So, in that context, Boswell's book:
Boswell devotes his “Introduction” to a discussion of the difficulties facing the historian in research, first in comprehending the context of the period, and then in making it clear to an audience. This is extraordinarily difficult in the area of social customs, because so much has changed, and so much is not recorded and must be reasoned from vague and often cryptic sources. Boswell stresses, quite rightly, that the historian must understand the vocabulary of the question, in this case marriage, in contemporaneous terms to bring any sort of understanding to the discussion. In Chapter 1, Boswell does a more than creditable job of clarifying the many forms that marriage took in the Mediterranean societies of the Classical, Hellenistic, and early Imperial ages, with particular appreciation for St. Augustine’s dictum that procreation was not a requirement for marriage (notwithstanding contemporary Church teaching to the contrary). What is interesting is the development of heterosexual marriage from an institution devoted entirely to economic, political, and dynastic concerns, in which the wife was essentially property bestowed on her husband by her father to cement an alliance between two families, to a contractual arrangement by independent adults (at least in theory – the arrangement was by no mean equal, except in social class). In light of this, it is no surprise that marriage in pre-Christian Europe was practiced by – and quite often permitted to – only the upper classes: those who had significant property. It is not until the later Empire that affection and attraction become acceptable considerations in arranging marriages. (It is also worth noting that, for the most part, priestly participation was an add-on – for the vast majority, once the financial agreements had been worked out, a simple declaration before witnesses constituted the ceremony: marriages were usually blessed by priests, but the crux was signing the agreements.)
Boswell goes on to discuss same-sex unions in pre-Christian Europe. Even for those familiar with some of the customs and expectations surrounding same-sex relationships in this period, he provides an enlightening commentary, pointing out that such relationships were expected to be long-term, ideally permanent, that the much touted age difference between erastes and eromenos in Greek custom (when it existed at all) paralleled exactly the ideal age difference in heterosexual marriage, and, no surprise to some, that same-sex relationships were expected to call forth the best characeristics of the lovers. (The U. S. military establishment comes in for a few pointed comments, as Boswell brings the history of the Sacred Band of Thebes – never defeated until they were wiped out to the last man at Chaeronaea – to bear on arguments about “unit cohesion” and “morale.”)
The chapter on marriage in the early Christian period is more than enlightening. Stunning is Boswell’s observation that “For the enthusiastic and devout, the most dramatic change in attitudes toward marriage was its profound devaluation.” The early Christian Church did not like the idea of sex under any circumstances, and far from promoting procreation as a divine mandate, held that the ideal marriage was never consummated. (Fortunately for the development of Christianity, the Church Fathers did finally, albeit grudgingly, admit that sex within marriage was acceptable – a somewhat lukewarm endorsement. One wonders if they were just bowing to the inevitable, since the vast majority of Christians paid as much attention to Church teaching in this area then as they do now.) Marriage did not become a sacrament within the Church for over a thousand years. Boswell also discusses several instances of “paired saints,” particularly SS Serge and Bacchus, who were without doubt a couple and were perceived as such at the time.
Perhaps the most revelatory chapters in the book are those treating the development of nuptial offices in the early Church, both heterosexual and homosexual, and their characteristics and history into the early Medieval period. Boswell cites an impressive wealth of sources that point to the almost exact parallels in treatment of the two (given that a same-sex union was less likely to involve the transfer of property or to reflect an unequal relationship in terms of relative authority). There is an extensive discussion of Roman law in this regard, since canon law was basically grafted onto that existing foundation, and Boswell goes into exhaustive detail on such ancillary issues as the adoption of brothers. What is remarkable is that the early Church’s de-emphasis of sex not only did not preclude same-sex unions, but actually made them more acceptable than they are today. Particularly instructive is the career of the Emperor Basil I, a nobody from Macedonia who “married” a wealthy Greek youth, John, at the behest of the youth’s mother and then, after assassinating the Emperor Michael (to whom he had been advisor and bedmate) summoned John to Constaninople to live with him. Boswell cites evidence from sources as diverse as the Eastern Empire, the Principality of Kiev, Spain, the Kingdom of the Franks, and Ireland as illustration of the widespread existence of same-sex unions entered under the auspices of the Church. He also notes anecdotal evidence of such unions entered into less formally.
The fourteenth century witnessed an abrupt shift in the Church’s position on same-sex unions, somewhat equivalent to the rise of the Church in the fourth century (at the beginning of which, Christianity was illegal, and by the end of which, it was the state religion). As Boswell points out, the reasons for this shift are obscure, save that the Church responded to growing public antipathy toward homosexuality (which had always been more marked in the West than in the East). This shift was hardly universal: Montaigne described witnessing a same-sex union performed by a priest in Rome in 1578, and there is documentation of a similar ceremony between two women which took place in a church in Dalmatia in the eighteenth century.
In his final chapter, Boswell examines some of the difficulties of the “history of history” in this area. It is no secret that Western society, particularly in England, Germany, and the United States, has a pathogical fear of homosexuality. It is therefore no surprise that this cultural context has colored the work of historians and anthropologists in describing the realities of other cultures, both contemporary and historical. Indeed, I remember my own dismay at the discovery that Jowett’s translations of Plato, long the standard, were heavily bowdlerized for just this reason. Boswell makes a good case for a clear-eyed view of history in this regard, one that I think can only be helpful in its honesty.
A highly respected historian, Boswell was careful in his research and very well aware of the dangers of transposing modern attitudes to historical events. As a writer, he is articulate, witty, sometimes acerbic, and very clear. He draws heavily on original documents as well as secondary sources (which makes the footnotes somewhat of a chore, unless you read French, German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Old Church Slavonic), and refers as well to hagiography, Christian iconography, Hellenistic romance novels, medieval folktales, and legal codes and decisions in clarifying his examination. There is no doubt that Boswell had an agenda; what is impressive is that the agenda does not infringe on the balance in his discussion. (In spite of the impression readers may have gained from my own summary discussion above, let me note that Boswell is very careful to point out ambiguities in usage and in the texts – this is not a work of polemic.) There are sections that are heavy sledding, particularly for those not familiar with the forms and methods of historiography. The footnotes, which are legion, are a distraction: although Boswell points out that one can read through without reference to the notes, someone conditioned by a lifetime of checking citations will find it almost impossible to ignore them. Boswell also includes as appendices translations of texts discussed, the texts in their original language, a discussion of the Jewish perspective, the text of a same-sex union, and the Passion of SS Serge and Bacchus.
I found “Same-Sex Unions” fascinating, but then, I have more than a passing fondness for history. For those who routinely tout the 3,000-year-old “tradition” of marriage, it would be instructive to find out just exactly what that tradition encompasses. For those who blithely point to antiquity as the touchstone of social approval for same-sex relationships, it would be equally instructive to learn just how tenuous that approval sometimes was. Boswell’s book brings a badly needed perspective to the furious debate raging on the subject of “gay marriage” in this country and others. I don’t think anyone can dispute that same-sex unions had their ups and downs in European history – but then, so did marriage.