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International Gay & Lesbian Review

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

by John Boswell

Elisabeth J. Davenport:

“Some States Trying to Stop Gay Marriages Before They Start,” blared the New York Times headline on the day that I first began reading John Boswell's then recently published Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (March 15, 1995). Referring to the attempts then being made in some state legislatures to forestall the local acceptance of same-sex unions should Hawaii come to sanction such unions, the article surveyed legislative developments in Utah, South Dakota and Alaska. South Dakota State Representative Roger Hunt, Republican sponsor of a (failed) bill which would declare “null and void” any same-sex marriage, was quoted as saying, “I believe, by and large, that would be counter to what, in this state, has been the sanctity of families for the last 100 years.” The informed reader will notice instantly the irony in his words. It would indeed be counter to generally accepted practice in South Dakota, and in the entire Western world, for the last one hundred years or more for persons of the same sex to be united in marriage. But prior to that? Representative Hunt's words leave one aching to ask whether he is acquainted with the research of John Boswell! For the clear and substantiated conclusion of that research, presented in painstaking detail in the book under review, is that until modern prejudice founded upon ignorance, fear and hostility caused the celebration of same-sex unions to fall out of favour, such unions were a widespread occurrence in Europe, sanctioned and blessed by religious authorities for many hundreds of years.

In a book widely criticised even prior to its publication by those who found cause for displeasure in its thesis, Boswell gathers together the research findings of the last twelve years of his tragically foreshortened life. Published just weeks prior to his death, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe contains his meticulous account of his discovery and translation of not one but dozens of liturgical manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Slavic and Russian honouring and sanctifying relationships between two persons of the same sex (generally, but not quite exclusively, male). The manuscripts, stored for centuries in archives as diverse as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Vatican Library, the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, and the National Library of Belgrade, witness to a continuity of liturgical tradition across the great divides of church, state and language over many centuries. The following words or close variants, for example, appear in manuscripts printed in full in Boswell's appendices dating from the 10th to 16th centuries in Greek, the 12th century in Italo-Greek, and the 11th to possibly 17th centuries in Slavonic:

O Lord our God, who madest humankind after thine image and likeness, and gavest them power of life everlasting, who approved it when thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew were united…, and who didst approve that thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus should be united, bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined not by nature but in the way of faith…. (329).

Boswell begins his study with a presentation of the vocabulary of love and marriage. Noting wryly that the sharpest criticism, and the most difficult to refute, comes from those who say, “But it doesn't mean that!”, he explores the way in which even our own language shies from direct reference to sexual behaviour. How, for example, might his critics translate the common English phrase “to sleep with” into another language? Linguistic pedants might possibly say it should be translated at face value; scholars would prefer to render it with some variant in the translated text indicating the act of intercourse to the average reader. “If the result of a ‘literal translation' is that readers misunderstand what happened,” he observes, “it is a mistranslation, no matter how ‘accurately' one might claim the words correspond to the original” (19).

The word potentially most problematic in the liturgical ceremonies under discussion is the English ‘brother' or ‘brotherhood,' and its various equivalents in the original languages. The heading “Office for Brotherhood” frequently appears over the texts, and ecclesiastical scholars from the 17th century onward, followed by 19th and 20th century anthropologists, have argued that what is intended is a “spiritual brotherhood” (implying chaste friendship) or “artificial kinship” (implying rights of inheritance). Arguing that no reasonable person assumes a spiritual (heterosexual) marriage necessarily to preclude sexual involvement between a man and a woman, and pointing to the fact that such a union is in fact the highest example of artificial kinship (automatically bestowing the status of next-of-kin upon the spouse), Boswell pokes delighted fun at the sensibilities of earlier translators. If these ceremonies represented, as some have fervently wished, merely the acknowledgement of the importance in Christian tradition of ‘brotherly' love, then why such an inefficient way of spreading this love as to do so two by two? And why a ceremony anyway, if it was the obligation of all Christians at all times to show such love toward each other (and indeed all humans)? And, most tellingly of all, why would such a ceremony be prohibited to monks who, one would presume, had a special gift of or calling to ‘brotherhood'? And why, if the ceremony was intended as some tame recognition of the command to love, would legislators of the Byzantine era have sought for it to be outlawed and its principals punished by death, along with adulterers? And why, in at least one surviving copy of the Sinai Euchologion, did some later hand rip the folio containing the liturgy for the same-sex union from its binding (and, in other instances, deface and tamper with the text)?

