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Boswell Reviews


History With A Bad Attitude

CRISIS, Sep. 1995

Robert G. Kennedy & Kenneth Kemp

Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

John Boswell

Vintage Books

412 pages, $13

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."

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 Christian belief.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ceremonies.

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. 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:

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.