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Boswell Reviews


Same-sex unions: What Boswell didn't find.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.
By John Boswell. Villard Books, 412 pp., $25.00.

By Philip Lyndon Reynolds

Philip Lyndon Reynolds is director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University and assistant professor of historical theology at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He is the author of Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

Reynolds, Philip, Same-sex unions: What Boswell didn't find.., Vol. 112, Christian Century, 01-18-1995, pp 49.

Few works of historical scholarship are treated in Time and Newsweek, much less summarized in a syndicated cartoon strip. According to the digest of this book that appeared in Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury, John Boswell reveals that the Catholic Church recognized gay marriages for a thousand years, The church even provided liturgies for such marriages, liturgies that included communion and in which kissing signified union, and that were in crucial respects "just like heterosexual marriages." Later in church history, a persecuting and homophobic culture suppressed this tradition of gay marriage.

One can readily understand why a book that seems to be saying something like this would attract attention. The issue of homosexuality is extremely vexed in most Christian denominations in North America. If gay marriage used to be a regular part of Christian tradition, then the official Roman Catholic prohibition of homosexual acts must be unfounded, for the prohibition rests chiefly on the argument from tradition. Tradition still counts for a great deal in the minds of most thoughtful Protestants as well. Because they usually regard homosexual unions as something novel and experimental, Christians tend to regard them as artificial and false. If they were to be convinced that, on the contrary, homosexual union was an ancient tradition within the church that was later suppressed, they should not only have to abandon the former view but should tend to regard homosexual Union as something natural and authentic. Its suppression or marginalization in the churches today would appear baseless and contrived. Is this the conclusion toward which Boswell who died December 24 at age 47--directs us?

Boswell's argument consists of pointing to certain liturgical forms, some written in Greek and some in Slavonic, from the tenth to the 16th centuries. These texts record an ecclesiastical ritual for the formation of a "brotherhood" of some kind between two men. The ritual belongs to the churches of the eastern Mediterranean and represents the Christianization of a custom much older than Christianity. The liturgical forms have been unfamiliar until now, although a few classical historians have studied and written about the custom of brotherhoods in Greek society (and have come to conclusions different from Boswell' s).

Boswell provides the original texts and English translations for several of these liturgical forms. Let us consider the first text in his appendix of English translations, which comes from the manuscript Grottaferrata Tau. Beta. VII. This form, which was written in Greek in the tenth century, consists of three prayers. In the first the minister, having invoked God as the one who made humankind in his image and likeness, calls to mind two exemplary male pairs who had God's blessing: the apostles Philip and Bartholomew and the martyrs Serge and Bacchus. The text then asks for God's blessing upon the two men, N. and N. , who are the subject of the ritual, asking God to enable them "to love each other and to remain unhated and without scandal all the days of their lives." In the second? briefer prayer, the minister beseeches God to bless N. and N. so that they should know the Holy Spirit and "become united more in the spirit than in the fleshy The third and longest prayer is densely rhetorical and difficult to summarize. Suffice it to say that the minister beseeches God to grant that there should be between N. and N. the brotherly love and peace known to the Apostles.

Other examples indicate (chiefly in the rubrics) what ritual acts and nonverbal symbols were used. For example, Grottaferrata Tai. Beta. II (in Greek, from the 11th century) begins with the rubric: "The priest shall place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand and they that are to be joined together place their (right) hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands. Then shall the priest cense them and say . . ." The rubric for the conclusion of this ceremony directs the two men to "kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another. "

One should emphasize that these ceremonies were peculiar to the liturgical traditions of Greece and the Balkans. Boswell says that the ceremony "disappeared from most of Western (as opposed to Central and Eastern) Europe," and that "no Latin versions of the ceremony survive at all, although it must have been performed in Latin in Ireland, and probably sometimes in Italy," The heterogeneous bits of evidence (some of them colorful and anecdotal) that he presents do not convince me that there was ever anything akin to the Eastern ceremony in the Latin West.

