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Boswell Reviews

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 and tendentious.

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 and intolerance.

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 homosexual.

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 truth.



This review drew the following internet comment:

From

"Bruce W. Holsinger"

Re: OK, So What Do People Think of Boswell's New Book?

on MEDIEV-L%UKANVM.bitnet@vm42.cso.uiuc.edu>

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 earlier work.

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.