Dearly Beloved : SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE. By John
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 institutions.
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
_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 homosexual."
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.