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Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
by John Boswell
New York: Villard Books, 1994.
(412 pages: $25.00)
reviewed by Leon J. Podles
The late John Boswell has become the chief source of scholarly propaganda for those Christians who wish to approve of homosexual behavior. Boswell has found ceremonies of brother-making ( adelphopoiesis) in medieval liturgical books from Orthodox churches. His thesis is that these ceremonies, which bless a relationship between two men, were gay marriages. He reasons that because homosexuals could have used these blessings as gay marriages, they therefore would have used them as gay marriages, with the implicit consent of the Church hierarchy and laity.
Homosexual activity, Boswell admits, was regarded in premodern Europe as sinful, but only about as sinful as premarital intercourse, and was, like fornication, generally tolerated in practice, whatever laws were made. Boswell claims that in certain Greek usages, brothers (adelphoi) was a euphemism for homosexual lovers. He adduces further evidence for the existence of medieval blessings of homosexual unions from the supposed suppression of these rites of brother-making, a suppression that he says coincided with a growing popular opprobrium for homosexuality after the fourteenth century, the subject of his 1981 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.
However, Boswell’s whole thesis is rendered highly improbable by the fact that the Byzantines, who supposedly were blessing homosexual unions, were at the same time imposing sanguinary punishments on homosexual behavior in the civil code (a fact that he admits, but fails to explain satisfactorily). The existence of a rare Greek use of brothers as a euphemism for homosexual lovers hardly proves that the Christian Greek meaning of brothers did not derive from the Koine and the use of brothers in Scripture. Some people may use confirmed bachelor as a euphemism for homosexual, and bachelor may be a synonym for celibate, but it would be foolish to argue that bachelor means homosexual in standard English usage, or that the Roman Church, in obliging its clergy to be celibates (i.e., bachelors) is obliging them to be homosexuals. But such is the nature of Boswell’s linguistic argument. Nor do the rites of brother-making correspond to the full Byzantine marriage, as Father Patrick Viscuso, an Orthodox canonist, pointed out in his review of Boswell in the New Oxford Review. Viscuso was cited by Boswell, but claims that Boswell misunderstands the Byzantine rites of marriage, which were a series of ceremonies that united families, and that Boswell manipulates the evidence in a highly tendentious fashion. Nor have the rites died out, as Boswell claims. The Byzantinist Robin Darling Young mentions in her review in First Things that she underwent the rite with a friend when they were in Jerusalem. She dismisses Boswell’s attempt to find precedents for gay marriage as an “embarrassing” failure because of his sloppy and biased scholarship. Camille Paglia, no prude and a friend of homosexuals, panned the book in her Washington Post review.
The most sustained criticism appeared in, of all places, the New Republic, whose editor, Andrew Sullivan, is a professed Catholic and homosexual. There Brent Shaw examined the mistranslations, the mis-citations and misunderstandings of historical evidence, and the faulty reasoning. Shaw concluded that the desired end, a toleration of homosexuality, “will not be achieved by tendentious misreading of antiquity.” The few favorable mentions on the book have appeared in the New Yorker, a citadel of scholarship under its new editor, in the oeuvre of the famous Byzantinist and theologian Gary Trudeau (the Doonsbury strip cartoonist), and in a review by a priest in the Baltimore Catholic Review, who had previously written a glowing series of articles on homoerotic friendships (such as David and Jonathan, Jesus and the Apostle John) for the Washington Gay Blade.
There is no evidence that these rites of brother-making were ever used by homosexual couples as gay marriages. Nor is there any evidence that the priest blessing the relationship or the congregation witnessing it thought that they were witnessing a blessing of a union that was a marriage or that included homosexual activity. Even if we had explicit evidence that homosexuals had entered into such unions (evidence that is lacking), it still would be necessary to have evidence that the public meant to approve of such unions. Second marriages in which a widowed spouse has children have been used as cloaks for incest in the modern world, and may have been so used in the Middle Ages. But the official blessing of a second marriage should not be interpreted as a sign that Christians do not disapprove of incest or regard it as a minor peccadillo.
There may have been a growing popular dislike for homosexuality after the High Middle Ages. This dislike may have stemmed from the association of homosexuals with profoundly anti-Christian heresies such as the Cathars and Bogomils (one etymology of bugger derives it from Bogomil) which despised procreative sex because it entrapped spirits in the suffering of the material world. Greater urbanization also may have provided more opportunity for homosexuality, which does not flourish in a rural community. But greater intolerance does not mean that homosexual activity was ever tolerated. It may have been either so rare, like cannibalism, that condemnations would have been superfluous, or it was seen simply as a matter of private sexual vice, like masturbation, more a matter for private counseling than public fulminations.