The liturgical texts that Boswell brings to our attention are certainly very interesting, and their similarities to nuptial liturgies (though not as great as Boswell suggests) call for careful consideration and comment. Nevertheless, I have some profound problems with Boswell' s treatment.

To begin with, the book is not organized in a helpful way. I would have thought that any extended examination of these very peculiar ceremonies should meet the following requirements: First, the liturgical texts should be presented, analyzed and compared early in the book, so that we know exactly what we are talking about. Second, one should set the texts clearly against the background of the pre-Christian tradition of such brotherhoods in Greek culture, a tradition that arguably goes back at least to Homer. Third, One should establish, again early on, the standard interpretations of these brotherhoods offered by scholars of Greek law and culture.

Boswell does not bring the ceremonies into focus until roughly half- way through the book, by which point a judgment has already been made as to what the ceremonies were. Prior to this, Boswell discusses the vocabulary of love and marriage; "heterosexual matrimony"; various forms of same-sex and homosexual relationships in the Greco-Roman world; the Christian understanding of marriage; and nuptial liturgies. All of this material seems to be provided by way of background, not marshaled on behalf of a thesis. Scholarly opinions on the alliances in question appear piecemeal in the course of the book, so that Boswell does not give us any clear impression of the interpretations that he rejects.

These organizational problems are only minor irritants, however, compared to the book's conceptual problems. What is Boswell trying to prove? What does he suppose the ceremonies in question to have been? The texts themselves use names such as adelphopoiesis ("brother-making" ) to denote the ritual. What kind of "brotherhood" was really involved?

Boswell recounts discovering in Italy "many versions of the ceremony that were obviously the same-sex equivalent of a medieval heterosexual marriage ceremony" (my italics). A stronger form of the thesis would be the claim that the ceremony was a celebration of homosexual marriage. Actually, Boswell himself never claims this much. Indeed, when he at last raises the question, "Was it a marriage?" he replies that the "answer to this question depends to a considerable extent on one' s conception of marriage." The discussion that follows is inconclusive. Moreover, Boswell adds that "the concept of someone innately and exclusively 'homosexual' was largely unknown to the postclassical world," and that "relationships of this sort were not understood in a sense comparable to modern 'gay marriage.'"

Nevertheless, Boswell implies in an indirect way that these were gay marriages. For example, he speaks of those (i.e., scholars who do not share his point of view) who are"reluctant to contemplate a nuptial rite for same-sex union," But elsewhere he observes: "The ambiguity of the few surviving texts precludes categorizing them unequivocally as same-sex marital contracts." (Italics are mine in these two quotations. ) This implies that there were same-sex marital contracts in the East. Crucially, Boswell consistently refers to "heterosexual matrimony, " which implies that there is a generic matrimony of which there are hetero-and homosexual species. The same implication is present (although less apparent) in the phrase "comparison of same-sex and heterosexual ceremonies of union" (which is the subtitle of chapter six). Thus Boswell declares the stronger form of his thesis only by innuendo.

Much of his argument depends upon ambiguity and equivocation. Perhaps the most serious case of conceptual slipperiness arises in the phrase "same-sex union," which Boswell uses to translate (even in the appendix of translations) terms such as adelphopoiesis. Boswell argues that terms involving the word "brother" would have been confusing to English readers because of what "brother" connotes in our usage. But it is arguable that the term "same-sex union" is just as confusing for similar reasons. To any modern reader (such as Gary Trudeau, apparently), it suggests "gay marriage." Inasmuch as one assumes this, the translation of the term begs the entire question of the book.

Boswell claims that "union" is a neutral term:

To retain this rich multiplicity of connotations [of the Greek and Slavonic words equivalent to "brother," "brotherhood," etc.]--sexual, asexual; transcending. and incorporating sex-- I have employed the most neutral terms I could devise in translating the original concepts, such as "union" for adelphotes (which could be rendered "brotherhood" ), or "be united" instead of "become siblings," which would be overtly and distinctly misleading to most English speakers, since it would evoke notions of adoption.

