Young, Michael, Book reviews.., Vol. 58, Historian, 09-01-1995,
Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell. (New York: Villard Books, 1994. Pp. xxx,
In a 1980 publication titled Christianity, Social Tolerance, and
Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning
of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, John Boswell argued that homosexuality was not severely persecuted
in Europe until the thirteenth century. Now, in Same-Sex Unions
in Premodern Europe, he argues that there were even ceremonies
constituting the homosexual equivalent of heterosexual marriage
in premodern Europe. Not surprisingly, this most recent study
has received widespread media attention, highlighted by the refusal
of several newspapers to print a "Doonesbury" comic
strip that featured the book. Critics have been eager to refute Boswell's latest work, leaving the impression
that this time he has gone too far.
Despite the sensational subject of this book and the public furor
surrounding its publication, it is surprisingly tedious to read. Boswell makes a promising start in the manner
of a detective novel. He describes how, twelve years ago, an unidentified
correspondent alerted him to an obscure, printed version of what
appeared to be a homosexual marriage ceremony. Driven by this
clue, Boswell set out in search of the original
manuscript. He began in England and worked his way eastward "summer
by summer, library by library." Readers will be anxious to
learn the results of that detective work, but they will have to
wade through several dense chapters of background on the early
history of marriage, peppered with sparkling insights and highly
suspect interpretations, before Boswell begins
to reveal his discoveries on page 178. If, as Boswell claims, he aimed the book "at readers with no particular
expertise in any of the specialties that have undergirded the
research, " he has missed the mark. He is closer to the truth
when he admits that "whole chapters may be too specific for
those with limited interest in the history of nuptial liturgy"
(xxx). The book's exceedingly scholarly format seems to be aimed
more at potential critics than at the general reader There are
more than one thousand footnotes, and these sometimes take up
more than half the page. Boswell displays an
awesome command of the literature, and he attaches lengthy appendices
containing several of the relevant documents, some in translation
and some in the original Greek. Boswell writes
that he found "nearly eighty manuscript versions of the ceremony"
in question, though he lists closer to sixty. He knew his history
would challenge "dearly held convictions or prejudices, "
that many people are "inclined to recoil from the possibility
of a same-sex equivalent of heterosexual matrimony," and
that critics would be "anxious to explain away the ceremony
of same-sex union." To counter those critics, Boswell attempts to anticipate every possible objection and to
put his manuscript sources on display, apparently believing that
this evidence, as the dustjacket declares, "irrefutably demonstrates"
How well does the book hold up? First among the difficulties,
it is not certain that these unions were about sex, an argument Boswell attempts to deflect by emphasizing that
neither were heterosexual marriages about sex until quite recently.
However, consider how different the impact of this book would
appear if it were entitled same-sender unions in premodern Europe.
Secondly, Boswell has very little evidence to
indicate how often these ceremonies were actually performed. Thirdly,
these ceremonies were associated more with the Byzantine Empire
and the Balkans than with western Europe. They survive in the
Greek and Slavic languages, not in Latin. Fourthly, despite Boswell's
desire to re-write the history of the Roman Catholic Church on
this score, there is little here to prove the Catholic hierarchy
ever sanctioned same-sex marriages. Finally the documents themselves
come as a disappointment after reading Boswell's
interpretation of them. They leave the impression that he is straining
to imply that these unions constituted the equivalent of marriages.
Nevertheless, this is a book that deserves more sympathetic consideration
than it has so far received. After the initial hostile reaction,
scholars will likely return to this work of enormous scholarship
and find more cause to question their assumptions. As Boswell observed, same-sex marriage in premodern Europe may seem
like a "square circle," but he has amassed a great deal
of evidence and argument to prove its existence.