With such questions, Boswell appears to leave no imaginable ground upon which his accusers can challenge him. “Nearing the end of the twentieth century,” he declares, “scholars can no longer predicate serious social research on the moralistic and empirically mistaken assumption that homosexual feelings or behavior are ‘abnormal,' peculiar, or inherently unlikely” (p.274). He is not so naive, however, as to suppose that they will not. Hence his constant return to the issues raised in the mind of readers from cultures in which same-sex eroticism is not a predominant part of the public ethos: “Was this marriage?” “Were they really homosexual?” Was it marriage? “According to the modern conception-i.e., a permanent emotional union acknowledged in some way by the community-it was unequivocally a marriage” (190). But Boswell notes that the definition of marriage has varied considerably in different times and places. If the procreation of children (or at least the possibility of such) were deemed essential to a marriage in the minds of a particular group of theologians, then to them a same-sex union would not constitute a marriage. Even theological statements predicated on consummation, Boswell argues, are fraught with difficulty. And prior to 1215, he reminds the reader, the ecclesiastical authorities were not greatly concerned with the regulation of matrimony anyway. A marriage could be blessed by a priest; but the act of living together and sharing a home was understood by most people to have been the crucial determinant for viewing a particular male-female pairing as a marriage, whether or not children were produced or a ceremony witnessed.

And in the case of the same-sex ceremony, standing together at the altar with their right hands joined (the traditional symbol of marriage), being blessed by the priest, sharing Communion, and holding a banquet for family and friends afterward-all parts of same-sex union in the Middle Ages-most likely signified a marriage in the eyes of most ordinary Christians.” (191)

To critics who still prefer, nonetheless, to interpret such a ceremony as a fraternal adoption, Boswell demands at least that the issue be debated honestly, which he believes to have been impossible in the moral and intellectual climate of Europe or the United States over the past two centuries. Letters to the editors of ecclesiastical newspapers in the months immediately following the book's publication and subsequent review underlined his point. The most reasoned letter seen by this writer was one penned by George Greenia of the department of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the College of William and Mary, and published in the March 1995 issue of Episcopal Life:
Yes, there are many believers, gay and straight, who have been impressed by the quality of the love and commitment of gay couples they know and who want Boswell to be right that the early church did in fact bless those unions. Another camp, however, has been preparing to denounce Boswell's meticulous research years before they read any of it. Their insistence that the church could never have sanctioned gay couples seems to be more tied to their presumptions on how the church should act now than on the historical record. Scholars are only starting to sift the massive evidence offered by Boswell in favor of the existence of gay marriages, but our mutual point of departure should be a calm ‘Why not?'

Greenia welcomes the debate (if not perhaps its tone) as an appropriate response to an issue of great interest to the academy and the general public alike.

So is Boswell right? To say the very least, the weight of the evidence he has so carefully collected and pondered leans in his favour. This is not a book hastily produced for popular consumption in the race to score political points (or even to amass decent royalties). Boswell assumes that the reader can transliterate and translate from the various languages in which he himself was competent. Explaining carefully the rationale behind his choice of certain phrases (e.g. same-sex union) to render originals for which no exact equivalent word exists in English, he makes a point of including the phrase in the original language in parentheses so that the reader does not have to travel to Belgrade or St Petersburg to check the manuscript. Indeed, he includes in full in his Appendix of Documents several of the ceremonies in their original language to which he makes reference. His footnotes are impeccable, and his attention to detail the model for those who will debate his work for years to come. Less brash than in the days when he breezily appended the subtitle “Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century” to his earlier work Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, he makes clear that in his translations he uses no English word postdating the context of the ceremony in which it occurs.

Had the use of these ceremonies been one of unbroken continuity, the debate surrounding the manner of their employment would of course be conducted with less anxiety. All we know, however, is that these ceremonies were undoubtedly widely used in premodern Europe (the Sinai Euchologion contains the text for the same-sex union, but omits any parallel ceremony for heterosexual marriage!). At some point, however, the joining together of persons of the same sex in love and commitment ceased to be socially acceptable. We read of penalties for nuns engaging in sex without men and of the increasing oppression of individuals engaging in same-sex relations from the thirteenth century onwards. Where once sexual danger was represented in men's minds purely by the female of the species, now (in conjunction with the ever greater value being imputed to celibacy) all overt sexual behaviour became subject to new theological and legal scrutiny. It has taken until the present time for ecclesiastical authorities in traditional religious settings to reconsider long-held theory and practice based on what is now understood to be plain sexism and heterosexism (the two, and their unravelling, tending to be paired). As a new brand of same-sex union slowly makes its way toward acceptance in such circles (and indeed in state legislatures), it will do so on the ground of scholars admitting that past prejudice was both ignorant and unjust, and not simply on the ground that this was done in premodern Europe after all!

Boswell's final book adds both liveliness and dignity to the debate, however, and as such is his fitting memorial.

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