Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe Essay - Critical Essays

John Boswell

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE tackles an explosive topic: the possibility that the Christian church not only tolerated, but validated quasi-homosexual relationships through much of its early history. In tracing heretofore ignored or, according to the author, misinterpreted church documents, John Boswell makes a compelling case that uniformly rigid forms of institutionalized homophobia are only recent aberrations in Christian practice. His lively and engaging discussion is designed to challenge commonly held beliefs and methodologies. Examining representations primarily of male couples, for whom data is readily available, Boswell’s study will certainly succeed in stimulating debate and adding to the growing body of gay-positive historiography and cultural theory.

Boswell’s ample data and graceful writing help make this work a pleasure to read. He avoids jargon, which makes his book accessible to a nonacademic audience, but also includes ample footnotes that will serve the needs of scholars. In tracing parallels between heterosexual and same-sex ceremonies performed in churches across Europe from the Greco-Roman era through the end of the medieval period, Boswell makes a strong case that Western culture has traditionally embraced more diverse forms of emotional attachment than is common in the 1990’s. His argument only becomes strained when he attempts to prove the specifically sexual component of the same-sex unions he discusses, for his interpretations depend upon nuances and implications rather than explicit statements.

Nevertheless, SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE brings together historical documents that add to readers’ understanding of the many ways that human beings have come together to nurture and support each other. One cannot help but come away with a greater appreciation for diversity and a new perspective on some of the central issues underlying an ongoing struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXI, September 9, 1994, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 31, 1994, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLIX, September 5, 1994, p. 241.

National Review. XLVI, August 29, 1994, p. 59.

The New Republic. CCXI, July 18, 1994, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, August 28, 1994, p. 7.

Newsweek. CXXIII, June 20, 1994, p. 76.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, July 17, 1994, p. 1.