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Paul Halsall:

Reviewing the Reviewers of John Boswell (17 Dec 1995)

Reviewing Boswell

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to dissect one of the current crop of negative reviews of John Boswell's Same Sex Unions currently appearing in middle brow religious magazines.

*Kennedy Robert G. & Kenneth Kemp, "History With A Bad Attitude", CRISIS, Sep. 1995*

The late John Boswell's last book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, has recently appeared in paperback and may once again attract attention. Current efforts to gain recognition for homosexual "marriages" and to overturn an amendment to the state constitution in Colorado will no doubt draw on his scholarship as well. Readers will recall that the book was widely acclaimed when it first appeared last spring. Boswell contends that during the Middle Ages Catholic and Orthodox churches developed liturgical rites for solemnizing unions between pairs of males, called adelphopoiesis, the Greek word for "brother-making."

Note that the reviewers, although they later pose as disinterested academics, call to the likely reader of CRISIS [a conservative Roman Catholic publication], by establishing a political context for the debate. The book is presented as dangerous to a shared world view, and the danger is enhanced by the fallacious claim that the book was "widely acclaimed" in 1994. [It was attacked aggressively in a number of largescale publications - see my bibliography at]. Although the authors are about to attack Boswell for special pleading and distortion, they begin by begging the question he sought to put into question and examine anew: they highlight "marriages" and define adelphopoiesis as "brother making".

If the thesis of the book is correct, the clear implication is that homosexual relationships, even those with an erotic aspect, have not always been regarded by Christians as sinful. Indeed, they may have been viewed at times as exemplary of Christian virtue. A further implication is that the current position of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, that homosexual activity is gravely sinful, may be a cultural accretion that does not have its roots in authentic Christian belief.

Most Christians, even those in sympathy with Boswell, will find his claims surprising. However, his reputation, as holder of the Griswold Chair in History at Yale, and the apparent weight of his evidence have impressed many readers. His research seems to be meticulously thorough, and his text is copiously supplemented with notes documenting often obscure sources in Greek, Latin, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Serbian, French, German and various other languages. Given this apparently careful scholarship and the frequently arcane nature of his sources, few scholars are likely to examine his evidence carefully.

Boswell took care to footnote everything - rather obsessively it seems. It is true that this might have been an attempt to overwhelm any opponent, but a momentary consideration of the context removes such a possibility: if Boswell had written without footnotes we all know that he would have been dismissed out of hand. So now the attack is that his rerearch "seems..meticulous" [not that "seems"], and that he often used "obscure sources". Supposedly, the authors suggest, this is a problem for "scholars".

This is unfortunate. A careful examination of the book reveals that Boswell fails utterly to make his case. His study is undermined throughout by selective omissions of evidence, serious mistranslations and misrepresentations, and fanciful speculation. At one point in our investigation we wondered if we could find even one important reference that was accurate.

Note the charge made here: could even "one important reference" check out. It is in no place rescinded, and is just left to hang there.

Boswell begins with a discussion of the "vocabulary of love and marriage," arguing that contemporary vocabulary is inadequate to encompass the richer conceptual framework of the ancient world, especially as regards homosexual relationships. It is here that he begins to speak of "heterosexual marriages," partly to prepare the way for his conviction that "there is no historical reason to suppose" that "pre-modern same-sex couplings" could not have constituted marriages in their own time.

This is, of course, the point of Boswell's book. Example of same sex marriages crop up all over the world [in Fujian in China for instance] and so Boswell's use of "heterosexual marriage" is absolutely legitimate.

He then attempts to show that marriages in Greco-Roman antiquity were rarely more than loveless property and dynastic arrangements in which all members of a household were thoroughly subordinated to a free-born male. Furthermore, since the male's sexual needs were often not fulfilled by his marriage, it was quite common for him to seek satisfaction outside his marriage with various lovers, both male and female.

Who denies this?

After demythologizing ancient marriage, Boswell moves on to provide numerous examples of same-sex relationships that were publicly approved, and, it seems, admired. Before moving on to discuss the evidence he has found for ceremonies of same-sex unions in the Christian Middle Ages, he explores the ritual elements and symbols of ancient and medieval "heterosexual'' marriage ceremonies.

At this point, nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, Boswell believes he has prepared his reader for a proper interpretation of the material which is the real point of the study. He has suggested that our modern way of speaking about love and marriage is truncated and reflective of sectarian prejudices, and that to understand the medieval evidence we must instead read the texts through the eyes of ancient culture, as he has presented it. We should also understand that marriage in ancient, and presumably medieval, times had little to do with love or sexual satisfaction. Most importantly, perhaps, we should also recognize that the search for sexual satisfaction outside of marriage was expected, quite common, and often not disapproved. Nor were homosexual relationships disapproved, especially if they were between equals and more or less permanent; indeed, they might under these conditions constitute the highest form of friendship.

