History With A Bad Attitude
CRISIS, Sep. 1995
Robert G. Kennedy & Kenneth Kemp
Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
412 pages, $13
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.