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Boswell Discussion

Medieval List Discussion: July 1994

Re: OK, So What Do People Think of Boswell's New Book?
on list MEDIEV-L>

If Newsweek made a reference to an "unamed Jesuit working at the Pont. Inst. for Oriental Studies" [paraphrase], I suspect that Fr. Robert Taft SJ is being referred to.

Taft is probably the greatest living expert on Eastern liturgies. I had the opportunity to meet him at the May Byzantine Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. At that time he had not heard of Boswell's book, and was eager for the reference which I gave him.

Taft's opinions on any Eastern litugical question cannot be dismissed on the basis of his vocation [although I think it is also true that pressures to conform to a narrowly defined orthodoxy are increasingly present in religious universities of many Christian denominations.]

I think the basic question is this: Was Augustine married?

One sort of historian will immediately say "no". That marriage was a defined concept in Roman law and that Augustine never made such a contract with anyone [as far as is known.]

Another sort of historian [I am not reducing the world to only two sorts by the way], will argue that such a legalistic/positivistic view of the past is seriously distorting. Augustine formed a long term sexual and domestic relationship with a women who bore a child by him; when Augustine's mid-life crisis lead him to break up this family [although again the legalist would not that it was not a "family" properly speaking], he made sure that his "woman" did not go off with another man, but had her shipped off to N Africa with a vow of future continence. In every way but legally Augustine was married, would say this putative second historian.

As Boswell argues this is a significant hermenuetic difference between historians. He is careful to note his opponents objections. That Boswell's critics, so far, seem to think that the only view was that Augustine was not married [to keep to the above example], does not speak well of them.

Advocacy Scholarship?
from Paul Halsall on list

Bruce Holsinger had written

Jesuit THERE'S an objective option.

Mark Adderley comments

My problem here is the assumption that those who hold religious convictions cannot be objective. Are we to assume that objectivity is a function of sexual orientation? Or political views? Or maybe (now HERE'S a blasphemy) knowledge?

I think the problem that Bruce was highlighting is not the supposed unobjectivity of Jesuit scholars [I am sure he knows perfectly well that the Society of Jesus has contributed many great minds to scholarship in many fields], rather it is to put into question the repeated charge against Boswell that he is an "advocacy scholar".

Of course Boswell is an "advocacy scholar" in the sense that what he is interested in is a reflection of his own life. He is quite open about being a gay Roman Catholic for instance, and it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not come through in his areas of research. The question is whether he is dishonest and/or inadequate as a scholar. [The final two questions would not usually be raised, I should note, about most other historians holding leading chairs at one of the most elite universities in the field of history].

If one insists that *because* Boswell is gay [the ad hominem basis of all the "advocacy scholar" charges - and of course sometimes ad hominem arguments *are* well founded], he *cannot* write or *has not* written good history, then we are faced with a real problem in medieval studies. Much of the work here has been done by people with agendas [do I have to say 'Cantor' again?]. In Biblical studies and intellectual history, the situation is even more devastating, not to mention women's history were virtually every writer has been possessed of one of two common genders.

Again, Brent Shaw accused Boswell of "verging on paranoia" in his New Republic review, but what is one to make of "objective" newspaper articles, which criticize Boswell as an "advocacy scholar" but then cite Milton Efthimiou, an employee of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, or professed evangelicals without noting the same about them.

For if Boswell has an political agenda [one I might note that is in direct contrast with the attitudes of most others in the new field of lesbian and gay history, e.g. Halperin at MIT], then surely we must admit that all Christian scholars and perhaps more clearly, since their Church emphasizes continuity and tradition, Roman Catholic scholars are also suspect in areas such as biblical studies and early church history [after all, why call Augustine a "saint" and Marcion a "heretic" if you are not advancing a certain agenda?]. One might add that there is no agency or power in the gay community which could control what Boswell has to say; for Roman Catholic clergy this is not true - there are limits, as Fr. Curran discovered, to what they will be allowed to say without repercussions. In fact, I think such central attacks are rare, and I also believe that many of the Catholic priests I have had as teachers are honest and strong enough men that they would hold to what they believed was true in the face of all attacks. On the face of it though, when it comes to criticizing Boswell, it has been his attackers who have clearly had an agenda.

