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Boswell Reviews

Procrustean marriage beds.

By Robert L. Wilken
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the History of
Christianity, University of Virginia, and the author, most recently, of The
Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History (Yale).

Wilken, Robert, "Procrustean marriage beds".., Vol. 121, Commonweal, 09-09-1994, pp 24.

John Boswell
Villard Books, $25, 412 pp.

The term "same-sex union" used in the title of this book is a translation of a Greek phrase (adelphopoiia) which if translated literally would be rendered "making into a brother" or "adopting as a brother." The term is used in medieval Christian manuscripts written in Greek and Slavonic to identify an ecclesiastical rite. A representative prayer in such a rite reads as follows:

Merciful and loving Lord, who has made man according to your image and likeness, who willed that your holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew become brothers, bound to each other not by nature but by faith and spiritually; as your holy martyrs Sergius and Bachus were worthy to become brothers, bless these your servants N. and N.; being bound together not by nature but by faith and spiritually, give them peace and love and oneness of mind. Remove from their minds all stain and impurity and bring it about that they love one another without hate and without offense all the days of their lives. May the Mother of God and all the saints intercede for them. All glory is yours alone, O God.

This prayer was accompanied by ritual actions in which the persons to be joined placed their right hands on the gospel book and held candles in their left hands. At the conclusion of the rite they kissed the gospel book, the priest, and one another.

Such rituals are found, in the main, in liturgical books written in Greece or the Balkans between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. They are familiar to scholars of Eastern Christian liturgy and to legal historians, but are largely unknown to Western readers. This new study by John Boswell, a historian at Yale University, provides transcriptions as well as English translations (for the first time) of a representative group of these rituals and an interpretation of their meaning and historical significance. In Boswell's view these rituals for the binding of two males are equivalent to "heterosexual" marriage ceremonies and were used by Christian clergy in medieval Eastern Christendom to bless "gay marriages."

On an initial reading these rituals appear similar to marriage ceremonies. They refer to the joining of two people in life-long relationship, they speak of a bond of peace and love and oneness of mind, they include ritual actions that parallel those of marriage ceremonies. Yet there are certain features of the rituals that are unlike marriage ceremonies. For example, the texts make it clear that the relation of the participants is spiritual not carnal ("by faith and spiritually"), there is no mention of the marriage bed, the term "marriage" is not used (as it is in marriage rites), the biblical readings are different from those used in marriage ceremonies, several of the rites, significantly, indicate that the relationship is that of an "elder" to a "younger," and the persons joined in the ceremonies are males.

A very telling bit of evidence that these are not gay marriage rites and that medievals knew the difference between these rituals and marriage ceremonies occurs in an eleventh-century manuscript from the Greek monastery at Grottaferrata in Italy. The relevant section is titled "rite for the making of a brother." Included under this heading is a litany, a prayer by the priest, followed by another "prayer for the making of a brother. " Immediately after this prayer a rubric is appended: "Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another, and the service is ended." Next there is a heading similar to that at the beginning of the section "rite for the making of a brother." This heading reads: "Ecclesiastical Canon of Marriage of the Patriarch Methodius" and it is followed by a prayer for the blessing of the "bond of marriage." This in turn is followed by another rubric which reads: "After this prayer the priest shall place the crowns on them and dismiss them."

Boswell argues that the prayer for marriage and the prayers for "making of a brother" belong to the same office, and that the phrase "the service is ended" does not mean the termination of one office but a division within the rite. In the manuscript, however, a line is drawn between the rite for the making of a brother and the prayer at a marriage rite. In a tortuous footnote Boswell tries to explain why the line does not mean a division within the manuscript. Yet the simplest explanation is that someone, while reading the manuscript, realized that prayers from different rites had been mistakenly copied together and drew a line between them to alert the reader that they come from different ceremonies.

