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David Wright:

Do you take this man....(1994)

Boswell Reviews

Do you take this man...

DO YOU TAKE THIS MAN... Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, by John Boswell (Villard, 412 pp., $25)

JOHN BOSWELL'S Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, embraced as revelation by gay activists and heralded in the press, is both a virtuoso display of learned ingenuity and the same old mixture much as before. Readers familiar with Mr. Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) will find here, if anything, an even more dazzling tableau of linguistic versatility, apparently exhaustive investigation, flashing insight, and relentless inventiveness. Few scholars will be capable of keeping step with him throughout, as he ranges from classical Greece to twentieth-century Albania -- all in the service of proving that, in their early history, Christian churches sanctified homosexual ``marriages.''

Yet as in the earlier book, Mr. Boswell's extraordinary skills and industry are deployed with such tendentiousness, exaggeration, special pleading, and occasional banality that the work deserves, at very best, the distinctive verdict of the Scottish courts: not proven.

One is not encouraged at the outset to discover that Mr. Boswell, who teaches history at Yale, has learned next to nothing from the extensive criticisms -- by classical historians, experts on the Fathers, and medievalists -- of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (whose rapturous reception in some quarters brought no credit on the academy). To claim that its general argument ``has met with little opposition over the intervening decade'' bespeaks a blinkered insensitivity. The only exception Mr. Boswell notes is ``the cranky critique'' of Richard Southern, author of the magisterial The Making of the Middle Ages and one of the most distinguished medieval historians. (At the risk of seeming personally peeved, I observe that in listing one of my critiques Mr. Boswell repeats second-hand another author's confusion over my name.)

The key to Same-Sex Unions lies in the opening discussion of vocabulary. (It was in lexicography that some of the most risible elements in the earlier book were to be found.) The focus is on a clutch of manuscripts in Greek and Old Church Slavonic presenting a liturgical ceremony for what Mr. Boswell translates as ``same-sex union.'' He justifies the phrase as ``the most neutral terms I could devise'' to render a compound noun, adelphopoiesis, meaning literally ``the making of brothers.'' He cites the use of the Latin frater (``brother'') to mean a male ``lover'' -- although it is odd that he does not establish this for its Greek equivalent, adelphos, since his texts are all in Greek or derived from Greek. To suppose that ``same-sex union'' -- and ``same-sex partner'' instead of ``brother'' -- preserves the ambiguity is singularly inept, but then Mr. Boswell believes that contemporaries took the word to mean ``erotic union.''

The lexicons translate this word-group in terms of adoption as brother or the compacting of a spiritual brotherhood. (Mr. Boswell is frequently evasive about the plain import of the Greek for ``spiritual'' and ``the Holy Spirit.'') Athanasius, for example, uses the key word to speak of Christ's ``making brethren'' by becoming one with us in his Incarnation. Other similar occurrences Mr. Boswell omits or distorts, as when Sophronius of Jerusalem depicts St. Peter as teaching that ``love makes us brethren to one another.'' The ninth-century Byzantine monastic reformer Theodore of Studium used the word when he ruled that monks must not form relationships as adoptive brothers or as godparents with people in secular life.

In reality, there is nothing in the texts that Mr. Boswell has unearthed and here translated (and in several cases reproduced in the original) to warrant what most readers will understand from the phrase ``same-sex unions. ''

These texts often cite the hallowed precedents of other pairs of spiritual brothers -- from the apostles Peter and Paul, and Philip and Bartholomew, to the military martyrs Sergius and Bacchus. Mr. Boswell's review of paired saints in the Bible and early Christianity passes quickly over Jesus andJohn, ``the most controversial same-sex couple in the Christian tradition. '' Although he recognizes the strongly female accents of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, two early Christian women martyrs, he subsequently subsumes even these under the imposed framework of his ``connection between homoeroticism and the military.'' What has merited such treatment of this most exquisitely feminine of early Christian documents? Simply its one use of the common imagery of martyrdom as warfare.

Similar misprisions (a favorite word of our author) abound in the handling of texts and language. Thus in the Passion of Sergius and Bacchus, the word homologia, which in the literature of martyrdom almost invariably means ``confession'' of faith, especially under duress, becomes ``love, unity, union, living together, togetherness.''

What are we left with? Certainly a series of liturgical texts largely unpublished or inaccessible to most scholars in the English-speaking world, presented against the backdrop of fascinating discussions of marriage, adoption, and homosexual pairings in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In less partisan hands these texts will illumine a little-known relationship of spiritual ``brotherhood'' akin to the fraternal adoption of secular law. Beyond that, Mr. Boswell's adventurous forays impress more for their speculative ingenuity than for common sense. One cannot but admire his immense resourcefulness and glittering intuitions, and lament the fallacious sophistry in whose service they are enlisted.


Mr. Wright is Senior Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Edinburgh and former dean of its Faculty of Divinity. Most recently he has edited Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community (Cambridge).


From: David Wright, Do you take this man...., Vol. 46, National Review, 08-29-1994, pp 59.

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