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Boswell Reviews


From The New Republic (October 3 1994)

"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe": An Exchange

By Ralph Hexter and Brent Shaw

I am responding to Brent D. Shaw's recent review of John Boswell's book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (tnr, July 18 & 25). I write as a professor of Classics, a medievalist and a longtime friend and associate of John Boswell. The best refutations of Shaw's criticisms, of course, are to be found in the book itself. But Shaw gives so distorted an account of the book that many readers may be disinclined to make that discovery themselves.

Shaw's first (mis)step is to describe Same-Sex Unions as a book about "male homosexual marriages," as if he were reviewing recent popular accounts, even comic strips, rather than a scholarly work. Shaw seems to abandon criticism for mind-reading when he asserts that "the bonds between men that are confirmed in these church rituals are cautiously (and a little coyly) labeled by him as `same-sex unions.'" It is distinctly odd to accuse the author of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (1980) of coyness. Boswell has never pulled punches. If he thought that the best, most inclusive description of what he was writing about were "gay marriage," he would have used it. It is precisely that label that he wishes to test, with a completely open mind, and he wishes to give readers the information, and the context, with which to come to their own conclusions.

Boswell's use of the broader term "union" is in part heuristic; to stimulate his readers to follow his discussion of the changing habits and ideals of hetero- and homosexual "partnerships" across centuries and thus be prepared to appreciate the full range of possibilities in other societies in their own terms. The answer to the question he expected readers to focus on--"Was it a marriage?"--"depends," he says, "to a considerable extent on one's conception of marriage.... It was unequivocally a marriage" if one believes marriage to be "a permanent emotional union acknowledged in some way by the community," his characterization of the common current conception. What it was for members of earlier societies is trickier to ascertain, and while Boswell tries to give a sense of the range of the possibilities, even ambiguities, in different times and places, he is clear that "same-sex unions were ... neither a threat to nor a re- placement of heterosexual marriage."

Shaw's strategy is to adopt a tone of authoritative dismissal, as if Boswell were either too stupid or too politically engaged to realize what errors he was making. Readers should not be misled by this tone: Shaw is not an authority on Christian doctrine or liturgy, nor is he in any sense a medievalist. Moreover, his knowledge of Greek, like that of so many Classicists, is rooted in Classical, not patristic and medieval, usage; and he gives no evidence of any familiarity with other languages Boswell has and uses (inter alia Hebrew, Arabic, and above all for this study, Old Church Slavonic).

What strikes the reader familiar with Same-Sex Unions is that virtually all of Shaw's caveats and criticisms derive from Boswell's own argumentation. Shaw presents as if it were a revelation that adelphopoiesis "in simple English" is "creation of a brother," and concludes that Boswell's title for the ceremony, "Office of Same-Sex Union," "is inaccurate." As if Boswell didn't spend dozens of pages discussing the problems of translation, and this problem in particular. Any reader of Same-Sex Unions would learn what the "literal" meaning of the term is, and would be able to weigh whether this would be the best rendering or not. Indeed, so sensitive is Boswell to the issues surrounding this translation that he takes the term as an exemplary case in his appendix of translations (No. 5), and in a note experiments with both literal and more tendentious language.

Shaw's view that adelphopoiesis must mean "the making of brothers" is about as absurd as if I were to argue that "husband" couldn't mean "male partner in a heterosexual marriage" because its etyma would force it to mean "house-holder." Or more suggestively (though such analogies are always difficult), a French Shaw of the thirty-fifth century might well argue that, based on his Cassell's, a late-twentieth-century English text with the phrase "gay man" should be translated homme joyeux. Indeed, if one were to be absolutely literal, only your parents could "make" you a "brother." Obviously, the term is being used figuratively. The question is, in what way? And Boswell, not Shaw, gives his reader abundant evidence and sophisticated linguistic guidelines to draw his or her own conclusions. (Shaw claims that "any thorough study of the term agape will justify the traditional view that this was an unusual Christian coinage when applied to love," as if Boswell doesn't review the "traditional view" and explain why, on the basis of what evidence, and in what contexts, he disputes those findings.)

