Do you take this man...
DO YOU TAKE THIS MAN...
Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, by John Boswell (Villard, 412
JOHN BOSWELL'S Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, embraced as revelation
by gay activists and heralded in the press, is both a virtuoso display
learned ingenuity and the same old mixture much as before. Readers
with Mr. Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
will find here, if anything, an even more dazzling tableau of linguistic
versatility, apparently exhaustive investigation, flashing insight,
relentless inventiveness. Few scholars will be capable of keeping
him throughout, as he ranges from classical Greece to twentieth-century
Albania -- all in the service of proving that, in their early history,
Christian churches sanctified homosexual ``marriages.''
Yet as in the earlier book, Mr. Boswell's extraordinary skills and
are deployed with such tendentiousness, exaggeration, special pleading,
occasional banality that the work deserves, at very best, the distinctive
verdict of the Scottish courts: not proven.
One is not encouraged at the outset to discover that Mr. Boswell, who
teaches history at Yale, has learned next to nothing from the extensive
criticisms -- by classical historians, experts on the Fathers, and
medievalists -- of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
rapturous reception in some quarters brought no credit on the academy).
claim that its general argument ``has met with little opposition over
intervening decade'' bespeaks a blinkered insensitivity. The only
Mr. Boswell notes is ``the cranky critique'' of Richard Southern,
the magisterial The Making of the Middle Ages and one of the most
distinguished medieval historians. (At the risk of seeming personally
peeved, I observe that in listing one of my critiques Mr. Boswell repeats
second-hand another author's confusion over my name.)
The key to Same-Sex Unions lies in the opening discussion of vocabulary.
was in lexicography that some of the most risible elements in the
book were to be found.) The focus is on a clutch of manuscripts in
Old Church Slavonic presenting a liturgical ceremony for what Mr. Boswell translates as ``same-sex union.'' He justifies the phrase as ``the
neutral terms I could devise'' to render a compound noun, adelphopoiesis,
meaning literally ``the making of brothers.'' He cites the use of
frater (``brother'') to mean a male ``lover'' -- although it is odd
does not establish this for its Greek equivalent, adelphos, since
are all in Greek or derived from Greek. To suppose that ``same-sex
-- and ``same-sex partner'' instead of ``brother'' -- preserves the
ambiguity is singularly inept, but then Mr. Boswell believes that
contemporaries took the word to mean ``erotic union.''
The lexicons translate this word-group in terms of adoption as brother
the compacting of a spiritual brotherhood. (Mr. Boswell is frequently
evasive about the plain import of the Greek for ``spiritual'' and
Spirit.'') Athanasius, for example, uses the key word to speak of
``making brethren'' by becoming one with us in his Incarnation. Other
similar occurrences Mr. Boswell omits or distorts, as when Sophronius
Jerusalem depicts St. Peter as teaching that ``love makes us brethren
another.'' The ninth-century Byzantine monastic reformer Theodore
used the word when he ruled that monks must not form relationships
adoptive brothers or as godparents with people in secular life.
In reality, there is nothing in the texts that Mr. Boswell has unearthed
here translated (and in several cases reproduced in the original)
what most readers will understand from the phrase ``same-sex unions.
These texts often cite the hallowed precedents of other pairs of spiritual
brothers -- from the apostles Peter and Paul, and Philip and Bartholomew,
the military martyrs Sergius and Bacchus. Mr. Boswell's review of
saints in the Bible and early Christianity passes quickly over Jesus
andJohn, ``the most controversial same-sex couple in the Christian tradition.
Although he recognizes the strongly female accents of the Passion
Perpetua and Felicitas, two early Christian women martyrs, he subsequently
subsumes even these under the imposed framework of his ``connection
homoeroticism and the military.'' What has merited such treatment
most exquisitely feminine of early Christian documents? Simply its
of the common imagery of martyrdom as warfare.
Similar misprisions (a favorite word of our author) abound in the
of texts and language. Thus in the Passion of Sergius and Bacchus,
homologia, which in the literature of martyrdom almost invariably
``confession'' of faith, especially under duress, becomes ``love,
union, living together, togetherness.''
What are we left with? Certainly a series of liturgical texts largely
unpublished or inaccessible to most scholars in the English-speaking
presented against the backdrop of fascinating discussions of marriage,
adoption, and homosexual pairings in antiquity and the Middle Ages.
partisan hands these texts will illumine a little-known relationship
spiritual ``brotherhood'' akin to the fraternal adoption of secular
Beyond that, Mr. Boswell's adventurous forays impress more for their
speculative ingenuity than for common sense. One cannot but admire
immense resourcefulness and glittering intuitions, and lament the
sophistry in whose service they are enlisted.
By DAVID WRIGHT
Mr. Wright is Senior Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University
Edinburgh and former dean of its Faculty of Divinity. Most recently
edited Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community (Cambridge).
Copyright 1994 by National Review Inc. Text may not be copied without
the express written permission of National Review Inc.
Wright, David, Do you take this man...., Vol. 46, National Review, 08-29-1994, pp 59.