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Boswell Reviews

From Christianity Today, 2/12/1994

BOOKS: Friends or Lovers?

"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," by John Boswell (Villard, 412 pp.; $25, hardcover).

Reviewed by Gerald Bray,

Anglican professor of divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama.

Professor Boswell of Yale, whose earlier work on Christian attitudes toward homosexuality achieved a certain notoriety in the early 1980s, has now returned to the field with a lengthy analysis of medieval liturgical texts, mainly from Eastern Europe, which deal with a phenomenon that he calls "same-sex union." Nowadays, such a phrase will most often be taken to imply gay marriage, though whether the documents cited by Boswell can bear this interpretation is another matter altogether. To be fair to Boswell, he admits that his evidence is ambiguous, and that the most that can reasonably be said is that homosexual relationships may have existed under the cover of ritual "brotherhood," which is what the documents he quotes actually deal with.

To understand and evaluate Boswell's argument, it is necessary to go back to the mentality that prevailed in premodern societies, and that still exists in many parts of the world today. In those cultures, relationships between the sexes invariably imply some kind of sexual union; the idea of a nonsexual male-female friendship simply does not exist. On the other hand, friendships between people of the same sex are frequent and encouraged. A man would normally be expected to spend most of his time with his friends of the same sex, whether plowing the fields, waging war, or just chewing the fat at the local tavern. Women would also live in a largely female world, where home and family would dominate their lives.

In the late twentieth-century West, this age-old pattern has been significantly disrupted. To begin with its most acceptable side, many men now refer to their wives as their "best friends," as if marriage and friendship were somehow identical. This false equation devalues marriage - at least, in its traditional monogamous form - and perverts friendship into a sexual relationship. The result is that marriages crack under a strain they were never meant to bear, and friendship (in the classical sense) has all but disappeared. C. S. Lewis made this point many years ago in his essay on friendship in "The Four Loves," and his conclusions have lost none of their validity since.

Boswell has read Lewis, but does not take up his argument, probably because it goes against what he wants to say, which is that homosexual unions were tolerated and even blessed by the medieval church. To this end he takes the many examples of same-sex friendship that exist in the ancient world and reduces them all to the framework in which gay marriage is the logical conclusion. It has long been known, of course, that the ancient Greeks practiced homosexuality (along with many other forms of sexual perversion), and that the Christian sexual ethic was developed, to a considerable extent, in reaction to this. It is also well known that heterosexual matrimony was basically a civil ceremony until well into the Middle Ages, when the church gradually acquired a near monopoly over it.

So the stage is set for Boswell, who wants to say that just as the church adopted pre-Christian matrimony and made it a sacrament, so also it took on board pre-Christian homosexual unions and created a sacramental bond only slightly different from that of heterosexual marriage. The fact that rites used to pledge fidelity in marriage crop up in ceremonies designed to bless same-sex "brotherhood" is taken to mean that gay marriage was both rampant and officially accepted, although virtually identical ceremonies can be found in pledges of allegiance (in the army or in the courtroom) and elsewhere. To crown it all, Boswell suggests that the cult of certain saints (notably the pair Serge and Bacchus, who were martyred in the early fourth century) served as a cloak for gay people to express their feelings and relationships within the wider culture.

It has to be admitted that such a thesis can never be crudely disproved. No doubt there were homosexuals then, just as there have been in every age, who took advantage of the system in order to indulge their particular passions. But this is a far cry from suggesting, as Boswell does, that the church encouraged this kind of thing. The liturgies he quotes are generally very explicit in affirming that same-sex unions are "not according to nature"; that is, that sexual acts are excluded from them. This is not to deny their emotional intensity but to say that the basis of attachment was something different.


A little thought will remind us that virtually every creative activity in human history, other than physical reproduction, has been the product of same-sex friendship, manifested in different ways among women as well as men. It is when people get together in such friendships and share ideas that things start to happen. Unfortunately, the radical wing of the feminist movement has made the destruction of male society a specific policy goal. In this context, the linkage of male friendship with homosexuality is tragic, because it deprives men of the rationale they need to resist the feminist onslaught. By seeking to further this identification, Boswell is contributing to the destruction of Western culture because he cannot appreciate same-sex friendship, which he rightly regards as potentially very deep and very significant for society as a whole, in nonsexual terms. Turning friendship into marriage is just as mistaken as turning marriage into friendship; categories are confused, and both suffer as a result.

On matters of detail, Boswell quotes what suits his case and does not give an overall picture of human relationships in premodern times. He also has a disconcerting habit of mixing pagan with Christian evidence, as if this can be done without taking Christian theology into account. The reader must beware of great leaps over time and space, with little to justify them. Boswell's own agenda is so obvious that his use of the material is inevitably suspect from the start, and the constant qualifications he is forced to make weaken his case still further.

What Boswell has done, though, is remind us of the extent to which the art of friendship, especially male friendship, has been lost. Were our society in a healthy state, a book of this kind would have no place, for it would be immediately obvious to everyone not only that sex and friendship are two quite different things, but that in most situations in everyday life, the latter is more important than the former. Perhaps it is time for the Christian church to reassert this truth, which is amply attested in Scripture, and to get away from the obsession with sexuality that has done so much to corrode our culture.

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