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Boswell Reviews


Young, Michael, Book reviews.., Vol. 58, Historian, 09-01-1995, pp 165.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell. (New York: Villard Books, 1994. Pp. xxx, 412. $25.00.)

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" his hypothesis.

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.