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Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
By John Boswell
Villard Books. 412 pp. $25

Ancient in origin, same-sex unions blessed in the Church occur quietly to this day. So says John Boswell, Professor of Medieval History at Yale University and the author of this new and lavishly publicized book. It may surprise readers of this journal to learn that he is probably right-depending on what the ceremony means.

This is a subject about which I have the good fortune to speak not merely as a scholar or an observer, but as a participant. Nine years ago I was joined in devout sisterhood to another woman, apparently in just such a ceremony as Boswell claims to elucidate in his book. The ceremony took place during a journey to some of the Syrian Christian communities of Turkey and the Middle East, and the other member of this same-sex union was my colleague Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University. During the course of our travels we paid a visit to St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem, the residence of the Syrian Orthodox archbishop. There our host, Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh, remarked that since we had survived the rigors of Syria and Eastern Turkey in amicable good humor, we two women must be good friends indeed. Would we like to be joined as sisters the next morning after the bishop’s Sunday liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Intrigued, we agreed, and on a Sunday in late June of 1985, we followed the bishop and a monk through the Old City to a side chapel in the Holy Sepulchre where, according to the Syrian Orthodox, lies the actual tomb of Jesus. After the liturgy, the bishop had us join our right hands together and he wrapped them in a portion of his garment. He pronounced a series of prayers over us, told us that we were united as sisters, and admonished us not to quarrel. Ours was a sisterhood stronger than blood, confirmed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he said, and since it was a spiritual union, it would last beyond the grave.

Our friendship has indeed endured and flourished beyond the accidental association of two scholars sharing an interest in the Syriac-speaking Christianity of late antiquity. The blessing of the Syrian Orthodox Church was a precious instance of our participation in the life of an ancient and noble Christian tradition. Although neither of us took the trouble to investigate the subject, each privately assumed that the ritual of that summer was some Christian descendant of an adoption ceremony used by the early church to solemnify a state-that of friendship-which comes highly recommended in the Christian tradition (“Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but I have called you friends.” [John15:15]).

If this were all that Professor Boswell were claiming to have “discovered,” neither I nor anyone else would be likely to dispute his findings. It seems reasonable to assume that ceremonies like the one Susan Ashbrook Harvey and I went through continue to take place in those eastern churches that preserve the rite of adoption ( adelphopoiesis ) for friends. In fact, scholars of the liturgy have known for years of these rituals.

But any such modest claim is not what Boswell has in mind. He claims that the “brother/sister-making” rituals found in manuscripts and certain published works are ancient ceremonies whose cryptic (or, in current argot, “encoded”) purpose has been to give ecclesiastical blessing to homosexual or lesbian relationships, thus making them actual nuptial ceremonies. This startling claim is certainly far from the reality of the ceremony in which we participated nine years ago. Is it perhaps just as far from the real meaning of such ceremonies in the distant past? According to his publisher, Boswell “irrefutably demonstrates that same-sex relationships have been sanctioned and even idealized in Western societies for over two thousand years.” He has also “restored” a rite that could be used in contemporary homosexual marriages, should they become legal.

The texts on which he leans for his assertions will be examined below. But to begin with, I will say flatly that neither Boswell’s reconstruction of them nor his method of argumentation can possibly support the interpretation he proposes. First, it is highly implausible that homosexual unions either in antiquity or in the Middle Ages would have been blessed by a religion that promoted ascetic devotion to the kingdom of God rather than that condition which contemporary Americans understand as the healthy expression of erotic drives. In that sense the book is, as Boswell himself admits, counterintuitive in its very premise. Furthermore, early Byzantine law codes contain extremely harsh punishments for homosexual intercourse.