But "union" is by no means a neutral term; it is a very strong term. Readers will inevitably assume that "union" means "marriage," and in this context the word seems to connote sexual union and the joining of "two in one flesh."

To buttress his case Boswell observes that prejudiced scholars will find the idea that the alliances in question are same-sex unions to be repellent. For example, he says that anthropologists and others are anxious to "explain away the ceremony of same-sex union" as a form of blood brotherhood, But if "same-sex union" is a neutral term, what is there to explain away? Likewise, Boswell speaks of "the native and profound disinclination of most people brought up in modern Christian societies to believe that there could have been a Christian ceremony solemnizing same-sex unions." Again, regarding a curious Irish ceremony recorded by Gerald of Wales (from the late 12th or early 13th century), Boswell writes: "Its nature has long been obscured both by artful mistranslation and a general unwillingness to recognize something as ostensibly improbable as a same-sex union" (italics mine). But inasmuch as "same-sex union" is a neutral term, no one can find anything ostensibly improbable in the existence of such a union.

It seems to me, therefore, that. "same-sex union" is an ill-chosen and dangerously slippery term. Nevertheless, let us stipulate that it is a neutral expression that means exactly what adelphotes or adelphopoiesis means, whatever that may be. The existence of liturgies for same-sex unions is then incontrovertible. The question is: Were these ceremonies the "equivalent" of heterosexual marriages (to use the weaker form of Boswell's thesis)? What kind and what degree of equivalence are we looking for? Equivalence in what respect?

Boswell claims that the relation is evident (to those not blinded by their prejudices and preconceptions) in the liturgies themselves. He notes that the texts for brother-making ceremonies are often contiguous to nuptial liturgies in the manuscripts. When one compares the brother- making liturgies with nuptial liturgies, however, the similarities one finds, while interesting, are not enough to imply equivalence or to suggest that the brother-making ceremonies were in any sense nuptial.

To exemplify the "heterosexual" nuptial liturgy, Boswell provides a translation of a Western rite: that of the Gelasian Sacramentary. (Why this choice? One would have supposed that an Eastern rite would have been more pertinent.) Conspicuous in this rite are references to procreation. Thus the minister invokes God as the one who instituted matrimony "so that in the multiplication of children of adoption the fecund chastity of the holy married may persist" (Boswell's translation). Again, the rite beseeches God that husband and wife "may see the children of their children unto the third and fourth generation." And as in all Western nuptial liturgies (and, indeed, as in the more elaborate early medieval dotal contracts), the rite commemorates how God fashioned Eve from Adam's side so that all humankind should descend from them. Petition for the "fruit of the womb" is equally conspicuous in the Eastern liturgies. Needless to say, there is nothing like this in the rites for "same-sex union."

Boswell notes that there are "interesting differences" in the choice of scriptural texts. These differences are not very surprising. Among the texts commonly used in marriage were Genesis 1:28 (on fecundity), Genesis 2:18 (on the formation of Eve from Adam's side), Matthew 19:1-6 (where Jesus deduces from marriage "in the beginning" and in particular from Genesis 2:23 that divorce is contrary to God's will), and John 2:1-11 (on the marriage at Cana). In same-sex unions, Boswell tells us, the most common texts were John 15:17, 17:1 and 18-26 (on love and harmony), 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (on love), and Psalm 133 (" Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity"). There is nothing to suggest equivalence here, and no hint of anything nuptial.

Boswell writes that "the most striking parallels have to do with visual symbolism," and that the "principal structural similarities between the ceremony of same-sex union and heterosexual nuptial offices were binding with a stole or veil, the imposition of crowns, the holding of a feast after the ceremony for the families and friends, the making of circles around the altar, the use of a cross, occasionally the use of swords, and virtually always--the joining of right hands."

