Review of John Boswell's Same-Sex Marriages

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Al Geiersbach

Aug 27, 1994, 5:07:26 PM8/27/94
Dearly Beloved

A book review by


412 pp. $25.

Gay marriage didn't play in Peoria. On June 11, _The
Journal-Star_ of Peoria, Illinois, became one of at least three
dailies to announce a temporary ban on Garry Trudeau's
_Doonesbury_ strip because of the recently out Mark Slackmeyer's
blasphemous contention that "for 1,000 years the Church
sanctioned rituals for _homosexual_ marriages!" The evidence,
Mark claims, appears in "a new book by this Yale professor"
announcing the discovery of "same-sex ceremonies that included
Communion, holy invocations and kissing to signify union."

The Yale historian Mark refers to is John Boswell, and the book
is _Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe_. In this long-awaited
study, Boswell reveals the existence of dozens of ceremonies
dating back to the early years of Christianity solemnizing
"permanent romantic commitment" between members of the same sex
(mostly men) that were "witnessed and recognized by the
community." Examples of the ceremony survive in archives around
Europe and the Near East, from Paris to the island of Patmos to
the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai (delightfully, the
Apostolic Library at the Vatican owns twelve of the manuscripts
Boswell has uncovered). The rituals appear in many collections
alongside heterosexual marriage ceremonies, and the two forms of
union are similar enough to suggest "substantial mutual
influence or parallel development" throughout the late classical
and medieval periods. Although Trudeau's decision to feature
_Same-Sex Unions_ in his strip certainly did nothing to hamper
Villard's publicity efforts, Boswell's book was predictably
notorious well before its pub date (it was featured on ABC's
_Day One_ last fall), touching as it does on one of the most
hotly contested issues dividing the gay and lesbian community
from religious conservatives.

Boswell is no stranger to the controversy over homosexuality in
the church. His monumental _Christianity, Social Tolerance, and
Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning
of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century_, dubbed one of
the eleven best books of 1980 by _The New York Times_, provoked
many conservative Catholic scholars by arguing that for a
significant portion of its history, Christianity tolerated and
even, at certain moments, celebrated male homosexuality.
Ironically, the conservative detractors of _CSTH_ found vocal
allies among a number of gay academics and activists, many of
whom were disturbed by what they saw as Boswell's misguided
attempt to somehow exonerate the church and Christianity itself
from a long history of homophobic oppression.

Anyone familiar with the continuing scholarly and political
controversy surrounding _CSTH_ will discover that Same-Sex
Unions, while sharing many of Boswell's earlier concerns, takes
a much more cautious approach to written sources and refuses to
make unequivocal claims about their meanings and implications.
Those hoping for a strident attack on the church will be
disappointed; but Boswell's scrupulous and often painstaking
sifting of the evidence provides a fascinating read, and the
result is a much more convincing study than the book's subject
matter might lead one to expect.

Boswell's careful methodology is obvious in the very structure
of the book. After a brief introduction, he begins not with the
ceremonies themselves but with a comparative study of "the
vocabulary of love and marriage" in the modern and premodern
West. The author analyzes seemingly uncomplicated terms like
"brother," "sister" and "friend," which often functioned in
premodern societies as equivalents of the modern "lover" or
"partner." A phrase such as "gay marriage," for instance, could
be only anachronistically applied to any premodern same-sex
union: Not only is the term "gay" steeped in modern connotations
but the contemporary Western conception of "marriage" bears only
a vague resemblance to comparable ancient and medieval

Turning his attention to the Greco-Roman world, Boswell argues
that the "_social institution_ of heterosexual marriage (as
opposed to the personal experience of it, or its religious
significance, etc.) has been in most premodern societies
primarily a property arrangement," and all major forms of
heterosexual union "were strikingly different from superficially
similar modern counterparts." Moreover, both Greek and Roman
societies were characterized by several forms of "permanent,
erotic, same-gender" union that were as thoroughly mainstream as
their heterosexual counterparts. Boswell argues for a basic
continuity from antiquity into the early centuries of
Christianity, when same-sex unions were on an almost equal
footing with heterosexual matrimony: "The Christian Middle Ages
had many reasons to contemn heterosexual arrangements, viewed as
a terrestrial convenience or advantage, and at the same time to
admire same-sex passion and unions."

This lengthy excursus (it takes up more than half of his study)
provides Boswell with a rich context in which to situate the
emergence of the same-sex ceremonies in early Christianity. He
cleverly posits the development of heterosexual and same-sex
nuptial offices as a single phenomenon, tracking the growth of
the latter from "merely a set of prayers " in the earlier Middle
Ages to its flowering as a "full office" by the twelfth century
that involved "the burning of candles, the placing of the two
parties' hands on the Gospel, the joining of their right hands,
the binding of their hands . . . with the priest's stole, an
introductory litany crowning, the Lord's Prayer, Communion, a
kiss, and sometimes circling around the altar." Boswell devotes
a full chapter to comparing these rituals with their
heterosexual counterparts, revealing a number of extraordinary
similarities between the two; in several appendixes totaling
almost 100 pages, he has compiled numerous examples of the
documents themselves (including heterosexual matrimony
ceremonies and adoption rituals for comparison) to let "readers
. . . judge for themselves," as he puts it. (Boswell translates
most of the ceremonies, so general readers won't have to worry
about brushing up on their Old Church Slavonic.)