Date: 21 July 1994
Subject: Re: OK, So What Do People Think of Boswell's New Book?
To: Multiple recipients of list MEDIEV

First I should state that I have read at least 60% of Boswell's book. I also read his previous book on homosexuality and Christian tolerance. Any who know Boswell, or his work, would agree that he is a painstakingly precise research who truly seeks not just translations or the semiotics of a historical record, but also true understanding of the cultural context in its broadest view. Landscape or tapestry are two other words that come to mind regarding his work to examine the dynamics of history; difficult work given the subject: SEX. A subject which our species seems particularly confused by and quite unwillingly today, or in other times, to simply treat as a natural component of existence on this planet (true some species reproduce asexually, but I hope readers see my point).

At any rate, the statement that his work is "advocacy scholarship" is an affront to any thinking person. If his work is "advocacy scholarship" then so too are all the works written regarding any aspect of heterosexuality throughout history or for that matter any work that attempts to shed new light onto any valid historical subject. Darwin's work on the evolution of species would have to be viewed as "advocacy scholarship" as would all of the works that have pushed us to revisit the nature and fate of the dinosaurs, or of plate tectonics, or of any subject you wish to insert (Gibson and the Romans).

Boswell makes no inappropriate leaps in logic or of imagination. He carefully checks and double checks the record and the cultural meaning of words. READ THE BOOK BEFORE YOU JUMP INTO THIS FRAY. Do you know the meaning of "brothers" in the original context? Does brotherhood today mean what it did 1500 or 2000 years ago? Find out for yourself by reading the book. It is the ultimate in poor scholarship and deficient analysis to comment (in any fashion) on a primary work that you have not read!

Finally, as regards the article in the Chronicle, it seems to me that conspiracies are the educated person's equivalent of Elvis sightings, or "I had sex with space aliens" tabloid headlines. We are ever willing to find a conspiracy and believe in it. I personally did not notice this facet of the article. Clearly the editors are too (as you say) clever, for me. Or are you looking for something you wanted to find?

Date: Thu, 21 Jul 1994 20:12:40 -0400
Subject: Re: advocacy scholarship

A solid review is one that takes a book seriously on its won terms and deals with it positively or negatively as the case seems to demand. A critical review is one that examines a work closely, not one that is negative. There have been good reviews, by these standards, of Boswell's book. One is by Brent Shaw in the July 18/25 New Republic. Another very interesting one was in last Sunday's Washington Post Book World by--fasten your seat belts--Camille Paglia. A few weeks ago in the NYT book review Meyendorff had his go at it. Each of these reviews has been devastating. I read the book last April--a prepublication copy--and I concur with the negative assessments. The evidence will not bear the interpretations Boswell asks it to. I know and admire JEB Boswell.. I count him a friend. But that has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with his book. Is he advocating something? Certainly, but where's the harm in that? The case rises or falls on whether or not the rites of adelphopoiesis that B. finds in several (around 16, if I remember) Orthodox liturgies constitute a rite for "gay marriage." I do not think so and so far no specialists in Orthodox liturgy thinks so either. Is there a pervasive disinclination on the part of conservative or touchy Orthodox scholars to give B. a hearing. In some cases, undoubtedly. But not in all cases. The case is weak. And the western evidence B adduces--three early medieval charters and a chance reference in Giraldus Cambrensis--are deeply ambiguous, widely separated in time and place, and almost certainly irrelevant. So at best, B. has a curious Orthodox phenomenon. And virtually his only corroborative anecdotal evidence is from late medieval Albania. I leave it to others more knowledgeable than I to decide what that means.

Each reader must decide for him or herself. But it will be entirely possible to disagree with this book, and even to have grave doubts about its scholarship, without being homophobic, conservative, or indeed and apologist for any cause. One can approach this book the way one would a book on, say, the Norman conquest or the Fourth Crusade or the Reconquista.

Tom Noble

Date: Fri, 22 Jul 1994
From: "E. Mavrogeorgiadis" <em101@UNIX.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: Re: OK, So What Do People Think of Boswell's New Book?

