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Boswell Reviews




c.1994 N.Y. Times News Service, 6/11/1994

If these words, taken from a manuscript preserved in the Vatican and dating from the year 1147, were for a bride and bridegroom, no one would find them startling:

"Send down, most kind Lord, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit upon these Thy servants, whom Thou hast fond worthy to be united not by nature but by faith and a holy spirit. Grant unto them Thy grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all the days of their lives."

That prayer, however, is part of a ritual joining two men in some kind of a solemn, personal, affectionate relationship, a ritual that, according to Dr. John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale, "functioned in the past as a "gay marriage ceremony.' "

Amid the debate about whether Christianity should bless unions between homosexuals, Boswell contends that it already has.

Scouring collections of medieval manuscripts from Paris to St. Petersburg, from the Vatican to Mount Athos in Greece and the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, he has turned up more than 60 texts, dating from the 8th to the 16th centuries, of Christian ceremonies for what has been variously translated as "spiritual brotherhood," "adoptive brotherhood" or Boswell's more neutral term, "same-sex union."

The book in which he makes his case, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," is only now being sent to bookstores by its publisher, Villard Books.

But his thesis has already been made public by Doonesbury. This week the comic strip's gay character, Mark, informed a fundamentalist Christian married man whom he had tried to pick up that a Yale professor had written a book saying that "for 1,000 years the church sanctioned rituals for homosexual marriages."

The reader who prefers the book to the comic strip version will discover a picture that is both more fascinating and more puzzling. There is no question that Boswell has found records of ceremonies consecrating a pairing of men, ceremonies often marked by similar prayers and, over time, by standardized symbolic gestures: the clasping of right hands, the binding of hands with a stole, kisses, receiving holy communion, a feast following the ceremony.

Some of these ritual actions also marked heterosexual marriages, but there remained differences in both actions and words between the two ceremonies.

Boswell's book will certainly provoke a sharp debate about what these same-sex ceremonies were solemnizing. From the spread of Christianity through the ancient world to the late Middle Ages, different Christian cultures stretching from Syria to Ireland featured a variety of social bonds not even vaguely paralleled in modern society.

Was this ritual, for example, a form of fraternal adoption, or something resembling blood brotherhood? Was it a commemoration of undying friendship or a strictly spiritual bonding? To what extent, in short, was it the equivalent of heterosexual marriage, either in the contemporary sense or in medieval ones?

In the book's Introduction and a chapter on the vocabulary of love and marriage in ancient and medieval times, Boswell opens the eyes of anyone who thinks it simple for scholars today to decode terms that arose in very different contexts, when marriages between men and women - at least at their beginning - were matters more of family alliance, property and offspring than of romantic love.

He whittles away at all the alternative translations and interpretations of these ceremonies that would preclude a romantic and erotic dimension to the unions being celebrated.

His book is an imposing achievement, with texts in Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic. He provides plenty of material for other scholars to decide for themselves.

Ultimately, however, there is a problem. As Ralph Hexter, a professor of the classics and comparative literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, put it, "We don't know what they did in bed."

What they did in bed, however, is a central issue if Boswell's findings are going to play a part in the debate over recognizing same-sex unions legally or religiously.

One suspects that his book would get a very different reception if instead of suggesting that these medieval same-sex unions tacitly were accommodating homosexual relations, he had argued that they were meant to be strictly free of any sexual acts, no matter how profound the emotional attachment of the participants, or whether that strict chastity was sometimes abandoned behind the screen of a "spiritual brotherhood."

Boswell is right in warning that moral or visceral objections to homosexuality may create a tremendous resistance to any interpretations of these unions as condoning explicitly sexual behavior. It is also true that the commitments of those who advocate gay rights, who include Boswell, may create an exceptional readiness to accept those interpretations.

Had those commitments biased Boswell's 1980 book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" (University of Chicago Press), which maintained that Christianity was not originally or inherently hostile to homosexuality?

That volume is treated as a definitive text by many people demanding changes in social and religious attitudes toward homosexuality. Among scholars, it is hard even to get agreement about how the book was received in their own ranks.

The mainstream of medievalists and church historians was approving, said Hexter, a longtime friend of and intellectual collaborator with Boswell, who is seriously ill and not available to be interviewed. But James Brundage, a professor of history and law at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said the response was "interested but skeptical, very skeptical."

Brundage, the author of "Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe" (University of Chicago Press), said that "the mainstream reaction was that he raised some interesting questions, but hadn't proved his case."

Will the book be examined with the seriousness with which it was written? Not only do skeptics about Boswell's thesis worry, but so does Hexter. "There's going to be a flurry of reports, and people who will never read the book will repeat that it claims there were gay marriages," he said. "Others will reply, "Not so," and simply reject the whole argument."

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