Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe
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Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (UK title; The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe) is a historical study written by American historian John Boswell and first published by Villard Books in 1994. Then a professor at Yale University, Boswell was a specialist on homosexuality in Christian Europe, having previously authored three books on the subject. It proved to be his final publication, released in the same year as his death.
Boswell's primary argument is that throughout much of Medieval Christian Europe, unions between figures of the same sex and gender were socially accepted. Outlining the problems with accurately translating Ancient Greek and Latin terms regarding love, relationships, and unions into English, he discusses the wider context of marriage and unions in the Classical world and early Christian Europe.
Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe attracted widespread academic and popular attention on publication. Reviews in academic, peer-reviewed journals were mixed, with some scholars arguing that Boswell's translation of key terms were incorrect. The book was also widely reviewed in the mainstream media and the Christian media, with some conservative reviewers claiming that it was written to support the "gay agenda".
Synopsis and arguments
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In the Introduction, Boswell highlights the subjectivity of marital unions, which differ between societies in their function and purpose. He explains his use of "same-sex unions" over "gay marriage", outlining the epistemological problems of the latter in a historical context. Noting that same-sex unions have been ethnographically and historically recorded in Africa, Asia and the Americas, he remarks that there is no reason why they should not have been found in Europe. He acknowledges that the book focuses on male same-sex unions, explaining that the historical evidence from Pre-Modern Europe predominantly discusses men, the socially dominant gender of the time.
Chapter one, "The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage", highlights the problems in translating words describing both emotions and unions from Ancient Greek and Latin into Modern English, and explains that "marriage" carries with it many associations for contemporary westerners that would have been alien to pre-Modern Europe. The second chapter, "Heterosexual Matrimony in the Greco-Roman World", explains the multiple forms of mixed-sex union found in Classical Europe. Wealthy men could enter into one or more different types of erotic, sexual or romantic relationships with women; they could use those who were slaves or servants who were under their domination for sexual gratification, hire a prostitute, hire a concubine, or marry a woman (either monogamously, or in many cases, polygamously).
In chapter three, "Same-Sex Unions in the Greco-Roman World", Boswell argues that between circa 400 BCE and 400 CE, male same-sex relationships were treated much the same as mixed-sex relationships, albeit being "more fluid and less legalistic". He cites historical examples such as those of Harmodius and Aristogiton, and Hadrian and Antinous, as well as literary examples such as Nisus and Euryalus in Virgil's Aeneid, and characters in Petronius' Satyricon and Xenophon of Ephesus' Ephesian Tale. He dismisses the counter-argument that these men were friends rather than lovers, and argues that the Latin term for "brother" was a euphemism for "lover". Moving on to the evidence for consecrated same-sex unions in Classical Europe, he discusses Nero's union with Sporus, Martial's description of a male-male "marriage" in the early 2nd century, and a female-female union in Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans. Boswell argues that these same-sex unions were not "imitative" of mixed-sex marriage, but perhaps represented an attempt by same-sex couples to "participate in" the wider culture. He subsequently deals with the introduction of legal prohibitions against such same-sex unions in the late Empire.
Chapter four, "Views of the New Religion", looks at the influence of early Christianity on relationships. Noting that the faith encouraged asceticism and celibacy, he discusses the devalued role of marriage in Christian society, and the increased popularity of asexual marriage. He moves on to look at the evidence for same-sex "paired saints" in early Christianity, such as Nearchos and Polyeuct, Ruth and Naomi, and Serge and Bacchus, arguing that these couples were perhaps romantically involved. The fifth chapter, "The Development of Nuptial Offices" opens by explaining that the early Christian Church was uninterested in marriage ceremonies, which were largely left secular; he notes that the Western Church only declared marriage a sacrament and developed canonical laws to regulate ceremonies at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. He then discusses Barberini 336, a circa 8th century Greek liturgical manuscript containing four ceremonies for sacramental union, one of which is between two men. Discussing this and similar recorded ceremonies, Boswell questions what they represent, if they reflect homosexuality, and ponders if these are "marriage" ceremonies, in doing so rejecting the idea that they represent ceremonies of adoption or "spiritual fraternity". The sixth chapter, "Comparisons of Same-Sex and Heterosexual Ceremonies of Union" looks at these ceremonies, and their varying similarities and differences.
Chapter seven, "The History of Same-Sex Unions in Medieval Europe", looks at further evidence for such ceremonies in the Byzantine Empire, including stories such as those of Nicholas and Basil, and then examines the Christian prohibitions that were later introduced to put a stop to them.
Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, published a review by historian Joan Cadden of Kenyon College, in which she described the book as a monument to Boswell's "prodigious accomplishments", providing an opportunity to celebrate his life and mourn his death. Although largely positive of it, she thought that Boswell's choice of the term "same-sex union" was unsuccessful, because in its usage it became a "transparent euphemism" for "homosexual marriage", the very term that Boswell sought to avoid. She also thought he was unwilling to deal with the views of theorists of social construction, as evidenced by his description of the North American berdache as "homosexuals." Ultimately she thought that the book greatly added to the continuing debate on the issue.
Sociologist Lutz Kaelber of Indiana University, Bloomington reviewed Boswell's text for the Contemporary Sociology journal. He considered it a "dazzling study" and thought that Boswell had overcome "some very formidable obstacles" in assembling his information. He noted that Boswell's main argument relies on his controversial translation of Greek terms which have already been criticised in the scholarly community. Speculating that Boswell's arguments will spark debate for decades to come, Kaelber suggested that even if his ideas were rejected by future scholarship, the book would still be very important for showing how "social arrangements and processes can shape and sometimes bend normative perceptions of the boundaries between friendship, affection, and love." Concluding his review, he praised the book as "an admirable, challenging, seminal work" although lamented that it did not make use of sociology.
Sexologists Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog reviewed Same-Sex Unions for The Journal of Sex Research, noting that Boswell was clearly aware of the social repercussions of his work for contemporary lesbian and gay people. They believed that its direct effect on U.S. political and social thought would be its greatest influence, far beyond that which it had within Medieval scholarship. Although stating that they were not convinced by all of Boswell's arguments, and were unqualified to judge many others, they thought that the book constituted a "major work of historiography" by bringing many neglected primary sources to a wider audience.
In the International Gay and Lesbian Review, Elisabeth J. Davenport positively reviewed Boswell's book, remarking that it "appears to leave no imaginable ground upon which his accusers can challenge him." Noting that the book had been criticised before it had even been published by those opposed to its findings, she states her belief that while the case he presents is not infallible, the evidence "leans in his favour." Praising his use of footnotes, she considered it meticulously researched, and ultimately notes that it "adds both liveliness and dignity to the debate" regarding same-sex unions in pre-Modern Europe, as such providing a "fitting memorial" for Boswell.
By July 1994, the book had gone through four printings and sold 31,000 copies, something far in excess of most works on Medieval history.
Mainstream media reviews
General media reviewing the book in 1994–95 included New Yorker, The Economist, People Weekly, The Spectator, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post, The New Republic, New Statesman & Society, New York Times, and Newsweek.
Christian media reviews
The book was also widely reviewed within Christian media in the United States. Judge John T. Noonan of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reviewed the book for The Catholic Historical Review alongside John W. Baldwin's The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Briefly dismissing Boswell's work as unsuccessful at placing his interpretations within the "customs, language, and theology" of the time, he urges the reader to read Brent D. Shaw's review in The New Republic.
Writing in The Christian Century magazine, the Candler School of Theology's historian of theology Philip Lyndon Reynolds expressed "profound problems" with Boswell's positions, which he claims rest largely on "ambiguity and equivocation" and "conceptual slipperiness". He is particularly critical of Boswell's use of "same-sex unions" as a translation of terms like adelphopoiesis, believing that this was an "ill-chosen and dangerously slippery term" because it has been widely interpreted in the media as an innuendo for "gay marriage" and therefore lacks neutrality. He also rejects Boswell's argument that the same-sex ceremonies were found in Western Christianity as well as Eastern Christianity, stating that the "heterogeneous bits of evidence" assembled to argue for this position were insufficient.
On her Christian apologetics website, the U.S. Roman Catholic journalist Marian Therese Horvat pejoratively accused Boswell of being a historical revisionist, claiming that his book was "obviously shaped by his personal lifestyle and convictions", having been written to "further the gay rights agenda". Maintaining that all of the Church blessings between two men described in the book were ceremonies of "spiritual brotherhood" and not of "same-sex unions", she highlighted the law codes that prohibited same-sex sexual activity during this period, information she claims Boswell ignored. Labelling Same-Sex Unions as "bad history", she attacked it as a threat to "the very soul of Christian Civilization."
In 2003, The Friend by scholar Alan Bray was published. Continuing Boswell's line of research, it served as a defence of his thesis, confirming that: "For a very long period, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual."
- Halsall 2007
- Boswell 1994, pp. xiv–xxx.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 3–27.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 28–52.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 53–107.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 108–161.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 162–198.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 199–217.
