John Boswell’s “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe” broaches two crucial issues: the subjectivity of translation--in this case, what do other people mean when they speak of love or marriage? And the relevance of history--of what use is the past to us?
Boswell approaches these questions in a particularly striking and controversial form--more vividly than a historian investigating, say, slavery or usury in the ancient world--because he is speaking of sex. Sexuality in general, and sexuality between people of the same sex in particular, has always been characterized by tremendous privacy, subjectivity, circumlocution and, often, concealment. After all, people’s sex lives are always a mystery. (Boswell remarks that the Marquess of Queensberry--who denounced Oscar Wilde as a “Somdomite” ( sic )--"doubtless . . . had no idea what Wilde actually did in bed.”) Our own partners often surprise us by turning out to have sexual tastes very different from what we thought they had, sometimes after many years of seeming intimacy. This being so, the task of understanding the sexual habits of people of other cultures and other times is well-nigh impossible.
John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor at Yale and author of several widely praised books, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” and “The Kindness of Strangers,” has attempted to demonstrate not only that same-sex unions occurred widely in pre-modern Europe, which few people would be shocked to discover, but also that the church approved of such unions, which has shocked many people to the point of blatant disbelief. More particularly, he presents a corpus of Greek documents that he regards as definitive evidence that a ceremony celebrating same-sex marriage (generally between men, occasionally between women), was performed within the early Greek Church.
The existence and genuineness of these documents are not in question; indeed, some of those who would belittle Boswell’s achievement have pointed out that historians have known about documents of this nature for years. What is in question is what they mean, and, more particularly, what they mean for us. And Boswell’s approach to these questions is profound and exciting.
Boswell asks and answers the main questions that are likely to arise in the reader’s mind, and his catechism about the ceremony of same-sex union raises problems about context, translation, and subjectivity:
1--Does the ceremony solemnize a personal commitment, as opposed to a religious, political or family union? Boswell thinks it does; but he admits that this is a matter open to debate, and he himself presents a great deal of evidence for religious, political or family concerns underlying same-sex relationships.
The historical context that Boswell establishes is a world in which heterosexual marriage was largely ignored by pagans and discouraged by the church (a notion that will no doubt strike some readers as more shocking than the book’s main premise), in which asceticism and chastity were encouraged both outside and within Christian marriage, and men paired off to accomplish most of the acts regarded as central to society (such as war, commerce, education, friendship and, within the church, martyrdom). Boswell therefore finds it “hardly surprising that there should have been a Christian ceremony solemnizing same-sex unions.”
Were the men who participated in this ceremony just “good friends”? Boswell thinks not: Since all Christians were expected to love one another (and all humans) anyway, why would they have a special ceremony to establish that sort of love? But then he notes, contradictorily: “It would indeed be curious if the religion of a preacher who so privileged friendship turned out not to have a ceremony solemnizing it.” He also admits the wide range of non-romantic, non-erotic reasons for such union, including business contracts (not unlike contemporary prenuptial contracts among the wealthy). So, in answer to the problem of context, we have a resounding “maybe.”
2--Is the ceremony homosexual? This question involves two sub-questions: (a) “Was the ceremony ‘homosexual’ in an erotic sense?” Here he equivocates: “This is hard to answer for societies without a comparable nomenclature or taxonomy. Most pre-modern societies drew less rigid distinctions among ‘romance,’ ‘eroticism,’ ‘friendship’ and ‘sexuality’ than do modern cultures.”
Boswell is enormously sensitive to the difficulties inherent in translating texts of this nature. He has taken great care to assemble, transcribe, translate and interpret his texts, and he warns the reader about the wide range of meanings of the various Greek, Latin and English terms for the central concepts of love and marriage, as well as for the intersecting terms for brother/sister and friend. The terms simply do not translate from one language to another. Furthermore, sensitive issues produce euphemisms.
For instance, in Sanskrit (to take the case I know best), the word kliba, which has traditionally been translated as “eunuch,” meant anything but a eunuch (the practice only entered India centuries after the word kliba became current). Rather, it includes a wide range of meanings under the general homophobic rubric of “a man who does not act the way a man should act,” including someone who was sterile, impotent, castrated, androgynous or transvestite, a man who committed fellatio with other men, who had anal sex or, finally, a man who produced only female children. When a culture does not want to confront an issue, it produces a haze of obfuscating terms that can be used for a wide range of purposes.
Boswell is dealing with a similar problem in his attempts to define the words used by different texts for lover, brother, friend and so forth. He notes that the term that most scholars would render literally as “making brothers,” adelphopoetas, “ranges from a mechanical obligation incurred when one party is in another’s debt, involving no affect whatever . . . to the most intimate and personal bonds in a society, as between . . . homosexual lovers. It is questionable whether applying a single term to such phenomena does not obscure more than it discloses.”
Yet he cuts the Gordian knot when he translates this term as “same-sex union,” and he presents a most persuasive array of texts describing same-sex relationships in the ancient world, and even describing certain ceremonies that formalized them. But he is too honest a scholar not to admit that these relationships were of so various a nature, and were described with such an elusive range of terms, that it would be impossible to “prove” that the documents central to his argument sanctify what most modern readers would regard as a marriage. Boswell confronts the opposing arguments clearly, painstakingly, intelligently, cogently and respectfully. It is a testimony to the fairness of the book that the author provides the reader with enough evidence to construct strong objections to its central argument.
As for Boswell’s second sub-question, (b) “Did it celebrate a relationship between two men or two women that was (or became) sexual?” again he equivocates: “Probably, sometimes, but this is obviously a difficult question to answer about the past, since participants cannot be interrogated.” But he goes on to argue that it doesn’t “matter” that we cannot know this. For he argues, indirectly, that heterosexual marriages do not always produce, or even intend to produce, children (the Yuppie theology), that they are not always sexually consummated, that even in our own highly sexualized age love, sex and marriage do not always go together like a horse and carriage. Marriage in Europe, for example, is often more about property, or about cleaning and shopping, than about procreating children (who can be adopted) or enjoying sex (which is easily available elsewhere).