But even more disturbing than its implausible assumption is the book’s promotion of a contemporary cause, i.e., homosexual marriage, through the invention of precedent. Even the most cursory examination of Boswell’s documentation exposes the way he has struggled to force a group of documents to conform to his conclusions. Despite its facade of scholarship, the book is studded with unwarranted a priori assumptions, with arguments from silence, and with dubious, or in some cases outrageously false, translations of critical terms. And Boswell’s insouciance about historical accuracy would be unacceptable in an undergraduate paper. It will, for instance, come as news to Orthodox patriarch and Byzantinist alike that “the Theodosian Code [439] had made the upper reaches of the Roman state a Roman Catholic theocracy”; and Severus of Antioch (d. 538) would be aghast, patrician Hellenophone that he was, to discover that he had composed his Homily on St. Sergius in Syriac.

Boswell’s approach to the historian’s craft has hallowed antecedents in the pious partiality and distortion that marked the writing of modern church history from its beginnings in the sixteenth century. While Boswell clearly aspires to influence the current American debate about such issues as the nature of marriage and the rights of homosexuals, his tendentiousness in the use of evidence is depressingly old-fashioned. In fact, for all its topicality, its commercial sales appeal, and its political timing (hardly by chance was it released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall protests), the book’s methods fairly creak with age. To be sure, Boswell’s documents are real, but he uses them in a way that would be quite familiar to church historians of the era of “confessional” church history, famously represented by the Magdeburg Centuries among the Reformers and Caesar Baronius among the Catholics. Those writers, responding to certain pressing ideological needs of their own day, created a history to serve the purpose of their employers, whether the patrons of the Evangelische Kirche or Roman prelates. Like them, Professor Boswell has set out to create a usable past.

For Christians, antiquity means the founding centuries of the Church, when apostolic teaching was preserved and elaborated and a body of thought assembled. Thus someone attempting to demonstrate, say, that believers’ baptism is the only authentic Christian practice, or that women may now be ordained as priests, will seek to gain the sanction of antiquity for his position. Traditionalists, for whom it is imperative that Roman Catholic priests be unmarried and celibate, “prove,” by invoking the evidence against itself, that early Christian priests who were married never in fact made love to their wives or sired children after their ordinations.

In the present superheated climate of ideological warfare it has been tempting to abandon the painstaking search for the true reconstruction of the past. Proponents of intellectual movements like cultural criticism or of political movements like multiculturalism have claimed flatly that there is no possibility, respectively, of securing a historical narrative of events as they happened eigentlich , or of arriving at a consensus view. If “texts” do not exist independently of their readers, no one true interpretation can be said to exist.

That is not Boswell’s approach: he portrays his work as an investigation that by patient reconstruction and analysis restores the record of gay couples of the past whose existence was heretofore hidden by the prudery of an oppressive church and culture. It is understandable that groups that see themselves as oppressed should want to recover their authentic history. But to create a false history, as Boswell has done in this book (despite its elaborate scholarly apparatus), is to undermine the very cause the work hopes to advance.


According to Boswell, the “Christian ceremony of same-sex union functioned in the past as a ‘gay marriage ceremony.’” Until the fourteenth century, when, he alleges, Christian societies developed an “obsessive” fear of homosexuality and condemned it as the most horrible of sins, the Church employed the rite of adelphopoiesis as a way of sacramentally instituting a “permanent romantic commitment” between homosexual lovers. The documents that allegedly attest to this practice go under the title which in English means “the making of brothers” (or “sisters,” since in the Greek compound, the word adelpho - can signify either noun). The language employed in these texts does not suggest any kind of sexual connection between the two parties united in this particular bond. How, then, does Boswell confirm their status as rites for “gay marriage”? By building a case for the existence of a hidden context, which is in turn made the interpretative key for determining the documents’ meaning. A careful reading of each of the eight chapters with which Boswell builds his case reveals the fragile base on which the entire edifice stands. He obviously anticipated strong criticism: in September of 1993, even before the book was out, he challenged his readers on ABC’s “Day One”: “Let these people [i.e., his critics] show I read the Greek or Old Church Slavonic wrong.” And in the June 2, 1994 issue of the New Yorker , he promised his interviewer that “They’re going to lose any arguments they pick with me.”

