| Reviewing Boswell
by Paul Halsall, December 17 1995
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to dissect one
of the current crop of negative reviews of John Boswell's Same
Sex Unions currently appearing in middle brow religious magazines.
*Kennedy Robert G. & Kenneth Kemp, "History With A Bad
Attitude", CRISIS, Sep. 1995*
The late John Boswell's last book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern
Europe, has recently appeared in paperback and may once again
attract attention. Current efforts to gain recognition for homosexual
"marriages" and to overturn an amendment to the state
constitution in Colorado will no doubt draw on his scholarship
as well. Readers will recall that the book was widely acclaimed
when it first appeared last spring. Boswell contends that during
the Middle Ages Catholic and Orthodox churches developed liturgical
rites for solemnizing unions between pairs of males, called adelphopoiesis, the Greek word for "brother-making."
Note that the reviewers, although they later pose as disinterested
academics, call to the likely reader of CRISIS [a conservative
Roman Catholic publication], by establishing a political context
for the debate. The book is presented as dangerous to a shared
world view, and the danger is enhanced by the fallacious claim
that the book was "widely acclaimed" in 1994. [It was
attacked aggressively in a number of largescale publications -
see my bibliography at http://www.bway.net/~halsall/lgbh-boswell-reviews.html].
Although the authors are about to attack Boswell for special pleading and distortion, they begin by begging the question he sought to put into question and examine anew: they highlight "marriages" and define adelphopoiesis as "brother making".
If the thesis of the book is correct, the clear implication is
that homosexual relationships, even those with an erotic aspect,
have not always been regarded by Christians as sinful. Indeed,
they may have been viewed at times as exemplary of Christian virtue.
A further implication is that the current position of the Catholic
and Orthodox churches, that homosexual activity is gravely sinful,
may be a cultural accretion that does not have its roots in authentic
Most Christians, even those in sympathy with Boswell, will find
his claims surprising. However, his reputation, as holder of the
Griswold Chair in History at Yale, and the apparent weight of
his evidence have impressed many readers. His research seems to
be meticulously thorough, and his text is copiously supplemented
with notes documenting often obscure sources in Greek, Latin,
Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Serbian, French, German and various other
languages. Given this apparently careful scholarship and the
frequently arcane nature of his sources, few scholars are likely
to examine his evidence carefully.
Boswell took care to footnote everything - rather obsessively
it seems. It is true that this might have been an attempt to
overwhelm any opponent, but a momentary consideration of the context
removes such a possibility: if Boswell had written without footnotes
we all know that he would have been dismissed out of hand. So
now the attack is that his rerearch "seems..meticulous"
[not that "seems"], and that he often used "obscure
sources". Supposedly, the authors suggest, this is a problem
This is unfortunate. A careful examination of the book reveals
that Boswell fails utterly to make his case. His study is undermined
throughout by selective omissions of evidence, serious mistranslations
and misrepresentations, and fanciful speculation. At one point
in our investigation we wondered if we could find even one important reference that was accurate.
Note the charge made here: could even "one important reference"
check out. It is in no place rescinded, and is just left to hang
Boswell begins with a discussion of the "vocabulary of love
and marriage," arguing that contemporary vocabulary is inadequate
to encompass the richer conceptual framework of the ancient world,
especially as regards homosexual relationships. It is here that
he begins to speak of "heterosexual marriages," partly
to prepare the way for his conviction that "there is no historical
reason to suppose" that "pre-modern same-sex couplings"
could not have constituted marriages in their own time.
This is, of course, the point of Boswell's book. Example of
same sex marriages crop up all over the world [in Fujian in China
for instance] and so Boswell's use of "heterosexual marriage"
is absolutely legitimate.
He then attempts to show that marriages in Greco-Roman antiquity
were rarely more than loveless property and dynastic arrangements
in which all members of a household were thoroughly subordinated
to a free-born male. Furthermore, since the male's sexual needs
were often not fulfilled by his marriage, it was quite common
for him to seek satisfaction outside his marriage with various
lovers, both male and female.