If it is true that crowning was regularly involved, this would indeed be very remarkable, for the ceremony of crowning was and is central to the Eastern nuptial rite, where it took on immense and specifically nuptial significance. Boswell provides just two pieces of evidence for this. One is an obscure Greek text that prohibits monks from receiving boys from baptism, "laying hold of the crowns of marriage," and forming brotherhoods with them. Since this is a set of things prohibited to monks, it is not clear which elements might be permissible to non- monks. Perhaps what is in question is an abuse of the traditional brotherhood.

The other piece of evidence offered seems to me to be a serious error. "An eleventh-century exemplar [for a ceremony of same-sex union] does mention the removal of crowns, which necessarily implies their previous imposition." The exemplar in question is Grottaferrata gamm. beta. II, which is in two parts. The first part, which is explicitly a ceremony for brother-making, appears to end with the rubric: "Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another, and conclude . . ." At this point, Boswell notes, a scribe has drawn a line across the manuscript. There follows a prayer beginning with the title "Ecclesiastical canon of marriage of the Patriarch Methodius. " This prayer, which is very clearly from anuptial rite, ends with a rubric that refers to the removal of crowns.

It should be obvious that the second prayer is from a different rite, and that this text mentions only the removal, not the imposition, of crowns because the early part of it is missing. It is likely that a scribe grafted on the second text by mistake, and that he or someone else noticed this and drew the line to alert the reader's attention to the error. In a long and difficult footnote, Boswell tries to show that the line does not have this significance, but the final, manifestly nuptial prayer is different from Boswell's other examples of brother- making prayers in crucial respects: its title refers to marriage; the prayer itself refers to the "bond ofmarriage" and to making "two into one"; and the concluding rubric refers to the crowns. Even without the scribe's warning line, we should know that this does not belong to the brother-making ceremony.

The genuine common elements are very interesting, but what may one deduce from them? None of them is specifically nuptial. The kiss, for example, acquired a specifically nuptial meaning in marriage ceremonies (where some regarded it as a kind of premonition of sexual consummation), but in itself it was a universal and asexual symbol of greeting and concord. Similarly, the joining of right hands was a token (then as now) of any kind of agreement. To make much of this evidence, one would need carefully to analyze the history and meaning of each element, which Boswell does not do.

Moreover, the similarities between the brother-making ceremonies and nuptial ceremonies are striking and even a little shocking to us because we have a concept of homosexual orientation and gay marriage. A culture that possessed no such notion would not have been struck in this way by the similarities. Lacking surface evidence, one needs to know what same-sex union was and what marriage was, so that one can compare the two or at least make sense of Boswell's claim. But Boswell does not even make clear what he takes same-sex union to have been.

Setting out his policies of translation at the outset, Boswell explains that where the Greek and Slavonic texts for the ceremonies use terms that might be literally translated "brother" or "become brothers," it would be misleading to translate them thus. This is because, on the one hand, "the meanings of the nouns to contemporaries were 'lover, ' and 'form an erotic union,'" while on the other hand English readers will "relate such concepts more to feelings of goodwill and fraternal concern than to intimacy or romantic attachment."

Should we assume, then, that in Boswell's view same-sex unions were homoerotic? Not necessarily. Later in the book Boswell modestly claims that sexual relations between men "joined in some sort of ecclesiastical union . . . probably did not seem even mildly sinful" (my italics). (This is mere guesswork.) On the next page, he raises the question of whether same-sex unions were homosexual. Obviously (he points out), they were homosexual in the literal sense of the word, since the partners were of the same sex. But was the ceremony erotic? Boswell replies: "This is hard to answer for societies without a comparable nomenclature or taxonomy." Was the relationship intended to become erotic? "Probably, sometimes, but this is obviously a difficult question to answer about the past, since participants cannot be interrogated. " Boswell then points out that "a sexual component is not generally what constitutes the definitive test of 'marriage,' particularly in premodern societies, where few people married for erotic fulfillment. "

Just as Boswell fails to explain what same-sex unions were, he also fails to provide any clear account of what (heterosexual) marriage was. Statements like the one just quoted, as well as his frequent observation that in pre-modern societies, romantic love was (ideally) a consequence of marriage rather than its motive and origin, seem intended in part to loosen our sense of what marriage was. But this merely negative approach, while very proper in itself, does not help Boswell's case. If one aims to prove that some new virus is a variety of influenza, one can do so only to the extent that one knows what influenza is.

