From Christianity Today, 2/12/1994
BOOKS: Friends or Lovers?
"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," by John Boswell
(Villard, 412 pp.; $25, hardcover).
Reviewed by Gerald Bray,
Anglican professor of divinity at Samford University's Beeson
Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama.
Professor Boswell of Yale, whose earlier work on Christian attitudes
toward homosexuality achieved a certain notoriety in the early
1980s, has now returned to the field with a lengthy analysis of
medieval liturgical texts, mainly from Eastern Europe, which deal
with a phenomenon that he calls "same-sex union." Nowadays,
such a phrase will most often be taken to imply gay marriage,
though whether the documents cited by Boswell can bear this interpretation
is another matter altogether. To be fair to Boswell, he admits
that his evidence is ambiguous, and that the most that can reasonably
be said is that homosexual relationships may have existed under
the cover of ritual "brotherhood," which is what the
documents he quotes actually deal with.
To understand and evaluate Boswell's argument, it is necessary
to go back to the mentality that prevailed in premodern societies,
and that still exists in many parts of the world today. In those
cultures, relationships between the sexes invariably imply some
kind of sexual union; the idea of a nonsexual male-female friendship
simply does not exist. On the other hand, friendships between
people of the same sex are frequent and encouraged. A man would
normally be expected to spend most of his time with his friends
of the same sex, whether plowing the fields, waging war, or just
chewing the fat at the local tavern. Women would also live in
a largely female world, where home and family would dominate their
In the late twentieth-century West, this age-old pattern has been
significantly disrupted. To begin with its most acceptable side,
many men now refer to their wives as their "best friends,"
as if marriage and friendship were somehow identical. This false
equation devalues marriage - at least, in its traditional monogamous
form - and perverts friendship into a sexual relationship. The
result is that marriages crack under a strain they were never
meant to bear, and friendship (in the classical sense) has all
but disappeared. C. S. Lewis made this point many years ago in
his essay on friendship in "The Four Loves," and his
conclusions have lost none of their validity since.
Boswell has read Lewis, but does not take up his argument, probably
because it goes against what he wants to say, which is that homosexual
unions were tolerated and even blessed by the medieval church.
To this end he takes the many examples of same-sex friendship
that exist in the ancient world and reduces them all to the framework
in which gay marriage is the logical conclusion. It has long been
known, of course, that the ancient Greeks practiced homosexuality
(along with many other forms of sexual perversion), and that the
Christian sexual ethic was developed, to a considerable extent,
in reaction to this. It is also well known that heterosexual matrimony
was basically a civil ceremony until well into the Middle Ages,
when the church gradually acquired a near monopoly over it.
So the stage is set for Boswell, who wants to say that just as
the church adopted pre-Christian matrimony and made it a sacrament,
so also it took on board pre-Christian homosexual unions and created
a sacramental bond only slightly different from that of heterosexual
marriage. The fact that rites used to pledge fidelity in marriage
crop up in ceremonies designed to bless same-sex "brotherhood"
is taken to mean that gay marriage was both rampant and officially
accepted, although virtually identical ceremonies can be found
in pledges of allegiance (in the army or in the courtroom) and
elsewhere. To crown it all, Boswell suggests that the cult of
certain saints (notably the pair Serge and Bacchus, who were martyred
in the early fourth century) served as a cloak for gay people
to express their feelings and relationships within the wider culture.
It has to be admitted that such a thesis can never be crudely
disproved. No doubt there were homosexuals then, just as there
have been in every age, who took advantage of the system in order
to indulge their particular passions. But this is a far cry from
suggesting, as Boswell does, that the church encouraged this kind
of thing. The liturgies he quotes are generally very explicit
in affirming that same-sex unions are "not according to nature";
that is, that sexual acts are excluded from them. This is not
to deny their emotional intensity but to say that the basis of
attachment was something different.
THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP
A little thought will remind us that virtually every creative
activity in human history, other than physical reproduction, has
been the product of same-sex friendship, manifested in different
ways among women as well as men. It is when people get together
in such friendships and share ideas that things start to happen.
Unfortunately, the radical wing of the feminist movement has made
the destruction of male society a specific policy goal. In this
context, the linkage of male friendship with homosexuality is
tragic, because it deprives men of the rationale they need to
resist the feminist onslaught. By seeking to further this identification,
Boswell is contributing to the destruction of Western culture
because he cannot appreciate same-sex friendship, which he rightly
regards as potentially very deep and very significant for society
as a whole, in nonsexual terms. Turning friendship into marriage
is just as mistaken as turning marriage into friendship; categories
are confused, and both suffer as a result.
On matters of detail, Boswell quotes what suits his case and does
not give an overall picture of human relationships in premodern
times. He also has a disconcerting habit of mixing pagan with
Christian evidence, as if this can be done without taking Christian
theology into account. The reader must beware of great leaps over
time and space, with little to justify them. Boswell's own agenda
is so obvious that his use of the material is inevitably suspect
from the start, and the constant qualifications he is forced to
make weaken his case still further.
What Boswell has done, though, is remind us of the extent to which
the art of friendship, especially male friendship, has been lost.
Were our society in a healthy state, a book of this kind would
have no place, for it would be immediately obvious to everyone
not only that sex and friendship are two quite different things,
but that in most situations in everyday life, the latter is more
important than the former. Perhaps it is time for the Christian
church to reassert this truth, which is amply attested in Scripture,
and to get away from the obsession with sexuality that has done
so much to corrode our culture.