Early on Shaw pontificates: "From even a cursory reading of all the documents, it is apparent that the original text of the `making of a brother' ceremony [in a certain eleventh-century Grottaferrata manuscript] terminates at the end of section four...." Boswell discusses the problematics of this text and compares it, for both commonality and singularity, with many other manuscript versions of the ceremony. Without going into the issue of putative originality (a typically Classicist concern that is particularly inappropriate to the study of evolving medieval reality), there is no doubt that this manuscript has what Boswell presents. He made two trips to Grottaferrata to see this manuscript, and took the precaution of photographing it. Shaw clearly knows nothing about this original material other than what he can derive from Boswell's own notes, which should be praised, not criticized, for pointing out problems and exploring the limits of certainty. This is, obviously, an unusual manuscript, but despite what Shaw implies, even the strongest version of Boswell's argument doesn't rise or fall on the inclusion of its final prayers. Here Shaw simply fails to mention such things as the organization of ceremonies within liturgical manuscripts, iconography and, above all, historical data.

But Shaw already dismissed "the narrative chapters ... [as] ancillary," so he doesn't need to consider the actual descriptions of real historical people joined in union across the centuries. In the words of Montaigne, who witnessed the adelphopoiesis ceremony performed in Rome in 1578, "ils s'espousoint masle a masle a la messe" ("they married, one man to another, at mass"). Apparently contemporary authorities didn't interpret the ceremony as the "ritualized" friendship Shaw would have us believe it is, unless we are also to believe that such friendships called for the burning that we know at least some of those who participated in the ceremony suffered in the sixteenth century.

It is this issue of "ritualized friendship" that brings us to a point that Shaw stage manages in such a way as to, he must hope, completely undermine any reader's confidence in Boswell as a scholar. Shaw adduces "an extensive modern study of which Boswell appears to be unaware. In 1987 Gabriel Herman ... published Ritualized Friendship and the Greek City.... In Herman's studies one finds all the phenomena regarded as indicative of `same-sex marriage' by Boswell." Whether Boswell knows this book or not, I cannot say. As a Classicist, I know it, and it is a fine study of "ritualized friendship" from Homeric society through the city states and into the Hellenistic states Alexander left behind. It ends, however, several hundred years before Boswell's major focus begins. Herman never addresses the particular ceremony that Boswell examines.

If Boswell had presented Herman's findings to his reader, the only value would have been to show up the differences between the institution that Herman describes and the medieval Christian ceremony. The essential point of the institution described by Herman is that the participating parties belong to different groups: xenia is an alliance between two men who are foreigners (or in some sense members of politically or socially opposed groups). This is not the hallmark of the medieval ceremony of union that Boswell describes. Shaw does not know it, but there is another ceremony in many of these same liturgical manuscripts that is intended to cement peace between two parties who have been enemies. It is completely distinct from adelphopoiesis.

On slightly firmer ground, Shaw attempts to read the relationships lauded by the speakers in Lucian's dialogue Toxaris in light of the "ritualized friendships" described by Herman. After rereading Lucian and the relevant sections in Boswell, I agree with Shaw that Boswell may have overstated his case in certain particulars. But in its main lines, with its emphasis on personal affection as the basis for particular friendships, Boswell's reading seems much nearer the mark than the calculated self-interest or group-interest of "powerful and potentially hostile men" that Shaw, building on Herman, describes.

Herman's rendering of xenia as "ritualized friendship" as opposed to the traditional "guest-friendship," which he criticizes, or something even more literal--xenos "means" "foreigner"--is exactly comparable to Boswell's arguments for rendering adelphopoiesis as "same-sex unions" rather than "the making of brothers." Why, methodologically, does Shaw approve of the one and disapprove of the other? And, ironically, but tellingly, in a book on "ritualized friendship" in Homeric and Classical Greece, Herman manages to avoid any discussion of homosexuality; nor does his bibliography include Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality, the standard work in the field.

Readers of The New Republic should consider Shaw's views in light of Boswell's book, not in place of it.