Boswell returns to a theme from his previous book in an appendix of this book: that the Jews identified the sin of Sodom not as homosexuality but as inhospitality. However, Boswell has a tin ear for literature, both sacred and secular, and as he misses the bitter insults in Juvenal and Martial in their allegations about the same-sex marriages of their contemporaries, he misses the point of the story of Sodom. Since Boswell’s interpretation of this story has seeped down even to church bulletins, it is important to look more closely at Genesis 19.
The author of Genesis frames the story of Sodom with the story of the conception and birth of Isaac, and contrasts the hospitality of Abraham, which welcomes both strangers and new life, to the inhospitality of Sodom, which seeks to abuse strangers—and sexual abuse is the obvious meaning of the story. The Sodomites want to know the strangers, a word that is used frequently in Scripture to imply sexual union and survives in our phrase carnal knowledge. Lot certainly interprets it as sexual when he offers his daughters in the place of the strangers. The homosexual intercourse of the Sodomites is condemned because it is inhospitable to new life, unlike the marriage of Abraham, who even in his old age welcomes a child.
The deepest meaning of the hospitality of Abraham is explored in St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon, which shows the three angels around the table at Mamre. The three angels are the Trinity, united in eternally fruitful love, and the outline of Father and Spirit forms the shape of a chalice around the central figure, Christ. In the Eucharistic meal, we are hospitably invited to unite ourselves with the Son and so enter into the inner life of the Trinity.
Boswell shows a strain of paranoia when he claims, repeating a theme from his previous book, that post-medieval Europeans came to regard homosexuality as “the most horrible of sins,” worse than “murder, matricide, child abuse, incest, cannibalism, genocide, even deicide.” Boswell claims that the love that dares not speak its name could not even be mentioned before the last half of the twentieth century. This simply is not so. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man contrasts Greek love with the child-murder of the Carthaginians. Chesterton claimed that God used Rome to punish Carthage with complete destruction because of their child-sacrifices, but just as the sin of the Greeks was lighter than that of the Carthaginians, God made their punishment, subjection, a lighter one. Homosexuality was not talked of much before the 1880s because it was and is rare, and the actions involved in it are gross. Just as bowel movements are not a subject of polite conversation (my wife claims this was the subject of a book written by her only ancestor with literary ambitions), anal intercourse, fisting (the insertion of the fist into the anus) and water sports (in which the partners urinate on each other) disgust most people, whatever their moral judgments of the actions. Even the most ardent fundamentalists today would judge abortion to be worse than homosexual acts, and are in fact willing to accept the handful of prolife homosexuals as allies, although they would never accept abortionists as allies against homosexual-rights activists.
As an individual vice, homosexual acts, like other sexual acts, are light sins. Dante (as Boswell notes) places the Sodomites in the upper reaches of both hell and purgatory. But as the opposite of the hospitality of Abraham, homosexuality is an emblem, an evil icon, of all that is worst in human nature, and it is in this sense that St. Paul refers to it in the book of Romans.The bizarre behavior of such groups as Act-Up, which has invaded Catholic services and pelted worshipers with condoms, seems to be generally accepted by homosexuals, who have become the lead group in the assault on Christianity and traditional masculine behavior in the United States. Having made their private sexual behavior a matter of public concern, homosexuals should not be surprised that public indifference sometimes has turned to hostility.
But to return to Boswell’s specific faults. He is a not a scholar, but a propagandist (despite his disclaimers) for the recognition of homosexual marriage, and cheerfully manipulates facts and engages in unsupported deductions to that end. A simple example will show his reasoning. He includes two photographs, one of a 1968 Soviet stamp commemorating the Red Army. It shows a peasant giving a soldier a full kiss in gratitude for being rescued from the Nazis (I would kiss the mouth and the feet of anyone who rescued me from the Nazis). Boswell says, without the slightest documentation, that the stamp “was not shocking to Russians, who entertained less horror of homosexual interaction than did their Western contemporaries. It is possible that the artist was gay, and concocted the scene for his own delight, but that remains uncertain.” It is uncertain because there is no evidence for it. Below it he has another photo of a huge photomural of the two old thugs Brezhnev and Honecker, embracing and giving a full kiss. We can see from the very pictures that he uses (whose relevance to the text of the book is not clear) that in Russian culture men kiss to show amity, affection, gratitude, and a range of nonsexual emotions. How does Boswell know that these gestures are really homosexual? Because he teaches at Yale and he says so. However, assertion cannot replace evidence and reasoning in scholarship.