Who denies this?
After demythologizing ancient marriage, Boswell moves on to provide
numerous examples of same-sex relationships that were publicly
approved, and, it seems, admired. Before moving on to discuss
the evidence he has found for ceremonies of same-sex unions in
the Christian Middle Ages, he explores the ritual elements and
symbols of ancient and medieval "heterosexual'' marriage
At this point, nearly two-thirds of the way through the book,
Boswell believes he has prepared his reader for a proper interpretation
of the material which is the real point of the study. He has
suggested that our modern way of speaking about love and marriage
is truncated and reflective of sectarian prejudices, and that
to understand the medieval evidence we must instead read the texts
through the eyes of ancient culture, as he has presented it. We
should also understand that marriage in ancient, and presumably
medieval, times had little to do with love or sexual satisfaction.
Most importantly, perhaps, we should also recognize that the search
for sexual satisfaction outside of marriage was expected, quite
common, and often not disapproved. Nor were homosexual relationships
disapproved, especially if they were between equals and more or
less permanent; indeed, they might under these conditions constitute
the highest form of friendship.
Boswell's carefully crafted reconstruction is extremely fragile.
Boswell is making a multi-threaded and complex argument. It
is not that fragile, but it does depend on establishing
a framework for discussion. This is what historians doing groundbreaking
work do. Boswell is her critcised for it. Amazing.
His research contains numerous misleading references, where sources
do not say what he claims they say: corrupt translations, fanciful
interpretations, and artful and glaring omissions. Oddly enough,
he carefully provides full citations for his sources, but apart
from creating the appearance of meticulous scholarship, these
citations commonly serve only to assist other scholars in uncovering
his errors. Consider the following examples, among many:
Again the is the not too subtle implication of dishonesty ("oddly")
and a scatter shot accusation. It is perhaps then reasonable that
in limited space the reviewers would use their most telling examples.
It is then remarkable to look at their footnotes.
This is the core of what I am doing here. Kennedy and Kemp
are doing their best against Boswell. Lets see just how well
they in fact do.
- On page 40, Boswell cites a line from the Roman poet Martial
("Screw your son, if you wish; it's not wrong.") to
support his claim that any member of a Roman family would be "available"
to the paterfamilias for "sexual purposes.'' In context,
though, Martial's words are not advice, but a taunt, for the boy
is the bastard son of an adulterous wife. The clear implication
of the whole passage is that the man may do as he wishes,
since the boy is not really his son. Furthermore, using Martial
as a source for Roman family life, as Boswell often does, is a
bit like consulting Hugh Hefner on marital fidelity.
The is a truly remarkable example of finding any stick to attack
with. Boswell on p. 40 makes the common place statement that
the Roman "familias" was not the same as the English
"family". That slaves were part of the family, and that
any member of the family was under the ownership of the paterfamilias.
Nothing remarkable, and a fact that does back up his general argument
that "family" and "marriage" are not transcultural
and transhistorical universal realities [a necessary assumption
for Roman Catholic moralists, such as Karol Wotyla, who seek
who seek to establish that there are universal moral norms in
areas such as sexuality, marriage and so forth]. Then in parentheses
- and not part of hid main point) Boswell adds that "any
member of the familias would be considered available to the paterfamilias
for sexual purposes, whereas in the modern family it is only his
wife". In general this is a true claim. Boswell then, in
a footnote says "Apparently including his own children"
and cites Martial 6:39. Having qualified this note on note with
an "apparently" Boswell then says it is difficult to
judge whether child molestation was common in the ancient world,
and refers to cuurent research by Kelley Ditmar. In other words
this is an admittedly speculative footnote, not central to any
thesis, and floated for the interest of the reader. This is
the best Boswell's attackers can do?