The question of Boswell’s translation is a critical one: in the book’s first chapter, titled “The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage,” it is assumed that certain terms, the majority of them Greek, are not to be translated according to the norms of classical philology. Thus, for example, as has been pointed out, though the text in no way supports his doing so, Boswell construes adelphos , “brother,” to mean “homosexual lover,” by this means supporting the existence of homosexual marriage in antiquity. Here we find disingenuousness opening the door to ingenuity: after examining the semantics of certain Greek and Latin terms for love ( erao , agapao , and phileo ) and marriage ( gamos , nubere , etc.) and demonstrating that there is often an overlap of meaning among them, Boswell adduces the contemporary use of the term “brother” among gay males to conclude that “the most significant problem in the whole catalogue of semantic slippage related to love and sexuality is the use of sibling designations for romantic partners, of either gender.” Just as “to sleep with” can in modern usage be taken to mean sexual intercourse, so by (false) analogy adelphos and adelphotes (brotherhood) are taken to mean the state of sexual union. Boswell actually cites the term “brother,” used to refer to fellow Christians in the early centuries of the Church, to bolster his case that the word was metaphorical and therefore likely to mean “lover”-when in the early Christian context it signifies simply belonging to Christ’s family, one of the adopted sons of God.

By the end of the chapter Boswell has reached the point of claiming that earlier scholarly discussions of “brotherhood” rituals were meant “to disguise the nature of the same-sex union” and that his (mis)translations are necessary to rescue the term from its prudish application to mere brotherhood, whether of blood kinship or, as in the Church, spiritual kinship. Of one such union of brotherhood he writes, “[I]ts nature has long been obscured both by artful mistranslation and a general unwillingness to recognize something as ostensibly improbable as a same-sex union.”

Having compromised the plain meanings of words, meanings supported by the majority of readings in the corpus of classical literature, Boswell next turns to the Greco-Roman world in order to establish the supposed context for the Christian rituals he will take up later. In two succeeding chapters he discusses, respectively, heterosexual matrimony in late antiquity and “same-sex unions” in the same period. It is necessary for his argument to establish that these were two roughly equivalent forms of human consortium, because in subsequent chapters he means to demonstrate that early Christianity absorbed such late-Roman customs. Along the way, he routinely characterizes marriage, which in the Roman Empire was always legally and explicitly heterosexual, as an impersonal union, and “primarily a property arrangement.” Since, he implies, marriages between men and women were “business deals,” not usually marked by affection or equality, homosexual unions, with their intense and intimate friendships, were humanly superior. A throwaway, and unsupported, line on page 65 asserts that “divorce was very common in heterosexual marriages at Rome, as well as nonmarital sexuality, at least for the male . . . . “ The reader is encouraged to think that late Roman citizens treated marriage casually and cynically; but the texts of late antiquity suggest just the opposite. Admittedly a practical arrangement, marriage varied in its details, but also included the aims of mutual affection and successful childrearing.

Boswell’s short chapter on marriage can hardly be taken seriously as a scholarly consideration of an exceedingly complex subject. During the last fifteen years, the entire subject of marriage and the family in late antiquity has come under intense scrutiny, and Boswell devotes little effort to presenting the conclusions of that research, mainly because he is eager to prove the equal standing of legal homosexual unions that supposedly stood beside marriage. In his discussion, he provides little material not already presented in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), a popular but intensely criticized monograph which similarly attempted to show that the early Church tolerated a preexisting Roman custom of homosexuality.