To grasp the sense of Boswell's claim that the brotherhoods were equivalent to (heterosexual) marriage, one needs to have some account of what the latter was. In Christian Europe during the patristic and medieval periods, numerous exigencies--cultural, legal, theological, ascetic- -caused the notion of marriage to be modified, analogically transposed, extended, stretched and delimited. Nevertheless, certain basic ideas remain visible beneath the surface.

First, marriage was by definition "the union of a man and a woman" (as the Roman jurist Ulpian said). If Boswell's implied notion of generic (homo- or heterosexual) matrimony ever existed in premodern European culture, there was never a name for it. Matrimony was a union of opposites (see Colossians 3:18-19). Second, marriage was a stable joining of a man and a woman for the sake of procreating and raising children. Hence the phrase liberorum procreandorum causa ("for the sake of procreating children"). which appeared on Roman nuptial documents as a way of distinguishing marriage from other relationships. The difference between marriage and concubinage, in Roman law, was that only a man's children by marriage were his own children: that is, his heirs, members of his family, and (in the case of males) the continuation of his paternal power.

More basic yet in the Judaic and Christian traditions was the notion of marriage as a union of two in one flesh As it appears in Genesis 2:24, this is probably a complex notion, but 1 Corinthians 6:16 (where Paul, by a curious irony, applies the text to prostitution) suggests that sexual union is part of the idea. Despite the efforts of some medieval theologians, the notion of sexual consummation remained integral to the church's notion of marriage. Sex is integral to marriage in other ways--for example, in the Pauline conjugal debt (see 1 Cor. 7:2-5), which was hugely important in both Eastern and Western thinking about marriage, and in the impediments of relationship (since even an unconsummated marriage is invalid when its sexual consummation would be incestuous).

Subsuming all these elements was the nuptial symbolism that entered the Bible in the Book of Hosea and culminated in Ephesians 5:31-32, a text that compares the union of "two in one flesh" to the union between Christ and the church. This text and its theology did not appear much in the nuptial liturgies, but they were central to the theology of marriage. Moreover, the symbolism was manifest in the quasi-nuptial rite in which a woman took the veil to become a religious (a bride of Christ).

To claim that there were same-sex equivalents of marriage in this historical context is to claim that same-sex unions were supposed in some way to embody this model or something analogous to it. This does not seem possible, and in any case, I see no evidence for it. One should note that Boswell does not claim or offer any evidence to suggest that the brotherhoods were in any sense an alternative to (heterosexual) marriage or exclusive of marriage.

Buried in this very muddled book is an interesting and plausible thesis, which goes like this: On the one hand, premodern Christian culture knew nothing of gay marriage, had no concept of the homosexual person and condemned homosexual acts. On the other hand, institutionalized or otherwise socially recognized same-sex relationships, such as the brotherhoods studied here, provided scope for the expression of what we would now regard as homosexual inclinations--much more scope than was possible, for example, in the cultures of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. They may even have occasionally provided cover for homosexual acts. (If this is what Boswell had been judged to be saying, however, the book would not have captured the media's attention. )

This book has very little beating on the issue of gay union and gay marriage in churches today. A Christian proponent of gay marriage or even of tolerated gay unions must face the fact that such acts are a radical departure from traditional norms. One can make this departure either by honestly abandoning some or all of the tradition, or (much more tenuously) by using an historical, relativist hermeneutic to locate some deeper stream within the tradition. Both of these lines of argument have appeared in the discussion of women's ordination, which also represents a radical departure from traditional norms but which is now widely accepted. But one cannot find support either for the licitness of homosexuality or for the validity of gay marriage within the tradition of the premodern church.