Boswell's carefully crafted reconstruction is extremely fragile.

Boswell is making a multi-threaded and complex argument. It is not that fragile, but it does depend on establishing a framework for discussion. This is what historians doing groundbreaking work do. Boswell is her critcised for it. Amazing.

His research contains numerous misleading references, where sources do not say what he claims they say: corrupt translations, fanciful interpretations, and artful and glaring omissions. Oddly enough, he carefully provides full citations for his sources, but apart from creating the appearance of meticulous scholarship, these citations commonly serve only to assist other scholars in uncovering his errors. Consider the following examples, among many:

Again the is the not too subtle implication of dishonesty ("oddly") and a scatter shot accusation. It is perhaps then reasonable that in limited space the reviewers would use their most telling examples. It is then remarkable to look at their footnotes.

This is the core of what I am doing here. Kennedy and Kemp are doing their best against Boswell. Lets see just how well they in fact do.

  • On page 40, Boswell cites a line from the Roman poet Martial ("Screw your son, if you wish; it's not wrong.") to support his claim that any member of a Roman family would be "available" to the paterfamilias for "sexual purposes.'' In context, though, Martial's words are not advice, but a taunt, for the boy is the bastard son of an adulterous wife. The clear implication of the whole passage is that the man may do as he wishes, since the boy is not really his son. Furthermore, using Martial as a source for Roman family life, as Boswell often does, is a bit like consulting Hugh Hefner on marital fidelity.

The is a truly remarkable example of finding any stick to attack with. Boswell on p. 40 makes the common place statement that the Roman "familias" was not the same as the English "family". That slaves were part of the family, and that any member of the family was under the ownership of the paterfamilias. Nothing remarkable, and a fact that does back up his general argument that "family" and "marriage" are not transcultural and transhistorical universal realities [a necessary assumption for Roman Catholic moralists, such as Karol Wotyla, who seek who seek to establish that there are universal moral norms in areas such as sexuality, marriage and so forth]. Then in parentheses - and not part of hid main point) Boswell adds that "any member of the familias would be considered available to the paterfamilias for sexual purposes, whereas in the modern family it is only his wife". In general this is a true claim. Boswell then, in a footnote says "Apparently including his own children" and cites Martial 6:39. Having qualified this note on note with an "apparently" Boswell then says it is difficult to judge whether child molestation was common in the ancient world, and refers to cuurent research by Kelley Ditmar. In other words this is an admittedly speculative footnote, not central to any thesis, and floated for the interest of the reader. This is the best Boswell's attackers can do?

  • On page 60, he claims that Aristotle spoke in admiring terms about a famous pair of male lovers. The reference in the footnote is mistaken, but where Aristotle does speak of the two he simply mentions that they were lovers without in any way approving of the relationship. In the same place, Boswell leads his readers to believe, through selective citations, that Plato also extolled homosexual love. He fails to mention, however, that elsewhere both Plato and Aristotle insist that homosexual activities would be forbidden in an ideal community.

This footnote - no 32 on p. 60 - has two references: the text prints "1247A" when it should be "1274A", a simple printers' error not explained by the authors who leave an implication of shoddiness. The other form of the citation is Politics 2:96-7. I am not familiar with this citation system, but the reference is, correctly, to the end of book 2 of the Politics. Aristotle is going through a list of lawgivers. He comes to Philolaus, a lawgiver in Thebes and states that he was the lover of Diocles [Boswell does spell "Diocles" incorrectly btw - SSU is replete with typos]. Aristotle then relates the little story of how they were buried together, and says that the inhabitants point out the tomb. Boswell's point here is that, contrary to frequent claims, male homosexual relationships in Ancient Greece were not just a matter of older Athenian aristocrats getting crushes on boys in the gymnasia, but included lifelong partnerships [or "same sex unions"]. This point is indeed witnessed by his reference. What about "admirable" though? Aristotle does not use a general word, but refers to Diocles as an "Olympic Victor" ["tou nikesantos Olumpiasin"] and Philolaus is referred to as "arising as a lawgiver at Thebes". Perhaps these phrases do not seem to be "admiring terms" to Boswell's critics here, but Boswell is clearly not being misleading.

Even odder is the claim the Boswell "fails to mention" that Plato elswhere insists that homosexual activities be forbidden in an ideal community. Odd because right there on P. 60 - in note 30 - is the statement by Boswell that Plato, while taking sex as inevitable in the Symposium, in the Phreadrus "and even more strongly in his last work, the Laws" discourged sexual relationships. Plato did, of course, extol homosexual love in the Symposium - Boswell was not misleading anyone on that. So one has to ask, just who is doing the misleading here?

