THE TRUTH ABOUT TROTHS
THE MARRIAGE OF LIKENESS: SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE
John Boswell HARPERCOLLINS,
Stanford, Peter, "The truth about troths..", Vol. 8, New Statesman & Society, 02-24-1995, pp 53.
George Carey cast himself in the role of hardline traditionalist
in 1992, when he forced a church publishing house to drop a prayer
book for gay and lesbian Christians. The Archbishop of Canterbury
found the contents of Daring to Speak Love's Name-- including
how to perform a nuptial blessing for same-sex couples--offensive
and at variance with the church's traditions.
Clerics are none too good at apologising. It took the Popes several
centuries to admit that Galileo had been wrongly accused and persecuted
by the Inquisition. Jews are still waiting for an unreserved expression
of regret at their mistreatment by Christians. But if the Anglican
Primate, at heart an honest and kindly soul, would care to dip
into John Boswell's The Marriage of Likeness,
he may find himself driven to utter the odd mea culpa.
The late Professor Boswell, a Yale historian,
spent 12 years investigating the practices of the early church
and presents a mass of evidence to show that "gay marriages"
were once celebrated by the ecclesiastical authorities. He quotes
eight different versions of such services dating from before the
12th century, and 17 after.
Aware that Christian hackles will be quickly raised, Boswell anticipates and rejects the lines "official"
theologians will use to damn his meticulous research. Their principal
defence will be, he suggests, that such ceremonies were essentially
a mark of "spiritual fraternity" : the two men pledged
friendship but not their sexual union before God.
If this were the case, Boswell cogently argues,
why were such blessings only given to two people at a time? Surely
any number of men might want to gather to underpin locker-room
comradeship or the bonds that unite the all-male members of some
No, he concludes: these ceremonies were equivalent in meaning
and in form to heterosexual marriages. Basil I, the ninth-century
founder of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire,
underwent two such blessings.
Part of the difficulty Boswell encounters is
the lack of definition in many of the terms used. When we discuss
relationships our terminology is sloppy in more than one sense.
Sometimes the ceremony is called "A Prayer for Making Brothers".
"Brother" can, of course, have any number of meanings.
"He treated me like a brother" is understood today to
mean that he didn't lay a finger on me. But in the "Song
of Songs" , the two sexual partners are throughout described
as "brother and sister".
Equally, the very notion of marriage is a changeable feast. In
the early Church, it was looked down on by celibate clergy as
a resort for lesser mortals who couldn't control their base urges.
More importantly, it was a property transaction with ideas of
love and romance a long way below dowries, conjugal rights, procreation
As Boswell rather pithily points out, modern
society has in effect reversed the ancient order of marriage.
Once it started with property, moved on to child-bearing and in
later life sometimes grew into love. Today, we are swept along
by a sea of love, becalmed when we have children, and bail out
amid wrangling over property in the divorce settlement.
Those Christians who find the conclusions of The Marriage of
Likeness offensive may do well to reflect on the tolerance
their church once showed. One of the most infuriating things about
contemporary Catholicism, in particular, is its fondness for pretending
that its current inhuman rules are eternal truths handed down
by Christ. Yet there were married priests for the whole of the
first millennium and beyond. There is a growing catalogue of evidence
for women priests in the early church. And, as this book shows,
two men could plight their troth before God well into the medieval
It was only in the 14th century that the church and hence European
society developed what Boswell describes as "a
rabid and obsessive negative preoccupation with homosexuality
as the most horrible disease" . This will be a familiar theme
to his readers. In 1980, Boswell wrote Christianity,
Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, which, while never quite fathoming
the logic behind homophobia, was unequivocal in pointing an accusing
finger at the men in dog collars and mitres.
The one question The Marriage of Likeness begs but never
answers is whether gay and lesbian couples, given the cruel and
crude demonisation they have suffered at the hands of the church,
still give a damn ira priest or vicar will marry them or not.
For this book--closely argued, moderately phrased in deference
to the prejudices that it may excite, and a model of accessible
scholarship--is by default a plea for the church to return to
its old practices. On the evidence of the strength of feeling
Carey's outburst provoked, there are many who care a great deal.
For them, Boswell has provided all the weaponry