I haven't read Boswell's book yet. I'm looking forward to its coming to England. However, as a Greek and an Orthodox I can imagine that he must be indeed jumping on very shakey grounds, if he is trying to prove that a "gay-marriage" rite could have been accepted by the Church in the middle ages. I've heard that he uses some material from Albania. I don't think that would be enough though, if he is trying to prove that the attitude of the Church towards homosexuality has changed since then. The evidence from the penitentials and the homilies in the middle ages is _so_ overwhelming that I do not know how he has managed with those. Or maybe he just skips them? Moreover, the very word "adelfopoieia - adelfopoiesis" has no homosexual connotations in the Greek language. The fact that the service itself was only suppress in Greece on June 11, 1859 because "fraternizations took place with intentions of conspiracy, murder and other atrocities" (Mantzouneas, Evangelos, _Fraternization from a Canonical Perspective_) shows that it was not immorality or a change of attitude on the part of the Church towards homosexuality that suppressed this service; it was its abuse by greedy individuals. Even if some of the "blood-brothers" were sodomites this does not mean that the service was written to cover their unions. It could have been again abused by them in their attempts to find excuses for being together or more intimate in public but this again can in no way be twisted in such a way as to prove that homosexual marriages were ever blessed by the Church. The fact that quite a few Russian princes, who are historically thought of as not being sodomites, were "blood-brothers" shows that the service was nothing else but what the word means: "adelfopoieia" = brother-making, friend-making. I've made clear from the beginning that I'm an Orthodox Greek. Therefore I neither expect nor want to be thought of as an objective critic of Boswell's book. However, I do not think Boswell is objective either. The book and the services have to be looked at not as isolated instances cut off from their context. If one does that, I believe Boswell's book won't stand the simplest criticism.


Not objectively

Efthimios Mavrogeorgiadis

Subject: Re: advocacy scholarship
To: Multiple recipients of list MEDIEV-L

Tom Noble is certainly correct that fair reviewer may disagree strongly with Boswell's conclusions about the Adelphopoiia ceremony. To accuse Boswell of "verging on paranoia" as Shaw does, or to state, as does Paglia that the middle ages are "ostensibly his specialty" makes me wonder though, Tom, just why you think the reviews in the TNR and the Washington Post even approach fairness. I am much more keen to see reviews by people like Brundage, Fr. Taft and Ruth Macrides.

The "Meyendorff" you refer to is Paul Meyendorff, a very eminent specialist in *Russian* history, not my former mentor John Meyendorff who died about two years ago. From logs of the ORTHODOX list that I kept a few months back, Paul Meyendorff was then denying the existence of this liturgy at all, or [quite possibly to be fair] his students at St. Vladmir's were understanding him to say that. It is clear, however, that the Orthodox Churches have decided to mount some sort of attack on this book [or am I being paranoid?].

One of the most persistent aspects of the criticism has been a basic misreading of what Boswell has argued. [Again, perhaps its me?]. As I read him he is not arguing that these ceremonies were "same-sex marriages", since of course there were no standard "different-sex marriage" liturgies until rather late. What he is arguing, oddly for someone who has a reputation as an "essentialist", is that "marriage" is not a simple term with a cross cultural meaning [a point I am sure most here would agree with, but which can seem devastating to the more theologically naïf - or even not so naïf - look at Pope John Paul II's attack on "anthropology" and defense of universal morality in his recent encyclical 'Veritatis Splendor']. Rather Boswell seems to me to be arguing that *as we now understand marriage ceremonies in the modern West* - as public liturgical services commemorating romantic and erotic relationships between two people who will be publicly associated henceforth and - may if possible - raise children - then these *adelphopoiia* ceremonies [over 55 MSS, not 16 btw Tom] are understandable *to us* as marriages. Just as the relationships between American slaves who could not legally marry, are now understood by us to have created families, whatever the legal prohibitions.

Shaw, whose TNR review I have gone over most closely [Paglia will say anything for publicity, and as she detests footnotes, I am happy to place her in one], entirely fails to grasp the above argument. He simply states that Boswell's "narrative chapters" are digressions, and that the only thing that counts are the documents. Shaw then states that in "simple English", "adelphopoiesis" means the "creation of brothers". I suppose Boswell is supposed not to have noted that fact. Boswell's discussion of what "brother" means is ignored by Shaw [Boswell notes that "brotherhood", in English and the languages relevant here, virtually never means "the relationship between brothers"; notes the use of brother-sister imagery in heterosexual lovemaking, e.g. in the Song of Songs; and, vitally, argues that given the overwhelming conventional presentation of same-sex eroticism as age-dissonant in antiquity, Christians would have tried to find a word that implied equality in relationship. None of this is, IMO, certain, but Shaw - in a very long piece - simply ignores it in favor of a simplistic kicker about "simple English".] I might also add that it had not been shown that any more than *two* people could enter into this ceremony - which even Shaw admits could create kinship - and that it is thus not assimilable to monastic profession, adoption of siblings, or feudal oaths.

