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Boswell Reviews


THE TRUTH ABOUT TROTHS
THE MARRIAGE OF LIKENESS: SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE

John Boswell HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 20

Stanford, Peter, "The truth about troths..", Vol. 8, New Statesman & Society, 02-24-1995, pp 53.

George Carey cast himself in the role of hardline traditionalist in 1992, when he forced a church publishing house to drop a prayer book for gay and lesbian Christians. The Archbishop of Canterbury found the contents of Daring to Speak Love's Name-- including how to perform a nuptial blessing for same-sex couples--offensive and at variance with the church's traditions.

Clerics are none too good at apologising. It took the Popes several centuries to admit that Galileo had been wrongly accused and persecuted by the Inquisition. Jews are still waiting for an unreserved expression of regret at their mistreatment by Christians. But if the Anglican Primate, at heart an honest and kindly soul, would care to dip into John Boswell's The Marriage of Likeness, he may find himself driven to utter the odd mea culpa.

The late Professor Boswell, a Yale historian, spent 12 years investigating the practices of the early church and presents a mass of evidence to show that "gay marriages" were once celebrated by the ecclesiastical authorities. He quotes eight different versions of such services dating from before the 12th century, and 17 after.

Aware that Christian hackles will be quickly raised, Boswell anticipates and rejects the lines "official" theologians will use to damn his meticulous research. Their principal defence will be, he suggests, that such ceremonies were essentially a mark of "spiritual fraternity" : the two men pledged friendship but not their sexual union before God.

If this were the case, Boswell cogently argues, why were such blessings only given to two people at a time? Surely any number of men might want to gather to underpin locker-room comradeship or the bonds that unite the all-male members of some London clubs?

No, he concludes: these ceremonies were equivalent in meaning and in form to heterosexual marriages. Basil I, the ninth-century founder of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire, underwent two such blessings.

Part of the difficulty Boswell encounters is the lack of definition in many of the terms used. When we discuss relationships our terminology is sloppy in more than one sense. Sometimes the ceremony is called "A Prayer for Making Brothers". "Brother" can, of course, have any number of meanings. "He treated me like a brother" is understood today to mean that he didn't lay a finger on me. But in the "Song of Songs" , the two sexual partners are throughout described as "brother and sister".

Equally, the very notion of marriage is a changeable feast. In the early Church, it was looked down on by celibate clergy as a resort for lesser mortals who couldn't control their base urges. More importantly, it was a property transaction with ideas of love and romance a long way below dowries, conjugal rights, procreation and housekeeping.

As Boswell rather pithily points out, modern society has in effect reversed the ancient order of marriage. Once it started with property, moved on to child-bearing and in later life sometimes grew into love. Today, we are swept along by a sea of love, becalmed when we have children, and bail out amid wrangling over property in the divorce settlement.

Those Christians who find the conclusions of The Marriage of Likeness offensive may do well to reflect on the tolerance their church once showed. One of the most infuriating things about contemporary Catholicism, in particular, is its fondness for pretending that its current inhuman rules are eternal truths handed down by Christ. Yet there were married priests for the whole of the first millennium and beyond. There is a growing catalogue of evidence for women priests in the early church. And, as this book shows, two men could plight their troth before God well into the medieval age.

It was only in the 14th century that the church and hence European society developed what Boswell describes as "a rabid and obsessive negative preoccupation with homosexuality as the most horrible disease" . This will be a familiar theme to his readers. In 1980, Boswell wrote Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, which, while never quite fathoming the logic behind homophobia, was unequivocal in pointing an accusing finger at the men in dog collars and mitres.

The one question The Marriage of Likeness begs but never answers is whether gay and lesbian couples, given the cruel and crude demonisation they have suffered at the hands of the church, still give a damn ira priest or vicar will marry them or not. For this book--closely argued, moderately phrased in deference to the prejudices that it may excite, and a model of accessible scholarship--is by default a plea for the church to return to its old practices. On the evidence of the strength of feeling Carey's outburst provoked, there are many who care a great deal. For them, Boswell has provided all the weaponry they need.