While this is of course true, it papers over the prevalent human desire to produce legitimate children, to carry on both genetic and material inheritance, and the power of the sexual intimacy of the honeymoon to cement the relationship that outlives it. After all, no man ever divorced a woman for shopping with another man.
When it comes to the early church, however, Boswell is on stronger grounds for rejecting the importance of physical relations, for early Christian antipathy to material inheritance and biological posterity led many (including Augustine) to regard sex and procreation as not merely nonessential but, indeed, detrimental to heterosexual marriage. Indeed, Boswell notes, “offspring could have been problematic for followers of Jesus . . . who had none himself, but somehow it was not, perhaps simply because a majority of Christians experienced a normal human desire to bear offspring and welcomed any justification of it.”
Still, Boswell fails to take full account of the force of that “normal human desire” and the centrality of procreation in all religions, including the early church. For the early church created a violent dichotomy between heterosexual marriage, in which sexuality was tolerated for the sake of children, and the priesthood, in which asceticism was idealized and sexuality entirely rejected. In this taxonomy, homosexual attachment represented a major “category error”: something that did not fit into any existing conceptual category, “matter out of place.” It was regarded not, like heterosexual marriage, as a compromise between two goals in tension (procreation and asceticism), but as a mutually polluting combination of the worst of both (sterility and lust). This attitude was a major source of the homophobia that, as Boswell himself stresses throughout the book, led to the suppression or misinterpretation of the documents in question throughout their later history.
And what about homosexual attachments between priests? Boswell notes that young boys caught in homosexual acts were punished by being confined in a monastery, and he remarks: “In any event, being placed with monks was likely to provide the best environment to locate other men romantically interested in their own gender.” Apparently this “punishment” was like the “execution” courted by Br’er Rabbit: “Don’t throw me into the briar patch, Br’er Fox.” Are we to assume that the ceremony of same-sex union was tolerated by the church as a tacit acceptance of homosexual attachments within the clergy? Boswell does not tackle this sensitive issue directly, but he gives the reader much data to ponder.
3--Was it a marriage? His answer here raises the problem of subjectivity: “The answer to this question depends to a considerable extent on one’s conception of marriage.” Boswell brilliantly demonstrates the difficulty in knowing how people of that time might have interpreted the documents in question: “This would depend to a large extent on the hearer’s openness to this possibility. One could interpret the story as evoking a pagan notion of friendship, from which sexuality was thought to be absent. . . . Christians particularly susceptible to such feelings may have interpreted them more erotically.” Thus he deconstructs the erotic vocabulary, leaving us with the realization that relationships are in the eye of the beholder. He has proven that you cannot prove that the ceremonies were erotic--nor, or course, that they were not.
Yet Boswell argues that many of these relationships in pre-modern Europe could well have been romantic, erotic, sexual, even that romantic homosexual relationships, involving sexual love, might have been more prevalent than heterosexual ones. He also points out that many non-Western cultures--Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans, African, Asian, South American--"have recognized and institutionalized same-sex unions. . . . Of course, the fact that people elsewhere have recognized same-sex unions does not in itself demonstrate that the Western tradition ever did so, but it should help to counter the visceral disinclination even to consider such a possibility.”
This brings us, at last, to the question of the relevance of history. What do these early Christian texts have to do with us? A great deal. Struggles over exactly the questions they raise are going on as of this writing in Oregon and Colorado, Boswell points out. “Even persons who argue that same-sex couples should now have the right to contract marriage like anyone else are apt to view such unions as an exotic indulgence of our time, a novel experiment in a liberal society.” Here I would invoke the historian’s version of Murphy’s Law, what might be called Herodotus’ Law: “Everything that can happen has happened.”
But this law has a corollary: Everything that can be thought has been thought. Did the early church approve of gay marriages? Boswell argues that the notorious and persistent homophobia of both church and state only developed later, and even then only in certain times and places. But his own claim that the documents of same-sex union were later condemned in the West leaves him, and us, with two possibilities: 1--(a) It was sexual and therefore (b) the early church condemned it. Or else: 2--(a) it was just brotherhood and (b) the early church did not condemn it. The argument for a genuine “gay marriage” in the early church, however, would have to combine 1 (a) and 2 (b): it was sexual and the church did not condemn it. And Boswell is simply too good and honest a scholar to argue that his own evidence proves this. He merely suggests that it could mean this, and that the evidence is too ambiguous for anyone to disprove it.
Boswell concludes his book by saying: “Recognizing that many--probably most--early Western societies institutionalized some form of romantic same-sex union gives us a much more accurate view of the immense variety of human romantic relationships and social responses to them than does the prudish pretense that such ‘unmentionable’ things never happened.” I think he is overstating his case a bit here, but with the deletion of “probably most” and “romantic,” we are still left with a highly meaningful sentence.
Even if we grant that Boswell has demonstrated that the early church might have sanctioned such ceremonies, what does this say about contemporary attempts to legalize similar unions? To argue from history in a literal way is to play into the hands of the most reactionary factions of the church: If it wasn’t done then, we can’t do it now. Such a syllogism ignores all the gains of the Enlightenment and would force us to reinstate slavery, torture, the disenfranchisement of women. But this is not Boswell’s argument at all. He is merely attempting to demonstrate that our own civilization, and others, took very seriously indeed relationships that many people nowadays would outlaw as unnatural. If it was possible for them, it is possible for us. This is very relevant indeed.
BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” see the Opinion section.