- On page 60, he claims that Aristotle spoke in admiring terms
about a famous pair of male lovers. The reference in the footnote
is mistaken, but where Aristotle does speak of the two he simply
mentions that they were lovers without in any way approving of
the relationship. In the same place, Boswell leads his readers
to believe, through selective citations, that Plato also extolled
homosexual love. He fails to mention, however, that elsewhere
both Plato and Aristotle insist that homosexual activities would
be forbidden in an ideal community.
This footnote - no 32 on p. 60 - has two references: the text
prints "1247A" when it should be "1274A",
a simple printers' error not explained by the authors who leave
an implication of shoddiness. The other form of the citation
is Politics 2:96-7. I am not familiar with this citation system,
but the reference is, correctly, to the end of book 2 of the
Politics. Aristotle is going through a list of lawgivers. He
comes to Philolaus, a lawgiver in Thebes and states that he was
the lover of Diocles [Boswell does spell "Diocles" incorrectly
btw - SSU is replete with typos]. Aristotle then relates the
little story of how they were buried together, and says that the
inhabitants point out the tomb. Boswell's point here is that,
contrary to frequent claims, male homosexual relationships in
Ancient Greece were not just a matter of older Athenian aristocrats
getting crushes on boys in the gymnasia, but included lifelong
partnerships [or "same sex unions"]. This point is
indeed witnessed by his reference. What about "admirable"
though? Aristotle does not use a general word, but refers to
Diocles as an "Olympic Victor" ["tou nikesantos
Olumpiasin"] and Philolaus is referred to as "arising
as a lawgiver at Thebes". Perhaps these phrases do not seem
to be "admiring terms" to Boswell's critics here, but
Boswell is clearly not being misleading.
Even odder is the claim the Boswell "fails to mention"
that Plato elswhere insists that homosexual activities be forbidden
in an ideal community. Odd because right there on P. 60 - in
note 30 - is the statement by Boswell that Plato, while taking
sex as inevitable in the Symposium, in the Phreadrus "and
even more strongly in his last work, the Laws" discourged
sexual relationships. Plato did, of course, extol homosexual
love in the Symposium - Boswell was not misleading anyone on that.
So one has to ask, just who is doing the misleading here?
- On page 209, he grossly mistranslates a Greek regulation for
monks, which is key to his argument about the similarity of marriage
ceremonies and the ceremonies of same-sex unions. The text properly
says, "Monks are forbidden from sponsoring children at baptism,
serving as the best man at a wedding, or taking part in a rite
of adelphopoiesis." Boswell, however, translates
it to read, "Monks must also not select boys at baptism and
make same-sex unions with them."
Supposedly Boswell's notes do not support his text contentions,
right? On page 209 Boswell is discussing whether "crowns"
were used in the ceremony of adelphopoiesis. Boswell states
that he has no evidence that such a aspect was essential to the
male-male ceremony, but, he argues, there is evidence that it
was actually associated with the male-male ceremony. Note then
that Boswell does not make this a crucial point, contrary
to his two critics assertion! He cites, as evidence of the use
of crowns, the Grottaferrata GB ms, given in full on pp. 294-298.
Now there is problem, addressed at length by Boswell in fn 80
on p. 296, about this text, so Boswell in fn 59 on p. 209 cites
another example of crowns being used. Boswell refers to a comment
by the 14th century jurist, Harmenopoulos, on a ruling by the
council in Trullo that monks might not dine with women. Harmenopoulos
cites a comment by "Peter the Chartophylax" that "anadekton,
phesi, monachon dechesthai paidia apo tou agiou baptismatos, kai
kratein stephanous gamon, kai adelphopoiis poiein". Boswell
gives the greek text [PG 150:124] and paraphrases - not "translates"
as Kennedy and Kemp say - this as "Peter..[adds].. the comment
that monks must not slect boys at baptism and make such unions
with them". I think Boswell is wrong here in his paraphrase,
although it is a possible interpretation, depending on how strongly
you read the "kai"s, but equally inaccurate in the "translation"
"Monks are forbidden from sponsoring children at baptism,
serving as the best man at a wedding, or taking part in a rite
of adelphopoiesis." - which makes a number of assumptions
about the nature of the ceremonies actually under discussion.