Boswell tackles head-on the question that most readers will
probably be asking themselves: "Was the ceremony 'homosexual' in
an erotic sense? " Boswell's answer is once again cautious:
"Probably, sometimes, but this is obviously a difficult question
to answer about the past, since participants cannot be
interrogated. When heterosexual marriages produced children, it
is reasonable to assume that they involved sexual intercourse,
but in the case of childless heterosexual couples (usually
regarded as 'married' by their friends, relatives and neighbors)
it is just as difficult to be sure as it is for same-sex pairs."
Nevertheless he confidently dismisses the notion that these
ceremonies were directed at cementing some form of "blood
brotherhood," settling familial disputes or fashioning political
alliances: "The same-sex union ceremony makes no mention -- in
any of its varieties in any language -- of tribal, clan, or
family loyalty or union: it is unmistakably a voluntary,
emotional union of two persons." Boswell stresses that in
premodern societies "few people married for erotic fulfillment"
anyway; why, he asks implicitly, should same-sex marriages be
dismissed on the grounds that they are not demonstrably sexual?

The reception of _Same-Sex Unions_ is becoming a story in its
own right. Boswell's study may well be construed as a
conservative argument for monogamy, and several scholars and
religious conservatives have already dismissed it as "advocacy
scholarship." Neither charge will be easy to dispel: Boswell
himself is a devout Catholic, and he has stated that his work
could help people "incorporate [same-sex love] into a Christian
life-style." Although Boswell clearly presents his work as
scholarly rather than political, it has begun to play at least
some role in the current controversy over gay marriage: A male
couple in Washington, D.C., chose to use one of Boswell's
ceremonies for their wedding, and a priest in Hartford who used
the rituals to perform a number of gay and lesbian marriages was
recently excommunicated.

But if Boswell's book is to have any chance of intervening
effectively in this debate (or any other, for that matter), it
will first have to survive the slanted treatment it is receiving
in the popular press. _Newsweek_ is an excellent case in point:
Two of the ostensibly objective experts interviewed by staff
writer Kenneth Woodward were a Jesuit employed at the Pontifical
Oriental Institute in Rome, who claimed that "Boswell has
discovered nothing," and a scholar of medieval canon law who had
not seen the book but nevertheless felt comfortable labeling
Boswell's claims "extremely dubious." When asked how the
opinions of a Jesuit working for a Vatican-sanctioned
institution might be expected to be more objective than those of
any number of gay historians he could have interviewed, Woodward
told me he found the question itself "outrageous." While
Woodward's review concedes that the ceremonies "resemble rituals
the early church used for heterosexual marriages," he notes
triumphantly that "the texts make no explicit mention of sex"
(and heterosexual ceremonies do?).

_Newsweek_ is not alone: _Day One_ interviewed two "eminent
scholars" for its feature on Boswell who agreed to provide
critiques of the book only if guaranteed anonymity. A syndicated
_Los Angeles Times_ piece quoted an authority on Christian
history dismissing the book with the proclamation that "an
isolated manuscript or an isolated reference means nothing
unless it has corroboration," leaving the clear (and
uncorrected) impression that an "isolated manuscript" is all
Boswell has. _The Washington Post_ ran a vitriolic and
condescending review by Camille Paglia, who contends that
"Boswell lacks advanced skills in several major areas" and
"seems grotesquely incapable of imagining any enthusiasm or
intimate bond among men that is not overtly or covertly

Despite its fate in print thus far, _Same-Sex Unions_, like
_Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality_, will
unquestionably challenge a number of cherished assumptions about
the nature and history of Christianity; once the experts cited
in the popular press actually have a chance to read the book,
they may find it difficult to dispute Boswell on any but the
most technical grounds. In the end, critics will be left with
the fact that he has unearthed eighty examples of the ceremony,
a staggering figure for anyone aware of the survival rate of
medieval manuscripts (Chaucer's _Canterbury Tales_, by
comparison, survives in eighty-two manuscripts, _Beowulf_ in
only one). While the scholarly reception of _Same-Sex Unions_,
like that of any groundbreaking study, will certainly be mixed,
Boswell's colleagues would do a great service to their
profession by publicly challenging the pre-emptive dismissals of
his work in the press and, like Boswell himself, basing their
claims on evidence rather than their own preconceptions.

Bruce Holsinger, a Ph.D. candidate in English and comparative
literature at Columbia University, writes on sexuality and
cultural politics for a number of publications.


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