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Boswell Reviews


SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE By John Boswell.

Illustrated. 412 pp. New York: Villard Books. $25.

[New York Times Book Review, 28 Aug 94]

By Marina Warner

FRIEND, lover, brother, husband, partner, my heart, my beloved, my life, my soul, my significant other -- how the tongue stumbles against the wall of language when it tries to name the loved one. Like happiness, so notoriously hard to represent, reciprocal feelings between individuals who aren't blood kin resist capture in the web of words; this problem, John Boswell makes plain with a flourish of ancient Greek, ancient Hebrew, Russian and other languages, is not unique to English. In his comments on the Song of Songs, he notes that when the lover says, "We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts," he speaks as a brother in the sense of family; yet Mr. Boswell points out that this text, which has had such an incalculably profound influence on the language of eros, also uses "my sister" interchangeably with "my beloved" and "my spouse" in its impassioned paean to elective affinities.

Terms of affection are central to "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," Mr. Boswell's knotty study of male love and the ceremonies that were used to solemnize it. The language of affect may be limited, but the range of relations it describes need not be as restricted as prejudice and prudishness have made it. In a Greek manuscript of around the eighth century, the Christian prayers for four rituals are given: betrothal of a man and a woman, two wedding ceremonies and a liturgical rite for the union of two men. The first editor of this document, the 17th-century priest Jacques Goar, called the rite, "Office for spiritual brotherhood"; Mr. Boswell dismisses this rendering as a clerical euphemism. He has decided to use instead, as his book's title makes clear, the phrase "same-sex unions." The coinage, which Mr. Boswell refers to as "electrifying and counterintuitive," amiably embraces men and women, in spite of the absence of equivalent lesbian ceremonies; nevertheless, it strikes the ear as neutral to the point of bluntness when compared to phrases like "gay wedding" or "homosexual marriage."

What kind of brothers were these, who plighted themselves to each other for life? Mr. Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, has trawled libraries throughout Christendom, and he reproduces, both in the original Greek and in English translation, six manuscripts of services for same-sex unions, from the 11th to the 16th centuries. He has also collected materials from Scripture and midrash, legal and ecclesiastical documents, Greek romances, Latin poetry, hagiography, court chronicles and saints' lives, hoisting a giant barrage balloon of learning on a rigging of footnotes so dense that Casaubon himself would have fell proud. Even so, the exact nature of the male alliances can't be pinned down. Mr. Boswell warns against oversexualizing the partnerships, preferring to stress their social and moral idealism; indeed, they sometimes take on in his pages an air of the most _embourgeoise'_, domestic decorum.

"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe" moves rapidly through a history of matrimony's changing character from the fifth century B.C. to the early centuries of Christianity, arguing that hardheaded dynastic and economic ambitions underpinned alliances in the Greek and Roman world, effectively exiling passion and even affectionate friendship from the marital bedroom. Married men enjoyed a cocktail of external relations, with boys and girls, but the unsatisfactory inequalities inherent in practices like concubinage led to elective brotherhood as the only relationship built on mutual respect between peers. However, by the fourth century, homosexuality was proscribed with unprecedented virulence: at the decree of the emperor Theodosius in 390, Romans for the first time saw male prostitutes dragged from the brothels and burned in public.

Some of the relationships Mr. Boswell adduces for a world that was once gayer are so intrinsically lively that they manage to overleap his relentlessly scholastic approach: Saints Serge and Bacchus, boon companions (as they would have been called in an earlier time) who were brutally martyred for their religious beliefs in the early fourth century, feature in a vivid -- even lurid -- sacred romance written in the late fourth century. The murdered Bacchus appears to his "brother" Serge in a dream, "with a face as radiant as an angel's, wearing an officer's uniform," and promises that he is waiting for him in heaven. The pair became the patron saints of the Byzantine army, and are often portrayed with their halos overlapping and their horses' noses rubblng. Basil, a young man with no connections, rose to become emperor of Byzantium in the ninth century in a manner that a _grande horizontale_ in the great era of sexual adventure could not have surpassed. Adopted in same-sex unions by several powerful men, Basil was, Mr. Boswell admits, "a hunk," and he inspired equally ardent passion in women, including the rich and devoted widow Danelis, who arranged a union between Basil and her son. Later, he lived in a cat's cradle of relations with the reigning Emperor Michael III, his wife and their joint mistresses -- until he arranged Michael's assassination and I took the throne for himself.

Basil's turbulent story discloses some of the problems with Mr. Boswell's focus. While an exclusive (monogamous) relationship between equals, pledged forever, is indeed implied by the texts of the rituals Mr. Boswell reproduces, much of the evidence that he cites from literature and history is unsteady on this point. Same-sex unions frequently existed alongside heterosexual marriage in premodern Europe; the male pairs were not always of the same social status or the same age (the Hellenistic ideal of boy and mentor is still hovering here somewhere), and the unions seem to be a feature, above all, of military elites, in societies valuing hierarchy and authority. None of these interesting and illuminating examples of sexuality in the premodern past sit easily within the present-day context of civil rights, except for the issue of gays in the military.

John Boswell is a historian who has shown a gift for moving into controversial territory and lighting up dark corners of prejudice. He is careful throughout this book to stress that his responsibility is to the record of the past, not the agenda of the present, but his concern with same-sex unions rings with contemporary special pleading in a time of emergency. He offers a historical precedent -- nothing less than the blessing of the church -- for male coupling.

Nonetheless, Mr. Boswell often sounds truculent about the very timeliness of this validation, like a banker impatient with customers who want to borrow his funds. It is not at all clear why he disclaims this appeal to the past. His protests of disengagement -- "It is not the province of the historian to direct the actions of future human beings," he says, "but only to reflect accurately on those of the past" -- are belied by the assiduousness with which he has pursued his evidence, not only for more enlightened attitudes toward homosexuality (the subject of an earlier book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality"), but for its liturgical celebration as well. An unspoken conflict about the uses of history underlies "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," though Mr. Boswell knows better than to pretend that history does not resonate at a time like this. The past can be prologue.

Marina Warner 's books include "Indigo," a novel, and the forthcoming "Six Myths of Our Time."