  • On page 209, he grossly mistranslates a Greek regulation for monks, which is key to his argument about the similarity of marriage ceremonies and the ceremonies of same-sex unions. The text properly says, "Monks are forbidden from sponsoring children at baptism, serving as the best man at a wedding, or taking part in a rite of adelphopoiesis." Boswell, however, translates it to read, "Monks must also not select boys at baptism and make same-sex unions with them."

Supposedly Boswell's notes do not support his text contentions, right? On page 209 Boswell is discussing whether "crowns" were used in the ceremony of adelphopoiesis. Boswell states that he has no evidence that such a aspect was essential to the male-male ceremony, but, he argues, there is evidence that it was actually associated with the male-male ceremony. Note then that Boswell does not make this a crucial point, contrary to his two critics assertion! He cites, as evidence of the use of crowns, the Grottaferrata GB ms, given in full on pp. 294-298. Now there is problem, addressed at length by Boswell in fn 80 on p. 296, about this text, so Boswell in fn 59 on p. 209 cites another example of crowns being used. Boswell refers to a comment by the 14th century jurist, Harmenopoulos, on a ruling by the council in Trullo that monks might not dine with women. Harmenopoulos cites a comment by "Peter the Chartophylax" that "anadekton, phesi, monachon dechesthai paidia apo tou agiou baptismatos, kai kratein stephanous gamon, kai adelphopoiis poiein". Boswell gives the greek text [PG 150:124] and paraphrases - not "translates" as Kennedy and Kemp say - this as "Peter..[adds].. the comment that monks must not slect boys at baptism and make such unions with them". I think Boswell is wrong here in his paraphrase, although it is a possible interpretation, depending on how strongly you read the "kai"s, but equally inaccurate in the "translation" "Monks are forbidden from sponsoring children at baptism, serving as the best man at a wedding, or taking part in a rite of adelphopoiesis." - which makes a number of assumptions about the nature of the ceremonies actually under discussion. I will note that Patrick Viscuso, a Greek Orthodox priest, in another review [New Oxford Review Dec 1994, 29-31] discusses this exact passage as an example of Boswell's perfidy and gives yet another question-begging translation - viz "It is unacceptable..for monks to receive children from holy baptism, to hold crowns of marriage, and to make brother adoptions". Viscuso also reads the "ands" as strong, and then translates "adelphopoiesis" exactly as he wants it. [Not addressing, as indeed none of Boswell's critics has, why if this means "brother adoption, it could only be between two people]. In short, Boswell is on weak ground here, but he does not "mistranslate" although he may misconstrue. But the his note is to back up a secondary example to show a point he has already stated is non-essential. That two of Boswell' critics [Viscuso and Kennedy/Kemp] pick on the same point, neither giving context or even that we are talking about a footnote, shows I think, just how desperate the debunkers are.

  • More recent sources do not fare much better. On page 268, he quotes a 19th century German anthropologist who, in writing about the ceremony of brother-making (adelphopoiesis) in the Balkans, speaks of it as a wedding. However, Boswell fails to mention that the paragraph immediately preceding the one he quotes describes how a rebel leader and a large number of his followers all swore brotherhood to one another in a ceremony of adelphopoiesis. In general, he neglects to acknowledge the important role that adelphopoiesis played in solemnizing important agreements such as peace treaties, mutual aid pacts, etc. He also largely ignores the evidence that his sources provide (in passages he does not quote) for the use of the ceremony between men and women, nor does he discuss (as his sources do) such variations as temporary adelphopoiesis and involuntary adelphopoiesis.

Kennedy and Kemp do not give their readers any information to check this out. Boswell cites more than one "German anthropologist on" on p. 268. Perhaps they are referring to Boswell's citation of Friedrich Krauss', Sitte und Brauch der Suedslaven…(Vienna: 1885), p 627 where Krauss does indeed call the ceremony a wedding. But if so they are omitting Boswell's citation of of Stanislaus Ciszeweski's Kuenstliche Verwandtschaft bei den Suedslaven (Leipzig: 1897) which provides rather extensive backing for the first statement. The German references are not to adelphopoiesis as such but to what Ciszeweski calles "wahlbruederschaft" - a general descriptive term. Both citations are part of a chapter looking at evidence of such ceremonies in later European history. Again, Boswell's evidence is so overwhelming here that what he is being accused of would ammount to a minor sin if it were his only evidence, but is standard academic practice [ie piling up citations] when you have a a strong point.

In all four of the above "errors", it seems to me that Boswell's critics are more open to serious criticism than Boswell himself. The fact that these are the strongest attacks they can make leaves Boswell in a stronger position.