Ralph Hexter

Boulder, Colorado


Brent D. Shaw replies:

Some of Ralph Hexter's verbal shots are rather erratic, since in their aim to discredit me they simultaneously demean John Boswell. I have never labeled Boswell, or his work, "too stupid or too politically engaged," so what is the point of imputing that this is so? I have found Boswell's work interesting and provocative. I have held some of it in high regard, and I have voiced my skepticism about other parts of it. As for political engagement, that is a choice for any human being, even historians. Boswell's noting, in the introduction to his book, of the continuing scourge of aids, and his references to the current battles in Oregon and Colorado, surely signal his own engagement. But the ever-present danger for historians is that if the subject of their research overlaps strongly with their political commitment, the likelihood of losing a requisite kind of critical distance is great. The latter ideal has to be balanced against the obvious benefits of a fuller sympathetic understanding of the subject that is gained by extra-scholarly engagement. We all "pull punches."

Still, it is incumbent upon historians, even authoritative medievalists, to engage in the drudgery of checking the facts. Hexter's sweeping statement that I give "no evidence of any familiarity with other languages Boswell has and uses (inter alia Hebrew, Arabic, and above all for this study, Old Church Slavonic)" is precisely the kind of coyly phrased assertion that he should have checked before making. The hyperbole of Hexter's claim in respect to Old Church Slavonic is misleading to the point of incomprehension: Boswell uses that language very infrequently in the construction of his book and none of the critical original documents is in it, so why is it so necessary "above all for this study"? Almost all the foreign language texts that Boswell uses are in a variant of Greek or Latin, or in one of the major modern Western European languages. I am reasonably proficient in all of these. Hexter should also simply check the facts about my competence in, inter alia, church history, patristics, patristic Greek, Arabic and knowledge of liturgy (among other supposed failings) before he rushes his ill-advised and false statements into print.

Such rantings about expertise are, in any event, meant merely to detract from the substance of my arguments. Hexter does not demonstrate a single specific case where I have erred because I am (in his view) "not a medievalist"--and this for a book where only one-half of one chapter might be remotely construed as "medieval" in content. If Hexter himself is an "authority" and a "medievalist," then he himself ought to know these basic facts about a book with which he claims a familiarity second only to that of the author. And are we thereby able to infer that Hexter is himself an "authority" in church liturgy, patristic Greek, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic, among other matters?

Hexter combines such botheration about academic credentials with simple extravagance. I have yet to meet a single human being "with a completely open mind." I am sure that neither I nor John Boswell are such persons. This "fact" is not pertinent to any critical assessment of the actual practice of history. Hexter proceeds to pull irrelevant rabbits out of his hat: "Shaw does not know it, but there is another ceremony in many of these same liturgical manuscripts that is intended to cement peace between two parties...." Perhaps I do not know it. But the problem is that no reader of Boswell's book could know it, since this fact was hitherto unrevealed. Information and data not presented in a book cannot be the subject of any just criticism of its contents; I cannot do an "unreview." If such evidence exists, then it should be brought forward. But even if it were, I would not doubt that there existed variant blessings by the Christian church appropriate to different kinds of fictive kinship relationships forged between men, and that these could include ceremonials for both adelphopoiesis and for other distinctive modes of pact and peace-making (sometimes construed as friendships, sometimes as a type of fictive kinship). And I did draw attention to the liturgical and social contexts of the "brotherhood" rituals, contexts that would help make sense of the ceremonies and the historical realities behind them. I am puzzled by Hexter's assertion that I did not do what I manifestly did.

By the time we get to Montaigne, Hexter's claims are so confused that it is difficult to disentangle them. He writes that Montaigne "witnessed the adelphopoiesis ceremony performed in Rome in 1578...." The original text to which he refers is quoted in Boswell's book, but Boswell is more judicious and careful than his defender. Boswell states that Montaigne seems to describe the "making of a brother" ceremonial that is the subject of his book. Hexter simply asserts that it is adelphopoiesis. But Montaigne's own words say no such thing. There is nothing in them to demonstrate any connection between what the Spanish and Portuguese men were doing in the Church of St. John by the Latin Gate in Rome in 1578 and adelphopoiesis.

