Book Review: Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell
The question of same-sex unions and their legitimacy in many different societies is a topic that has been hotly debated for centuries. One society in particular is pre-modern Europe. Noted author and historian Dr. John Boswell looks extensively at the topic of same-sex unions in his book Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Dr. Boswell argues extensively in his book that the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches not only sanctioned unions between partners of the same sex, but actually sanctified them. This critique examines some specific aspects of the book, and analyzes them. Before an analysis of the Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe can be evaluated, it’s important to know a little about the author himself and what he stood for.
Dr. Boswell was a professor at Yale University and Chairman of Yale’s history department for many years. He was an award winning scholar, author and historian. In addition to writing Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe he also wrote several other works such as Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Two of his greatest professional achievements included being a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fulbright scholar. It is his extensive training as a Historian and an understanding of his own homosexuality that gave him unique insight into the writing of Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.
In Same Sex Unions in Modern Europe, Boswell takes a highly controversial position in saying that the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches actually sanctified same sex unions, while at the same time, presenting his viewpoints in such a way that any well educated historian would… very carefully. He almost contradicts himself at several points in the book and mentions that his ideas are subject to debate among his peers.
Boswell, in writing this book has essentially established a Premodern Europe where heterosexual marriage was largely ignored by pagans and discouraged by the church. Also, according to Boswell, men would essentially pair off in order to perform duties that were considered essential to society such as war, trade, education, friendship, etc. As Boswell puts it “it is hardly surprising that there should been a Christian solemnizing same sex unions.”
I do not agree with him on this premise, although homosexuality has existed in animal species and in humans since the beginnings of our existence, how can he be so bold as to assume that the majority of these supposed pairs were homosexual? In my opinion that broad of a statement is like saying that any two men that shake hands or embrace must automatically be gay.
There is a second specific point that I wish to point out with regards to medieval priest and the monastic life. Boswell points out in Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe that young boys caught performing homosexual acts were “punished” by being sent to a monastery. Was this meant as “punishment” to deprive these boys of their youth or to isolate them from the supposed forces that made them perform these acts? Boswell points out “in any event, being placed with monks was likely to provide the best environment to locate other men romantically interested in their own gender.” That’s all well and good, but he undermines his own thesis here. If the Christian Right of the time so vehemently supported same sex unions, then why would boys who engaged in same-sex acts be “punished” at all? Should not they be encouraged to be homosexual? Boswell not only mildly contradicts himself here, he goes a step further and practically destroys his own thesis.
Through reading Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, relating it to my own experiences as a history major, and gay male, not to mention discussions in class, I do not believe that same sex unions were as heavily sanctioned in Premodern Europe by churches as Boswell would have us believe. It is my opinion that there have fluctuations between then and now as to exactly how much homosexuality is tolerated by the so-called mainstream society. There were places such as Ancient Greece where it was accepted and modern day liberal locations
such as San Francisco, California that have a large gay/lesbian population. In both places both in the past and present, a certain percentage of religions Christian or non-Christian have spoken out against same sex unions.
In one respect I can agree with Boswell in that perhaps in the past (in certain premodern Europe geographical locations) that same sex unions were more tolerated than they are today here in the United States. This is especially true in the so called “Bible Belt” which comprises many of the Southern and South Western states where groups such as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority have gained a lot of political clout with their conservative (and anti-gay) viewpoints. These groups tend to be at the forefront of what I consider to be backwards thinking. They do not recognize that many gays and lesbians wish to have families and be considered as “normal” members of society, instead these groups and others view them as “deviants” and “sinners” because of whom they chose to have relationships with.
In recapping some of the major themes of Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by Dr. John Boswell, I find his basic thesis in his book to be how openly both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church supported same sex unions. Although he provides some good evidence that there was some recognition, I believe he makes the mistake of assuming that most, if not all of these unions were sexual partners and companions. While some may have been, certainly not to the degree that he states. Furthermore in looking into other church records of the time period, it is clear that the Catholic Church did not support same sex marriages or unions. Bottomline, Boswell makes some good points and provides some evidence, but it was not persuasive enough for me to agree with his thesis, there are too many open ends in terms of his interpretations of documents and other sources.
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