Because he therefore needs to establish that Roman law permitted homosexual unions, Boswell must interpret all uses of the word “brother” in adoption ceremonies as a sign of homosexuality, and must force every reference to male friendship to connote homosexual coupledom in the modern sense. For example, discussing a passage from Xenophon, he translates a passage which in Greek reads aner kai pais suzugentes homilousin , “man and boy converse/consort, being bound together” (cf. Greek-English Lexicon, ed. Liddell and Scott, col. 1669) “as in Boeotia, man and boy live together, like married people.” In a footnote to this passage, he does grant that “like married people” is not literally expressed here-but fails to inform the nonspecialist reader that there is no mention of marriage in the passage at all!

The remainder of the chapter discusses three types of “formal unions” between men. None, in fact, is evidence of a legal, contractual “marriage” between members of the same sex. The first is a fictionalized description of a homosexual abduction; the second describes a ritual akin to blood-brotherhood; and the third is clearly a form of legal adoption between males. Only the third can be representative of any common procedure in the late Empire, and none is comparable to the institution of marriage. Yet by selective quotation Boswell gives the impression that homosexual marriage was acceptable and legal in the world into which Christianity came, and dismisses those scholars who accepted the plain sense of fraternal adoption as having been blinded by their homophobia.

The final five chapters of the book contain Boswell’s analysis of the Christian history of homosexual marriage. These chapters contain frequent gaffes, faulty translations, and specious arguments, and a sizeable essay would be required to correct them all. Boswell’s general argument is that Christianity uncritically absorbed late-Roman mores with regard to sex and marriage. Thus he casually transfers the misleading portrait he has drawn of the late-ancient pagan world to the social and cultural life created as Christianity began to dominate the Mediterranean. In doing so, he misreads the intensely religious devotion which insisted that those wishing to become Christians must, in both outlook and behavior, choose between “the way of life and the way of death” ( Didache , 1-6 [ca.100]). Here is Boswell’s gloss on Christianity’s sexual morality: “[Early Christian insistence on sexuality’s procreative purpose] probably drew its heightened intensity among Christian peoples from a fervent, almost obsessive Christian emphasis on the afterlife as the primary focus and measure of all earthly value and action-a preoccupation that may now seem counterintuitive even to Christians, living in more worldly and materialistic frames of reference.”

Salvation through faith in Christ, not “afterlife,” was the moving force behind conversion to Christianity-at least before it was made the state religion. Because such salvation entailed a thorough reinterpretation of the visible and invisible world, early Christian authors put the whole of their inherited pagan culture under anxious scrutiny. Despite the fact that religious paganism survived well past the period of early Christianity, it is highly questionable to assume, with Boswell, that pre-Christian sexual practices could be easily transferred into Christian ritual, when in fact they could not be and were not.

When he turns to a discussion of “the new religion,” Boswell depends upon a number of unwarranted assumptions in order to promote his view that the practice of same-sex unions was carried over into early Christianity. First, he creates a caricature of the early Christian enthusiasm for the solitary, ascetic life in imitation of Christ. Second, he distorts the scriptural and patristic teachings on marriage and its purpose-strict in part because they derived from Judaism-into a purported ambivalence about the worth of marriage. Third, by selective quotation he converts certain paired saints, most notably Sergius and Bacchus, into homosexual couples venerated by Christians for that reason.

Two egregious errors occur on pp. 110-111. In the first, Boswell wishes to show that matrimony was downgraded by early Christians. He repeats the by-now conventional, but unproven, explanation of the women’s monastic movement by declaring that celibacy provided Christian women “an escape from the confinements of ordinary social obligations, and . . . a route to social power and prestige through the Church.” The patristic attitude toward marriage he summarizes by libeling Augustine: “St. Augustine, whose views of sexuality were to become normative in the Western church, lived with a concubine for fifteen years, had a son by her, and then dismissed her summarily when he had the opportunity to satisfy his ambition by marrying an heiress.”

Augustine records in the Confessions that, although he did accede to his mother’s wish that he pursue an ambitious marriage, “this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, for I loved her dearly.” Augustine, in other words, was torn between conflicting desires, but he was not unfeeling or casual about his quasi-marriage. Nor are his views entirely representative of early Christian views of marriage.