I will note that Patrick Viscuso, a Greek Orthodox priest, in
another review [New Oxford Review Dec 1994, 29-31] discusses this
exact passage as an example of Boswell's perfidy and gives yet
another question-begging translation - viz "It is unacceptable..for
monks to receive children from holy baptism, to hold crowns of
marriage, and to make brother adoptions". Viscuso also reads
the "ands" as strong, and then translates "adelphopoiesis"
exactly as he wants it. [Not addressing, as indeed none of Boswell's
critics has, why if this means "brother adoption, it could
only be between two people]. In short, Boswell is on weak ground here, but he does not "mistranslate"
although he may misconstrue. But the his note is to back
up a secondary example to show a point he has already stated
is non-essential. That two of Boswell' critics [Viscuso and Kennedy/Kemp]
pick on the same point, neither giving context or even
that we are talking about a footnote, shows I think, just how
desperate the debunkers are.
- More recent sources do not fare much better. On page 268,
he quotes a 19th century German anthropologist who, in writing
about the ceremony of brother-making (adelphopoiesis) in
the Balkans, speaks of it as a wedding. However, Boswell fails
to mention that the paragraph immediately preceding the one he
quotes describes how a rebel leader and a large number of his
followers all swore brotherhood to one another in a ceremony of adelphopoiesis. In general, he neglects to acknowledge
the important role that adelphopoiesis played in solemnizing
important agreements such as peace treaties, mutual aid pacts,
etc. He also largely ignores the evidence that his sources provide
(in passages he does not quote) for the use of the ceremony between
men and women, nor does he discuss (as his sources do) such variations
as temporary adelphopoiesis and involuntary adelphopoiesis.
Kennedy and Kemp do not give their readers any information
to check this out. Boswell cites more than one "German anthropologist
on" on p. 268. Perhaps they are referring to Boswell's citation
of Friedrich Krauss', Sitte und Brauch der Suedslaven
1885), p 627 where Krauss does indeed call the ceremony a wedding.
But if so they are omitting Boswell's citation of of Stanislaus
Ciszeweski's Kuenstliche Verwandtschaft bei den Suedslaven (Leipzig: 1897) which provides rather extensive backing for the
first statement. The German references are not to adelphopoiesis as such but to what Ciszeweski calles "wahlbruederschaft"
- a general descriptive term. Both citations are part of a chapter
looking at evidence of such ceremonies in later European history.
Again, Boswell's evidence is so overwhelming here that what he
is being accused of would ammount to a minor sin if it were his
only evidence, but is standard academic practice [ie piling
up citations] when you have a a strong point.
In all four of the above "errors", it seems to me
that Boswell's critics are more open to serious criticism than
Boswell himself. The fact that these are the strongest attacks
they can make leaves Boswell in a stronger position.
To make his case, Boswell must show that the ceremonies he examines
were in fact used to bless and solemnize same-sex erotic couplings
as if they were marriages and that this was routinely done with
the explicit permission and approval of the bishops. He is able
to do neither, for his attempt to do so is based on an examination
of the relevant texts which suffers from the same defective scholarship
that characterizes his treatment of the other material.
Kennedy/Kemp do not discuss what evidence Boswell offers, and
I agree this may be a weak point if one accepts certain assumptions
of conservative Catholics which are not incumbent on scholars.
Boswell's main argument, I suppose, would be that the widespread
knowledge, dissemination in liturgical books, and cooperation
by the clergy indicates local episcopal approval . He is not able
to show, as far as I can gather, and episcopal regulation of the
ceremony in the way heterosexual marriages were regulated.