Shaw also makes faulty charges. The concluding prayer of one of the texts Boswell prints refers to the ceremony as a "gamos". This prayer comes immediately after the rest of the prayers translated, but is separated by some sort of break. I agree that Boswell has a problem here and that his task would be easier without a such a break. Shaw merely comments "Boswell prints [this prayer] as a if [it] were a seamless continuation of the ritual of adelphopoiesis..". In fact Boswell points this out and, at length, discusses his reasons for arguing that the prayer was part of the adelphopoiia ceremony. Shaw could, legitimately, argue against Boswell's argumentation here. Instead he merely uses the opportunity to indict Boswell's veracity [TNR, 36].

A few other points: Shaw attacks Boswell for referring to "heterosexual matrimony [TNR 36] , and then spends a great deal of time explaining marriage was between different sexes [TNR 37]; Shaw refers [TNR 40] to the *55* documents that Boswell discusses as "nothing more than a few additional texts that shed more light on a primitive and basic power linkage between men in the ancient Mediterranean, and the rituals attendant on its formation" [TNR 40] - repeating his persistent mistake of seeing Boswell's book as about the ancient world rather than the medieval. Finally summing up Shaw's case, is the following - "But same-sex marriages forged with the approval of the Christian church and with its rituals? No. Such a reading is very misleading." How is this a historical critique? Shaw seems to be envisioning a monolithic Church which decides in a unified, or uniform, manner on what is "approved" and what are its "official rituals". Such might be the historic experience of Roman Catholics since Trent, but is will not do as a description of the Church in any earlier period with its manifold local variations.

So, contra Tom Noble, we still await a substantial critique. All we have seen so far is substantial anxiety.

Paul Halsall

Date: Fri, 22 Jul 1994
Subject: Re: advocacy scholarship
To: Multiple recipients of list MEDIEV-L

One more short rejoinder then I am out of here: I said 16 liturgies. That these appear in some 55 MSS is a completely different point. The orthodox have been denying not that these liturgies exist but that they are liturgies for same-sex marriage: Again, on different points. Sure Camille Paglia is a grandstander. That does not mean that she is always wrong. Have you ever seen a fen gun? If you t that much shot in the air you will surely bring some birds down. Shaw's review deals essentially with the ancient, or introductory, section to B's book. I think his critique of this section is fair and, in the end, persuasive. Shaw says rather little t the rest {f the book. Here is where Orthodox scholars are going to have their say. As to the rather clever semantic word-games that B. plays: He has done this in each of his last three books. First he tells us words do not means what we always thought they did. Then he tells us what they really mean. Then he interprets his sources in light of his redefinition of terms. To some degree, of course, scholars do this sort of thing all the time. It is not always appropriate and not always persuasive. I am not persuaded. Others may I do not find this book persuasive and I think that some of its methods are open to question as such. Again, others will disagree. No problem: I am not in charge of anything. By the way, I do know the difference between the Meyendorffs so if my last posting left this unclear I must have slipped somehow. Sorry for all other garbage--my line is full of electronic noise today for some reason.

Tom Noble

Date: Fri, 22 Jul 1994
From: Paul Halsall
Subject: Re: advocacy scholarship
To: Multiple recipients of list MEDIEV-L

Thanks for your comments.

If it reduces to "liturgies", then Boswell really only has *one* liturgy that he has "discovered".

Your point about Boswell's methodology is well made. What he is really saying is that traditional historiography typically *reads* out the sort of interpretations he wishes to make. And you may be correct that this is a sort of trick to let him say anything he wants. But on the "fen gun" principle you applied to Paglia, surely there are instances where you think Boswell correct?