To make his case, Boswell must show that the ceremonies he examines were in fact used to bless and solemnize same-sex erotic couplings as if they were marriages and that this was routinely done with the explicit permission and approval of the bishops. He is able to do neither, for his attempt to do so is based on an examination of the relevant texts which suffers from the same defective scholarship that characterizes his treatment of the other material.

Kennedy/Kemp do not discuss what evidence Boswell offers, and I agree this may be a weak point if one accepts certain assumptions of conservative Catholics which are not incumbent on scholars. Boswell's main argument, I suppose, would be that the widespread knowledge, dissemination in liturgical books, and cooperation by the clergy indicates local episcopal approval . He is not able to show, as far as I can gather, and episcopal regulation of the ceremony in the way heterosexual marriages were regulated.

But this assumes that the "Church" is constituted the way post Tridentine Catholic see the Church - as a "perfect society", hierarchically organized under the pope. Thus only statements of the Church "teaching authority" can be held to constitute valid statements of legitimate and recognized Christian practice. This may be an assumption of conservative Catholics, although not that many of the current laity. It certainly, as a credal affirmation, should not hold scholars. If Boswell has shown that same sex union ceremonies were indeed held for many centuries across wide geographical areas with Christian communities, then he has indeed demonstrated what he set out to do. Let me give another example: for much of the 19th and early 20th century, Devotional Catholicism - pushed by the Cure D'Ars, who claimed that he did all that he did through her, celebrated "St. Philomena", who turned out to be an archeological mistake. She was even allowed a feast day on August 10 (or 11). When the mistake was discovered, Rome backpedalled like crazy, and it was pointed out of course that Rome had not made any mistake [it never does], and that she had not been "canonized" [although she had been added to the canon]. From an official viewpoint St. Philomena does not exist: but to any historians of popular Catholicism she is an important part of the story of the modern Church. Critics of Boswell often elide the distinctions that Boswell rightly makes.

There is indeed evidence to suggest that the practice of adelphopoiesis was known in Europe into the Middle Ages, though we do not know much about how common the practice was. Certainly Boswell's evidence would suggest strongly that it was common among the Eastern Churches rather than in Western Europe, if it was common anywhere.

So Boswell does have some evidence it seems, evidence which annot be simply dismissed.

Even here, though, the texts adduced do not explicitly describe these "same-sex unions" as erotic, except perhaps in circumstances in which no one would claim the approval of the Church. To understand them as erotic requires a thoroughly revisionist perspective as well as an eagerness to read into the texts the homosexuality that Boswell wants to find there.

It is quite true that the Church, though largely the Eastern Churches, sometimes officially approved and regulated the ceremony of adelphopoiesis. It is also quite probably true that the ceremony of adelphopoiesis was used at times to bind together, illicitly, pairs of men who had erotic homosexual intentions. What is simply not true, and what Boswell is completely unable to show, is that the Church officially approved of adelphopoiesis as a "same-sex union" for anything approaching an erotic purpose or a simulation of marriage. Indeed, contrary to Boswell's claims, there is evidence that in the Balkans, where the ceremony persisted after dying out elsewhere, an adelphopoiesis was sometimes celebrated between a man and a woman, between several men simultaneously or between one man and several others serially. The confusion of adelphopoiesis with some kind of same-sex marriage is a product of Boswell's wishful thinking, not his research.

For these two paragraphs, see my comments above about the notion of "Church" being advanced here. But note especially the admissions made here:

  1. There was such a ceremony as adelphopoeisis
  2. It may have been common
  3. It probably was used by pairs of men who had homosexual intentions [a rather startling admission that homosexually oriented men in the past were indeed seeking life partnership, aka same sex unions, in past centuries.

In sum, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe is a carefully crafted, superficially impressive, but thoroughly misleading book. Despite the claims of his supporters, claims that will doubtless continue, his revisionist project has simply failed.

In sum reviews such as this by Kennedy and Kemp struggle as hard as they can to attack Boswell, but can only drag up minor footnoting errors [sometimes even only typographical errors] as there main evidence; they rely on slanted vocabulary which begs the questions raised, and they are historically unsophisticated in adopting a Tridentine view of the "Church", which was never accurate, and should have no hold on scholars.

It may be that serious academic scholarship will eventually undermine Boswell. At the Byzantine studies conference people were unhappy about his translation of the life of Sergios and Bacchus, and Claudia Rapp mentioned that she has an article on an alternative explanation of the adelphopoiia ceremonies. In the meantime, Boswell is standing up very well to his critics.

Paul Halsall

[For John Boswell, who probably saved my life.]


From: original essay 1995

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