The embattled complexities of medieval
theology and the ambiguous nuances of language and metaphor familiar
to us from great literature seem beyond his grasp. Speculative
reasoning is not his strong suit.
Boswell argues that homosexual marriages of some kind were widely
accepted in classical antiquity and that the medieval church simply
continued the pagan practice. But his weak, disorganized, and
anecdotal material on Greek and Roman culture never proves such
marriages existed outside the imperial Roman smart set, whose
cynical "Dolce Vita" decadence he does not see. Furthermore,
he disproportionately stresses evidence from isolated or marginal
regions, such as post-Minoan Crete, Scythia, Albania, or Serbia,
all of which had unique and sometimes bizarre local traditions.
Insisting that heterosexual marriage had no prestige and was "primarily
a property arrangement" in antiquity, he repeatedly portrays
Achilles and Patroclus as lovers (a Hellenistic fantasy not in
Homer), while shockingly never mentioning Odysseus and Penelope,
one of the most famous marital bonds in literary history. Animus
against or skepticism about heterosexual marriage runs through
the book: Boswell dubiously claims, in a careless unsubstantiated
note, that "more than half of all spouses commit adultery"
in the United States.
The question of pagan survivals in Christianity is a fascinating
one, but Boswell neglects the most obvious facts critical for
his larger argument. Gnosticism and Neoplatonism are never dealt
with. Addressing the ambivalent Judeo-Christian attitude toward
sexuality, he shows no understanding of basic philosophic problems
of body and soul, matter and spirit. He simplisticaIly views opposition
to homosexuality as motivated only by prudery or bigotry, never
morality. He fails to see that the development of canon law and
church hierarchy had complex intellectual consequences in the
West, beyond his favorite, somewhat sentimental notions of oppression
Boswell's treatment of the Middle Ages, ostensibly his specialty,
is strangely unpersuasive. Surely, bonding ceremonies are of special
interest to feudalism-a word that occurs just once here, and only
in a footnote. Boswell has no feeling or sympathy for military
or political relationships, which distorts his portrait of medieval
society. Indeed, he seems grotesquely incapable of imagining any
enthusiasm or intimate bond among men that is not overtly or covertly
The subliminal sexual tension and process of sublimation in asceticism
and monasticism, also prominent in Asian religions, are never
honestly examined. Despite sporadic qualifications, Boswell repeatedly
implies a genital subtext to intense spiritual alliances, even
when his supporting manuscripts make clearly uncarnal invocations
to martyred paired saints, who died in the service of Christ.
Conversely, he underinterprets the profane excesses of corrupt
Renaissance clergy, who may well have conducted illicit ceremonies
of all kinds, including Black Masses.
Boswell's style, here as in Christianity, Social Tolerance,
and Homosexuality, is to pack an enormous amount of dry, irrelevant
bibliographic material into scores of footnotes, building a pretentious
barricade around his thin and vacillating central presentation.
Meanwhile, crucial research is often avoided. For example, one
would expect a historian discussing medieval sexuality to at least
cursorily consider the enormous "courtly love" tradition,
with its inherent perversities, but that is relegated to a footnote,
which glibly lists, without explanation, 23 books and articles
for us to read. Boswell's knowledge of psychology or general sexual
history seems minimal, confined to a handful of chic, narrow academic
books cited from the 1980s.
Whatever medieval ceremonies of union he may have found, Boswell
has not remotely established that they were originally homosexual
in our romantic sense. Their real meaning has yet to be determined.
Sacrilegious misuse of such ceremonies may indeed have occurred,
leading to their banning, but historians are unjustified in extrapolating
backwards and reducing fragmentary evidence to its lowest common
denominator. The cause of gay rights, which I support, is not
helped by this kind of slippery, self-interested scholarship,
where propaganda and casuistry impede the objective search for
This review drew the following internet comment:
"Bruce W. Holsinger"
Re: OK, So What Do People Think of Boswell's New Book?
On Sun, 17 Jul 1994, Paul Halsall wrote:
John Boswell's book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe has
been published for over a month now. It has already had one savage
review by the classicist [?] Brent Shaw in The New Republic [I
wonder if Medievalists should start reviewing books on classical
history, by the way]. I expect that many Mediev-l readers have
also read the book. Prof Brundage in particular was quoted in
the New York Times on June 11 giving his opinion on Boswell's
If you wanna see savage, check out Camille Paglia's review in
Washington Post Book World. Unbelievable. She radically misrepresents
everything Boswell argues, calling him a sloppy reader and an
historical ignoramus. Nice. Coming from Camille Paglia, who blew
off the entire medieval period in Sexual Personae, this is a questionable
critique, but not surprising--sells papers. I'm in the middle
of reviewing Same-Sex Unions for The Nation right
now, and I've found that the reception of the book in the popular
press is as much a story as the book itself. ABC's Day One show
interviewed two experts who would only comment on the book if
they could remain anonymous. Newsweek's experts included a Jesuit
working for the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome--now
THERE'S an objective opinion. I've never seen anything like this--experts
feeling perfectly comfortable dismissing a book without having
the vaguest idea of the contents, arguments, and evidence. Boswell's
book is excruciatingly cautious if anything, I think, but the
reviews in the popular press may end up squashing the book before
it's even read by many outside the field.