Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe Analysis

John Boswell

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University and acclaimed author of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), tackles an explosive topic in Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, namely, the possibility that the Christian church not only tolerated but indeed validated quasi-homosexual relationships through much of its early history. In tracing heretofore ignored or, according to the author, misinterpreted church documents, 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 methodological practices. Examining primarily male couples, for whom data are more readily available than for female couples, his study will certainly succeed in stimulating debate and adding to the growing body of gay-positive historiography and cultural theory.

This is a work that was twelve years in the making and that took Boswell on several journeys across Europe and into numerous church archives. The breadth of his research is astounding and adds immeasurably to the weight of his provocative arguments. His data are both copious and carefully documented. The historian and literary scholar will find the ample footnotes useful, even fascinating, while the layperson will be able to read for the immediate pleasure of an unfolding narrative because of Boswell’s careful avoidance of jargon. His purpose is immediately clear: Tracing parallels between heterosexual marriage covenants and similarly worded same-sex rituals, his chronological narrative charts a gradual rigidification in religious and social practices over the course of two millennia.

Much of Boswell’s argument depends upon his interpretation of language, given the centuries that have elapsed since many of his primary materials were written. What is meant by the words “love” and “brotherhood”? What might a “union” between two people entail? Boswell’s first chapter tackles this topic directly, admitting that it is impossible to know what transpired sexually between two individuals of the same sex who were joined together in a matrimonylike ceremony. Yet Boswell makes the cogent point that genital contact is perhaps wholly irrelevant, that emotional commitment and financial interdependence are key defining elements in many marriages today, where sex may or may not play a major role. Yet Boswell does seem intent upon making a case for probable erotic involvement within same-sex couplings; while his argument remains thought-provoking, this element of it is highly dependent upon close, perhaps idiosyncratic, readings of a few texts.

Certainly Boswell is highly convincing in his overview of practices during the Greco-Roman era, where same-sex unions were both common and clearly based on erotic interest. His overall methodology is to examine carefully both the wordings and contemporary representations of the ceremonies for heterosexual and same-sex unions. He finds many remarkable parallels during the pre-Christian era, again, ones that overtly accommodate sexual desire between men as well as men and women. First detailing the variety of arrangements that were commonly formalized in heterosexual couplings, Boswell then turns to works by Cicero, the poet Martial, and Juvenal to examine an array of long-term same-sex relationships that were both celebrated and socially formalized. His strong case for the erotic component of these relationships is thoroughly substantiated with close readings of contemporary literary works such as the Ephesiaca by Zenophon of Ephesus. Yet as the pre-Christian era gave way to the era of Christianity, Boswell also traces an ascetic movement that worked to foreclose options and led to the enactment of gradually more rigid laws. The Romans were clearly less tolerant than the Greeks, and as the centuries passed, the Christian church began to insist upon erotic restraint for all individuals, which led to explicit mandates limiting same-sex relationships.

Yet as this occurred, Boswell argues, Christianity did not disallow all such unions. Indeed, he finds that asceticism was limited primarily to individuals whose lives were wholly dedicated to the church, while laypeople and even some church icons were substantially exempt from rigid antierotic regulations. Certainly heterosexual relationships were never disallowed for the masses; they were...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)