But this assumes that the "Church" is constituted
the way post Tridentine Catholic see the Church - as a "perfect
society", hierarchically organized under the pope. Thus
only statements of the Church "teaching authority" can
be held to constitute valid statements of legitimate and recognized
Christian practice. This may be an assumption of conservative
Catholics, although not that many of the current laity. It certainly,
as a credal affirmation, should not hold scholars. If Boswell
has shown that same sex union ceremonies were indeed held for
many centuries across wide geographical areas with Christian communities,
then he has indeed demonstrated what he set out to do. Let me
give another example: for much of the 19th and early 20th century,
Devotional Catholicism - pushed by the Cure D'Ars, who claimed
that he did all that he did through her, celebrated "St.
Philomena", who turned out to be an archeological mistake.
She was even allowed a feast day on August 10 (or 11). When
the mistake was discovered, Rome backpedalled like crazy, and
it was pointed out of course that Rome had not made any mistake
[it never does], and that she had not been "canonized"
[although she had been added to the canon]. From an official
viewpoint St. Philomena does not exist: but to any historians
of popular Catholicism she is an important part of the story of
the modern Church. Critics of Boswell often elide the distinctions
that Boswell rightly makes.
There is indeed evidence to suggest that the practice of adelphopoiesis was known in Europe into the Middle Ages, though we do not know
much about how common the practice was. Certainly Boswell's evidence
would suggest strongly that it was common among the Eastern Churches
rather than in Western Europe, if it was common anywhere.
So Boswell does have some evidence it seems, evidence which
annot be simply dismissed.
Even here, though, the texts adduced do not explicitly describe
these "same-sex unions" as erotic, except perhaps in
circumstances in which no one would claim the approval of the
Church. To understand them as erotic requires a thoroughly revisionist
perspective as well as an eagerness to read into the texts the
homosexuality that Boswell wants to find there.
It is quite true that the Church, though largely the Eastern Churches,
sometimes officially approved and regulated the ceremony of adelphopoiesis.
It is also quite probably true that the ceremony of adelphopoiesis was used at times to bind together, illicitly, pairs of men who
had erotic homosexual intentions. What is simply not true, and
what Boswell is completely unable to show, is that the Church
officially approved of adelphopoiesis as a "same-sex
union" for anything approaching an erotic purpose or a simulation
of marriage. Indeed, contrary to Boswell's claims, there is evidence
that in the Balkans, where the ceremony persisted after dying
out elsewhere, an adelphopoiesis was sometimes celebrated
between a man and a woman, between several men simultaneously
or between one man and several others serially. The confusion
of adelphopoiesis with some kind of same-sex marriage is
a product of Boswell's wishful thinking, not his research.
For these two paragraphs, see my comments above about the notion
of "Church" being advanced here. But note especially
the admissions made here:
- There was such a ceremony as adelphopoeisis
- It may have been common
- It probably was used by pairs of men who had homosexual
intentions [a rather startling admission that homosexually oriented
men in the past were indeed seeking life partnership, aka same
sex unions, in past centuries.
In sum, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe is a carefully
crafted, superficially impressive, but thoroughly misleading book.
Despite the claims of his supporters, claims that will doubtless
continue, his revisionist project has simply failed.
In sum reviews such as this by Kennedy and Kemp struggle as
hard as they can to attack Boswell, but can only drag up minor
footnoting errors [sometimes even only typographical errors] as
there main evidence; they rely on slanted vocabulary which begs
the questions raised, and they are historically unsophisticated
in adopting a Tridentine view of the "Church", which
was never accurate, and should have no hold on scholars.
It may be that serious academic scholarship will eventually
undermine Boswell. At the Byzantine studies conference people
were unhappy about his translation of the life of Sergios and
Bacchus, and Claudia Rapp mentioned that she has an article on
an alternative explanation of the adelphopoiia ceremonies. In
the meantime, Boswell is standing up very well to his critics.
[For John Boswell, who probably saved my life.]