What these rituals solemnize is not "gay marriages" but a form of ritualized friendship between males that had been practiced in the Eastern Mediterranean since the time of Homer. In book 6 of the Iliad as Diomedes and Glaukos are about to engage in combat, Glaukos identifies himself by mentioning the name of his ancestors. When Diomedes hears the name of Glaukos' grandfather, "joy came to Diomedes.... With one thrust in the field he fixed his long spear like a pole, and smiled at the young captain, saying gently: 'Why, you are my friend! My grandfather, Oieneus, made friends of us long years ago.'" Because of their "friendship," says Diomedes, "I am your friend, sworn friend, in central Argos. You are mine in Lykia, whenever I may come.... Let those around us know we have this bond of friendship from our fathers."

In ancient Greece ritualized friendship was the only way, apart from marriage, of building alliances between cities and obligations between men. As the text from the Iliad indicates, the men who entered into such relations were married and had children. The making of a friend was accomplished through a ritual in which the one says to the other, "I accept you," "I make you my friend," or some such formula, and was accompanied by an exchange of gifts. Over time the gifts became symbolic and could be bones or clay tablets with inscriptions, sometimes divided into two parts that could be fitted together.

In the eastern Roman Empire and the Byzantine world, ritual friendship became a way of legally adopting someone who was not a member of one' s family for purposes of inheritance, or giving a person the benefits of association with a family different from one's own. On occasion in Christian monastic literature one finds warnings that monks should not participate in a ritual of "making of a brother" with someone outside of the monastery. Such unions were prohibited monks because they entangled them in relations involving money or property with persons outside of the monasteries.

These rituals were not the equivalent of marriage ceremonies. The persons who were bound by such friendship were usually married (or monks who had taken vows of chastity), and the language in the ceremonies about peace and harmony indicate that these rites were a way of joining persons or families who would otherwise find themselves at odds with each other. The love spoken of is not romantic love. Indeed in one of the prayers all the biblical examples of love refer to "spiritual love," and the biblical story of the love of two men for each other, David and Jonathan, is conspicuously absent. Further, there are clear prohibitions in medieval Eastern Christendom against homosexual activities, often imposing severe penalties. It is most implausible that the church would bless in its liturgy what it forbade in its laws.

There is much of interest in this book, and it must be said that Boswell has alerted contemporary readers to a dimension of Eastern Christian practice that is unknown in the West. The appendixes with texts and translations are valuable, the citations from ancient and medieval sources illuminating, and the bibliographical references indispensable for any future work on the topic. This however is a domain of specialists. On the central question, "did medieval Christendom bless 'gay marriages'?", Boswell has no case.

But this is not really a book of history, the author's protestations to the contrary. Boswell insists that his purpose in writing the book is only "to reflect accurately" on what has happened in the past, but it is clear that the book has a contemporary social agenda. "Recognizing that many- -probably most--earlier Western societies institutionalized some form of romantic same-sex union gives us a much more accurate view of the immense variety of human romantic relationships and social responses to them than does the prudish pretense that such 'unmentionable' things never happened." By claiming to discover a historical basis for "same-sex unions" within Christian tradition, Boswell wishes to legitimate the introduction of "gay-marriage" ceremonies in the contemporary Christian church. This gives the historical and philological discussions an immediacy, but also a poignancy. Underneath the argument there is a quiet plea for acceptance.

But the price Boswell exacts from sympathetic readers is high. To make his case he must impose on the texts meanings they cannot bear and wrench them out of their context in medieval Christian society. Only if one loads words and terms--for example, marriage, love-- with overtones that are alien (and derived from contemporary Western speech), can one begin to envision what Boswell imagines. No doubt this is why there is so much throat clearing and redefinition in an introductory chapter titled "What's in a Name?: The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage."

Boswell's argument has an underside. In his view Christian resistance to homosexual activity and "gay-marriages" is a result of prejudice. As in his earlier book, Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality, Boswell claims that Christian prohibition of homosexual acts is a relatively late development in Christian history lacking foundation in earlier Christian tradition. He does not allow that there may be biblical, theological, and moral arguments undergirding traditional Christian views. Using charged language (" rabid and obsessive negative preoccupation with homosexuality as the most horrible of sins"), he argues that it is only "Western horror" and "visceral revulsion" over homosexual unions that led to the suppression of these rituals.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.

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