Further, in a discussion of marriage in the early Christian period, Boswell asserts that “a thousand years after its inception Christianity would begin to emphasize the biological family as the central unit of Christian society.” Here he has perhaps been misled by the current scholarly interest in asceticism. Had he read the homilies of John Chrysostom or Augustine, the orations of Gregory Nazianzen or the Life of Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa (all from the early centuries of the Fathers), he would have found a considerable emphasis on what we nowadays call the “nuclear” family as the primary way of life for Christians, despite the attractions of an undistractedly religious life.

Boswell is in any case chiefly interested in supposed homosexual unions, and he discusses Christian marriage mainly in order to contrast it with same-sex unions entered into solely for the sake of love. Since the historical evidence for such unions is almost nil, he is led to outrageous acts of eisegesis. His reading into the text what is not there begins with the “beloved disciple,” a case argued unsuccessfully in his previous book: “Certainly the most controversial same-sex couple in the Christian tradition comprised Jesus and John . . . .” He then moves to Perpetua and Felicitas, North African martyrs of ca. 200: “The paired femaleness of the two martyrs seems to be what appealed most to Christians . . . .” Ss. Polyeuctos and Nearchos (ca. 250) died together. Their biographer, Boswell claims, describes them as “brothers, not by birth, but by affection.” The Greek text, however, reads kata proairesin , “by choice.” Boswell goes on to quote at length from the acta of the two martyrs, invoking the principle of mistranslation elaborated in Chapter One to translate the ametro philia enjoyed by Nearchos and Polyeuctos as “boundless love,” rather than, as is correct, “limitless friendship,” thus injecting an erotic charge where the text contained none. He concludes:

Although the point of the story was manifestly to appeal to Christians as a reminder of those who embraced martyrdom as Christians in the face of Roman persecution, it may have evoked particular enjoyment from those sensitive to romantic relationships (or special friendships) with a party of the same gender, particularly since both men were soldiers, and there was a widespread and ancient Hellenistic connection between homoeroticism and the military.
Many Christians may not have gotten the point, Boswell adds, but those “particularly susceptible to such feelings [the erotic] may have interpreted them more erotically.” This is always possible, of course; but it proves nothing.

The Life of Sergius and Bacchus , which records the deaths of two soldier-martyrs in the reign of Maximian, is given similar treatment, based on a similar mistranslation. In the story, Bacchus dies first, and appears in a vision to exhort Sergius to preserve his Christian faith in the face of certain martyrdom the next day. Boswell asserts that “Bacchus’ promise that if Serge followed the Lord he would get as his reward not the beatific vision, not the joy of paradise, not even the crown of martyrdom, but Bacchus himself, was remarkable by the standards of the early church, privileging human affection in a way unparalleled during the first thousand years of Christianity.”

To arrive at this conclusion requires that Boswell read Sun soi gar apokeitai moi ho tes dikaiosynes stephanos as “For the crown of justice for me is to be with you.” But that is not how it reads; the Latin version more correctly translates the Greek as Tecum enim mihi reposita est justitia et corona : “For with you is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (in the Latin, “righteousness and crown”) [cf. 2 Timothy 4:8]. In other words, the two will together gain the crown-not primarily one another’s person, as Boswell wishes.

The final three chapters of Same-Sex Unions build on Boswell’s interpretation of early Christian texts to discover what the ceremonies he has uncovered signify. He concludes that wherever the term “brother” is found, an erotic meaning is justified. By equating the terms “brother” with “lover” and “friendship” with (erotic) “love” and linking them to earlier texts, Boswell is able to read the few medieval Western and Byzantine references outside the rituals reproduced here to attest to an ancient tradition of homosexual marriage that continued unabated from Roman antiquity through the Byzantine and, in isolated instances, into modernity.

