Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell. New York: Villard Books, 1994, 412 pp. N.p.
Bennison, Charles, Book reviews.., Vol. 77, Anglican Theological
Review, 04-01-1995, pp 256.
To have met John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold
Professor of History at Yale, whose premature death late last
year is an ineffable tragedy for both the academy and the church,
was to have come into the presence of a brilliant, learned, engaging,
talkative, and insistent man. In his Sam-Sex Unions in Premodern
Europe, the much-anticipated and long- awaited sequel to his award-winning
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), Professor Boswell has left as his principal legacy a brilliant,
learned, engaging, talkative, and insistent argument that the
ancient and medieval church celebrated the same-sex equivalent
of its heterosexual marriage ceremony.
One would not absolutely have to be gay to write this book, but
it certainly helped. Boswell was gay--indeed,
the first openly gay individual to be granted tenure at an ivy
league university. While asserting that "it is not the province
of the historian to direct the actions of future human beings,
but only to reflect accurately on those of the past," the
historical reality he in this book is able to construct is advantaged
by his social location in a nation and church embroiled in a culture
war over the issue of the normative status of homosexuality. In
the face of "the psychological landscape of the modern West,"
which he describes as obsessed with romantic love, "causally
interrelated and largely coterminous" with heterosexual marriage,
and as filled with "a salient horror of homosexuality,"
he comes down on the opposite side of the "epistemological
divide" among those for whom "it is relatively easy
to recognize and absorb ideas about a ceremony of same-sex union,
because they have a place to locate the information"
This is to say, not that Boswell is careless
with history, but that he brings to the over sixty manuscripts
"containing ceremonies of same-sex union" he consults
a hermeneutic not exercised heretofore. One strength of the book,
in fact, is the modesty of the claims he makes based on the texts
before him. "Speculation," he volunteers, "has
been kept to a minimum, although many questions remain unanswered
by the sources."
Those who, cognizant of the widespread existence of gay and lesbian
relationships today, have endeavored to draft new rites whereby
the church can now bless God for the same, know that the first
problem encountered in this enterprise is about what to call both
the relationships of the couples and the liturgies celebrating
them. Unless a reality is named, it does not, as far as we are
concerned, exist, In a theological discussion a few years ago
on what Boswell calls "same-sex union"
I counted almost a score of terms being used to describe the reality
a couple of dozen of us from across our national church were seeking
to understand, though of course each descriptor whether "union"
or "holy union" or "same-sex union" or "same-gender
union" or "celebration" or "commitment"
or "covenant" or whatever-connoted a slightly different
Boswell wisely begins his argument by observing
that there has always been a baffling ambiguity in the vocabulary
of love and marriage, and in his appendix of translations actually
publishes two translations of an eleventh-century prayer for same-sex
union, the one "anachronistically literal" as a "prayer
for making brothers," the other "tendentiously slanted"
as a "prayer for homosexual marriage." Out of fairness
to his readers, moreover, he presents the key problematic terms
from both his original texts and secondary sources in their original
languages- -Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Russian,
French-as well as their English translations. "Eros"
and "agape," he argues, were "largely interchangeable,"
not distinct and contrasting, terms in the ancient world, C.S.
Lewis notwithstanding. Greek and Latin vocabulary for both "marriage"
and the parties entering into it was so fluid as to make impossible
any determination of the character of the relationships from the
words alone. For Boswell the most significant
piece of "romantic slippage related to love and sexuality"
appeared in the use of sibling terminology for romantic partners.
This was especially true of the terms adelphopoieia, meaning "make
brotherhood," which Boswell, in a turn crucial
to his entire argument, takes to mean, "as seems inescapably
clear," the formation of a "same-sex union," and
adelphopoietos, translated as "same-sex partner."
Are such translations accurate? When two men, using rites like
those Boswell, over a twelve-year period, resurrected
from libraries across Europe, joined hands, wore crowns, circled
the altar, received the sacrament, read from scripture, and kissed--all
part of medieval heterosexual marriage rites--and, thus, were
"made brothers," were they in fact entering into a "marriage,"
and, if so, was that "marriage" understood in the same
way as "marriage" is understood today? With all due
respect, perhaps it is best to say that what Boswell here
believes he proves he, in fact, only opines. But if our respect
is for one whose extraordinary erudition and social location equip
him to understand what to most of us are only mysteries surrounding
our sexualities, we must take his opinion very' seriously.
Take, for example, the rubrics from an eleventh-century liturgy
in which the priest is instructed to "place the holy Gospel
on the Gospel stand and they that are to be joined together place
their [right] hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left
hands. Then shall the priest cense them and say . . . "In
a prayer which follows the priest asks God, 'as Thou didst find
thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together,
bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not
by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit,
granting unto them peace and love and oneness of mind.'"
Was this just a male bonding ceremony as typical of earlier times
as it would be atypical of our own ? Was it merely about "collateral
adoption" or "blood brotherhood" or "spiritual
brotherhood?" Boswell appears to argue persuasively
against these alternative interpretations, but, in the end, one
cannot be absolutely sure. As a pastor for over a generation to
dozens upon dozens of lesbian and gay individuals and couples,
however, it is not much of a stretch for me to imagine that outlined
here in indirect and ironic language, and read aloud with perhaps
a wink in the direction of the knowing, is a marriage of two men.
But even if such is not the case, even if Boswell has
failed to make a watertight case for his interpretation of the
evidence as proving that some priests at some times in some churches
blessed same-sex unions, and even if proving that does not prove
that the church ever bestowed upon such rites as did exist a normative
status such as we would by including them in our Book of Common
Prayer, he has still done us all an inestimable sen,ice by igniting
our imaginations with his own and, further, by helping us to believe
that if the past just might have been different than we once conceived,
so, too, might the future. Like Columbus, who sailed off to find
India and instead called "Indians" those whom he in
fact found, maybe Boswell has not arrived conclusively
at the destination he has essayed to reach. In fact, by moving
many of us across the epistemological divide to an acceptance
and celebration of what we in the post-modern West therefore now
dare call "same-sex unions," he has in hand a far greater
achievement. For Episcopalians Boswell's achievement
could not be mere striking: in a triennium when there are those
who interpret last summer's General Convention Resolution C-042a
to mean that none is permitted to develop rites for same-sex unions, Boswell nonetheless gives us to read some as
such--which is to give us some to read. Read them we should, not
just out of curiosity, but--as Boswell in this,
the fruit of his life' s work tried to insist, and now by his
death from AIDS, as by so unthinkably many, makes urgent--as a