- Boswell 1994, pp. 218–261.
- Cadden 1996, pp. 693–696.
- Kaelber 1995, pp. 367–368.
- Perper & Cornog 1994, pp. 315–318.
- Davenport 2006.
- Young, Robin Darling (November 1994). "Gay Marriage: Reimagining Church History". First Things. 47: 43–48. Retrieved June 25, 2009. participated in a modern Syriac version of an adelphopoiesis ceremony at a Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox) church, but disputed Boswell's thesis as well: "This is a subject about which I have the good fortune to speak not merely as a scholar or an observer, but as a participant. Nine years ago I was joined in devout sisterhood to another woman, apparently in just such a ceremony as Boswell claims to elucidate in his book. The ceremony took place during a journey to some of the Syrian Christian communities of Turkey and the Middle East, and the other member of this same-sex union was my colleague Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University. During the course of our travels we paid a visit to St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem, the residence of the Syrian Orthodox archbishop. There our host, Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh, remarked that since we had survived the rigors of Syria and Eastern Turkey in amicable good humor, we two women must be good friends indeed. Would we like to be joined as sisters the next morning after the bishop’s Sunday liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Intrigued, we agreed, and on a Sunday in late June of 1985, we followed the bishop and a monk through the Old City to a side chapel in the Holy Sepulchre where, according to the Syrian Orthodox, lies the actual tomb of Jesus. After the liturgy, the bishop had us join our right hands together and he wrapped them in a portion of his garment. He pronounced a series of prayers over us, told us that we were united as sisters, and admonished us not to quarrel. Ours was a sisterhood stronger than blood, confirmed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he said, and since it was a spiritual union, it would last beyond the grave. Our friendship has indeed endured and flourished beyond the accidental association of two scholars sharing an interest in the Syriac-speaking Christianity of late antiquity. The blessing of the Syrian Orthodox Church was a precious instance of our participation in the life of an ancient and noble Christian tradition. Although neither of us took the trouble to investigate the subject, each privately assumed that the ritual of that summer was some Christian descendant of an adoption ceremony used by the early church to solemnify a state-that of friendship-which comes highly recommended in the Christian tradition (“Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but I have called you friends.” [John15:15]). If this were all that Professor Boswell were claiming to have “discovered,” neither I nor anyone else would be likely to dispute his findings. It seems reasonable to assume that ceremonies like the one Susan Ashbrook Harvey and I went through continue to take place in those eastern churches that preserve the rite of adoption (adelphopoiesis) for friends. In fact, scholars of the liturgy have known for years of these rituals. But any such modest claim is not what Boswell has in mind. He claims that the “brother/sister-making” rituals found in manuscripts and certain published works are ancient ceremonies whose cryptic (or, in current argot, “encoded”) purpose has been to give ecclesiastical blessing to homosexual or lesbian relationships, thus making them actual nuptial ceremonies. This startling claim is certainly far from the reality of the ceremony in which we participated nine years ago."
- Shaw, Brent (July 1994). "A Groom of One's Own?". The New Republic: 43–48. Archived from the original on May 7, 2006. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
- Perper & Cornog 1994, p. 316.
- Reynolds 1995.
- Noonan 1996, pp. 79–81.
- Horvat 2002.
- Davidson, James (2005-06-02). "Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs". London Review of Books. pp. 13–18. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
- Boswell, John (1994). Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Oxford and New York: Villard Books. ISBN 978-0679432289.
- Cadden, Joan (1996). "Review of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe". Speculum. 71 (3). Medieval Academy of America. pp. 693–696. JSTOR 2865807.
- Davenport, Elisabeth J. (2006). "Review of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe". International Gay & Lesbian Review. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.
- Halsall, Paul (11 April 2007). "John Boswell Page; Reviews of Boswell's Books". People with a History: An Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History. Fordham University: Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Kaelber, Lutz (1995). "Review of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe". Contemporary Sociology. 24 (3). American Sociological Association. pp. 367–368. JSTOR 2076510.
- Noonan, John T. (1995). "Review of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe". The Catholic Historical Review. 82 (1). pp. 79–81. JSTOR 25024624.
- Perper, Timothy; Cornog, Martha (1994). "Serge and Bacchus: Out of the Closet at Last". The Journal of Sex Research. 31 (4). Taylor & Francis. pp. 315–318. JSTOR 3813039.
- Reynolds, Philip Lyndon (18 January 1995). "Same-sex unions: What Boswell didn't find". The Christian Century. 112: 49. Archived from the original on 31 July 2013. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Horvat, Marian Therese (2002). "Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda". Tradition in Action. United States.