Boswell raises three possible alternative interpretations of the ceremonies, but only in order to dismiss them. In his view, they do not establish a “spiritual fraternity,” nor are they blood-brotherhood rites, nor are they fraternal adoption ceremonies. Boswell then tries to establish a parallel between “same“sex and heterosexual ceremonies of union,” and finally, by interpreting instances of the use of the term adelphopoiesis as a homosexual marriage, he finds the “antecedents” for his rituals. The Emperor Basil I (867-886), founder of the Macedonian dynasty of Byzantium, and apparently a homosexual, then becomes a prima facie case for the commonness of same-sex unions, when in fact Basil’s homosexuality was notable precisely because it was unusual.

Even so, Boswell’s account of Basil’s relationship with another man involves mistranslation. Before becoming emperor, Basil was made brother of one John, a native of Achaia, although he had at first resisted entering into a relationship with an underling. According to Boswell’s translation of the historian Theophanes Continuator, Basil “honored [John] with the title protospatarius and granted him intimacy with him on account of their earlier shared life in ceremonial union.” The word for “intimacy” here is parrhesia , meaning the freedom-of-speech, the boldness, enjoyed by an inferior before his superior. And “earlier . . . union” is more readily translated as “previous association in spiritual brotherhood,” the Greek clause reading: kai tes pros auton parresias metedoke dia ten phthasasan koinonian tes pneumatikes adelphotetos . Contrary to Boswell, koinonia rarely means sexual intercourse, even though, in Boswell’s words, “Basil was thus what modern Americans would call a ‘hunk.’” It is hard to see, by the way, how Figure 13, a reproduction of a manuscript illumination of this episode in Theophanes, bears out either Boswell’s interpretation of this adoption ceremony as a “liturgical union” or his estimation of Basil’s physical allure.

A final chapter argues that “same-sex unions” have continued to be practiced, even though the prejudices of modern scholars have caused them to be misinterpreted as non-homosexual.

At the end of this long and tortured attempt at historical reconstruction lie the celebrated documents themselves. Two appendices contain translations and documents that allegedly attest to same-sex union. Oddly, these sections contain somewhat different kinds of material. The first contains a hymn to Sergius and Bacchus, a nuptial office from the Gelasian sacramentary, a brotherhood contract between Louis the Eleventh of France and the Duke of Bourgogne, a “heterosexual ceremony” of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer , and twelve adelphopoiesis rituals, of which three are in Slavonic and nine in Greek. The presence of canonical marriage rites alongside supposed gay marriage rites is undoubtedly meant to suggest their equivalency.

As for the texts printed in Greek (the Slavonic texts are not presented in the volume), only a few of these texts have not been published before, and an examination of the “Manuscripts of Same-Sex Union” shows that of the sixty-two manuscripts consulted, only eleven have not been previously published or described. Scholars have known of these prayers and services and have steadily published them over the course of the century. Boswell, then, did not discover them; he only put them to use for his purposes.

Nothing makes this plainer than the claim advanced for the entries under Akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin in MS. Grottaferrata Gamma Beta Two. Boswell refers, as if they belonged to the same ritual, to a text called “another prayer for the making of a brother” and the “Ecclesiastical Canon of Marriage of the Patriarch Methodius.” Footnote 80 astonishingly claims that a line appearing in the manuscript between the first and second items cannot signify a division between types of text, when the Greek makes perfectly clear from the final verb-( apoluetai ) “they are dismissed” after “making a profound bow” ( proskynousi , not necessarily “kissing,” as Boswell translates) to the Gospel, the priest, and each other -that the Kanon of marriage is not a part of the adoption ceremony. This is most inconvenient for Boswell’s case, as even he later concedes.

All in all, then, this book does not begin to accomplish what it set out to do. (The reviews, after the early burst of hopeful publicity, have been notably skeptical-even from sources one would expect to be favorable.) Indeed, the author’s painfully strained effort to recruit Christian history in support of the homosexual cause that he favors is not only a failure, but an embarrassing one.

Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America, where she teaches early Christian history.