The men described by Montaigne were engaging in parallel same-sex marriage ceremonials that were a mimicry of the "real thing." Far from engaging in a ritual act formally blessed by the church, the men were burned alive by the authorities in Rome because "with terrible wickedness they defiled the sacrosanct name of matrimony"--hardly the approval of a widely accepted ecclesiastical ceremony for same-sex unions. It was for committing a sacrilege of an orthodox ritual that they were punished, not for engaging in a "making of a brother" ceremony. That they were doing the latter is a pure assertion on Hexter's part, and a most improbable one. Montaigne's report does not demonstrate anything about the prevalence or acceptability of an adelphopoiesis marriage ceremony, but rather reveals a virulent and violent hatred on the part of the authorities for what those men were doing.

Hexter incorrectly claims that I allow Gabriel Herman off the methodological hook. I hold Herman to precisely the same standards that I have for Boswell. If Herman failed to note aspects of the 1978 edition of Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality that were of direct relevance to his argument, then that would constitute a fair and necessary criticism of his book; but it is incumbent upon Hexter to specify precisely what those shortfalls are, and not merely to state that Dover's book does not appear in Herman's bibliography. Hexter also claims that I allow Herman off the hook methodologically in permitting him to gloss what is meant by philia or xenia in terms more precise than simple "friendship" or "guest-friendship," whereas I do not permit Boswell to do this. Wrong again. It is acceptable for either historian to do what he does. And here we come to the heart of the matter.

Beyond some supposed "hermeneutic convenience," what exactly does Boswell mean by "same-sex union," if not a form of male homosexual marriage? If it is something else, then his book fails. And why all the detailed discussion of marriage in the ancillary chapters, if this is not Boswell's aim? So why does Hexter refer to cartoons and caricatures when I state quite simply that this is what the book is about? The term "same-sex union" covers a very wide ground, from a lengthy encounter between myself and Mr. Blair Nyrose (my accountant) to de facto marriages between men, and even other possibilities. Where along this spectrum is Boswell? In the evidence and the arguments adduced with respect to the adelphopoiesis documents, Boswell and Hexter (the latter very contradictorily, given the substance of his counterclaims) clearly mean male homosexual marriage. Hexter rejects my suggestion that various types of "ritualized friendship" formed the actual content of the "same-sex unions" described in Boswell's manuscript. So what is left? The only other possibility entertained by him is a species of marriage.

As for the Grottaferrata manuscript, Hexter says that I did not know the actual original manuscripts. I never claimed to; and I do not have to. I wrote about Boswell's book, not about the precise state of medieval manuscripts. He asserts that Boswell took care to photograph the manuscript concerned--a laudable practice, but one that is irrelevant to the matters at hand. If Hexter is a "medievalist" and an "authority" on manuscripts, he must know that photographing a manuscript cannot resolve the specific problem to which I aver. The photograph attests to the actual condition of the manuscript and no more. All the questions regarding its contents, how they came to be constituted in that mode, possible errors made in the process of copying or editing, and a host of other such issues, will not be made one whit clearer by having yet another (this time, high-tech) copy of it. Photograph or not, my contention remains unanswered: that the final paragraphs that came to be attached to the adelphopoiesis ceremony in the Grottaferrata manuscript do not belong to that ritual, but to a separate marriage ceremonial, and that the general context in which the adelphopoiesis ceremonials were ordered in the liturgical books is a good explanation of how that confusion occurred.

The substance of my criticism of Boswell's book is simply this: that he has not established a connection between the liturgical texts that are titled "ceremonial" or "blessing for the making of a brother" and any sort of same-sex union that might reasonably be construed as a marriage. I proffered a different solution--that the blessings and ceremonials recorded in his manuscripts were an ecclesiastical "cover" for a ritual bond between men who sought advantages from establishing an artificial kinship bond between themselves. Not one new fact has been produced by Hexter that would alter my opinion. Far from saying that there was no homoerotic content to such relationships, I specifically stated that this was an aspect that deserved further investigation. Nor did I ever deny that some men in most societies (certainly those under investigation in the book) formed more permanent homoerotic relationships, which they strongly wished to see as akin to the marital arrangements legitimized by the legal and ecclesiastical institutions of their time. That history, those practices and the conflicts associated with them are subjects that we must continue to investigate. But the resolution of these historical problems is not going to be achieved by the quick fix of "shocking manuscript discoveries." And if we are genuinely concerned about present difficulties, we should more usefully turn our attention directly to them.