As to the methodology itself - a good point for discussion btw - this is where I think charges of "paranoia" become an issue. I have attended Greek language classes in which the homoeroticism of much classical poetry has been ignored, on one famous occasion in which Plato's ode to Aster was said to be "to his girlfriend". Loeb editions blanked English translations of parts of classical literature the editors though "improper" for students to see. And scholars like C.S. Lewis did establish rigid definitions of words like "agape" which are not born out in the sources. There was, as the evidence now shows conclusively, a "damnatio memoriae" imposed on discussion of homoeroticism from at least the late 19th century onwards, reaching a crescendo in the 1950s and 1960s. This period coincides with the "scientific" discussion of the past that we take as modern historiography. Boswell may not always hit his target - using the gun analogy - even a rifle may hit its mark. But I also think that to dismiss the entire approach is problematic also.

Unlike Shaw and Paglia though, I must say that your comments do reflect those of a scholar who has full credentials to address the issues Boswell raises.

Date: Sat, 23 Jul 1994 10:14:28 -0400
From: Ruth Karras <rkarras@ASTRO.OCIS.TEMPLE.EDU>
Subject: reviews of Boswell
To: Multiple recipients of list MEDIEV-L

[Obligatory disclaimer: I am a friend of John Boswell, who was my dissertation advisor. However, I have not discussed the argument of the book with him in several years, and I have no inside information about his meaning or intention--everything I say here is based on my reading of it and I do not speak for him.]

I am a bit surprised to find anyone giving any credence at all to Paglia's review. Tom--read a couple of chapters of Sexual Personae and find out what she thinks are "advanced skills in intellectual history and textual analysis." She has no basis on which to question his knowledge of medieval history--my impression from the review is that "Middle Ages" brings two things to her mind, "courtly love" and "feudalism," so she criticizes him for not talking about those two things. I do agree with her that the male bonding aspect of "feudal loyalty" needs to be discussed, but that's not what this book was about.

As to Shaw's review, I am not competent to evaluate wither his or Boswell's use of Greek lexicography nor of particular Roman writers--I leave that to someone else. I do think, though, that Shaw quite clearly missed the boat in arguing that the ceremony "in plain English" is a ceremony of brotherhood or fraternal adoption. One of the main arguments of the book is that "adelphos" and "brother" are not lexical equivalents--in the most narrow sense they are, "a son of the same parents," but all the other meanings are very different. So to translate it as "brotherhood" would be very misleading.

Let me give an analogy. I work on prostitution in the Middle Ages. The most common word used is "meretrix," which is _always_ translated by modern scholars as prostitute, but which, I argue, doesn't mean exactly the same thing as what we mean by prostitution today (sex for money). Now, supposing I wished to argue that the term "meretrix" some or most of the time actually meant what we mean by "unwed mother," rather than what we mean by "prostitute." (No, that's not what it means--this is a hypothetical.) Now, suppose I was also translating a text entitled "De Meretricibus." How do I translate the title? If I translate it "On Prostitutes," that is the standard dictionary definition, but I've just spent several chapters arguing that that's not what it means. If I translate it as "On Unwed Mothers," I am assuming what I wish to prove--I can't then use the text as evidence for my argument. If I leave it in Latin, I am to a certain extent abdicating my responsibility to my non-Latinate audience. The alternataive is tofind a term that would include both the traditional (but in my opinion erroneous) meaning and my suggested meaning, so that my translation doesn't prejudge the issue. I could say something like "On women who misbehave sexually." That may be awkward but it's at least a neutral formulation--then both I and my reader can read the text closely and decide what kind of sexual misbehavior may be meant. And if I also have the Latin text there, so the reader can check what term I was translating, I think I've been a good deal less misleading than if I translated it "On Prostitutes," which might at first glance appear to be the meaning "in plain English."

That is what Boswell has done. He hasn't translated it as "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage." He has chosen a neutral term--as Shaw admits, they were unions of some sort between two men. He can then argue that they were quasi-marital unions, and Shaw can argue that they weren't, but the term "unions" itself is neutral, not tendentious. Calling it "fraternal adoption" is, however, tendentious, although it may have the weight of tradition behind it.

Similarly with Shaw's complaint about Boswell's use of the term "heterosexual marriage." He says that this implies that there was some other kind. I don't think so! It _leaves open the possibility_ that there was some other kind. Whereas, just saying "marriage" and _assuming_ it is always heterosexual is an imposition of a particular ideology. This is something I think all of us who write on issues about love, sex, marriage, etc. have to be careful about. I know I've been guilty of saying things like "romantic relationships" when what I mean is "heterosexual romantic relationships"--and I think I'm fairly sensitive to this, for a breeder :-).

Ruth Karras

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