Liberal arts scholarship in the United States largely has been taken over by feminist and homosexual propagandists, who maintain a pretense of scholarly objectivity by the use of extensive bibliographies and Latin quotes, but ignore facts and logical reasoning. Power (that is, getting your way) has replaced truth as the object of such scholarship, although it maintains a veneer of objectivity to deceive the unwary. The controversy in the pages of Touchstone about the mural that supposedly showed a woman presiding at the Eucharist was an example of this mode of controversy. Thomas Torrance asserted it showed a depiction of a woman priest. Why? Because it served his purpose to say so, and it is the same with Boswell. How does he know these blessings of spiritual brothers were gay marriages, and that everyone knew it? Because he says so in a flurry of irrelevant footnotes and quotations from Old Church Slavonic.
Boswell does not realize that his evidence may well show a change in Christianity, especially Western Christianity, but it is not specifically in its attitude to homosexuality. What largely has been lost in the modern West is the importance of friendship between men, a relationship that both pagan and Christian societies often saw as more important than that of marriage.
The liturgies of brother-making (reprinted by Boswell) have prayers that follow this general pattern: “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 in faith and in the mode of the spirit, granting unto them peace and love and oneness of mind.” Sergius and Bacchus were martyrs under Maximian. They were soldiers, Christians, and friends. Their “Passion” recounts: “Being as one in their love for Christ, they were also undivided from each other in the army of the world, united not by the way of nature, but in the manner of faith, always singing and saying, ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’” They refuse to sacrifice to false gods, and are condemned to death. Bacchus is killed first, and Sergius laments that he has lost him. Bacchus then appears to Sergius, “with a face as radiant as an angel’s, wearing an officer’s uniform” and says, “Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union.” The glorified Bacchus exhorts Sergius, “Hurry then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when finishing the course. For the crown of justice for me is with you.” As Boswell notes, they became the model of Christian friends, usually shown together, often with halos touching.
Men plumb the deepest recesses of love for another man not in sexual pleasure but in the comradeship of suffering, in war, or in the greater war, martyrdom. In the West comradeship has been almost totally secularized as Christianity has become feminized. Those who experience comradeship sometimes describe it as eros, as being in love, but without any sexual component. It is a delight in the other (including the physical reality of the other), a delight which is rooted in the willingness of each to die for the other, and a delight so great that simply being with the comrade seems to be the ultimate fulfillment of happiness. Sam feels this when he rescues Frodo from the orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in a scene in which Frodo is, significantly, naked. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front execrates war, but celebrates the comradeship that war makes possible. The gestures that express the closeness of comradeship are often the same gestures homosexuals use. Studs Terkel’s The Good War contains the story of Marine Ted Allenby, a concealed homosexual who fought in the Pacific war. Allenby found another homosexual in his regiment, who became his buddy. Allenby had a poncho with his name on it, which was stolen. On Iwo Jima on Good Friday during the fighting his buddy came across the decomposed body of a marine with Allenby’s name on the poncho. The buddy, assuming the worst, returned to the ship disconsolate. On Easter he was on deck and saw Allenby climbing over the railing. “He grabbed hold of me, hugged me, and couldn’t let go. He was crying uncontrollably.” The marines on board who witnessed these actions thought them perfectly normal and understandable. Allenby mused that this behavior if it were on the streets of San Diego would have gotten him and his buddy derided as “a couple of queers.” What his buddy felt on that Easter “has to do with the very deep emotions that men can have for each other, gay or not. Unfortunately, in our society, men aren’t supposed to show that kind of affection except under such stress as this.” Allenby, Marine and columnist for Gay Life, is a better judge of what human behavior can mean than Boswell is. Deep affection between men and expressions of love are not necessarily or even ordinarily the result of homosexuality, even if they are between homosexuals.
Since deep friendships are denied in modern Anglo-American culture, the danger grows that men will seek violence because it makes comradeship possible and creates the occasion for the deepest love that is an escape from the prison of self. An even graver consequence of this denigration of friendship is the meaninglessness of Christianity, especially in its Western form, for most men. The Western churches are thoroughly feminized, and men stay away in droves. Christianity is a relationship with God in the man Jesus Christ. Because of the dominance of bridal imagery in Western spirituality since St. Bernard, men feel that the only way to relate to Christ is to be, in some sense, His bride, which involves being feminine. Since men are seeking to establish their masculinity, they cannot relate as a bride to Christ, and therefore they do not relate to him at all. Men need to see Christ as friend, as comrade, as brother, and to feel the love for him that made Sergius and Bacchus feel that each was the other’s reward in heaven. (Boswell’s translation of this passage is tendentious but perhaps not totally inaccurate.) Homosexual apologists like John Boswell, in a highly confused way perhaps, are searching for this type of love. They sense that somehow the heart of man is not, ultimately, made for woman, but for another Man. In this they are right. It is not in human marriage that men, or women, find their final happiness. Our bliss will be complete only on the last day when the strong arms of Christ draw us from the grave, and we see in the face of a man, glorified but bearing the wounds he received in the battle to save us, the very face of God. I think that is what Boswell was looking for, and I pray that he has found it.
Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.