"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," by John Boswell (Villard, 412 pp.; $25, hardcover). Reviewed by Gerald Bray, Anglican professor of divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama.
Professor Boswell of Yale, whose earlier work on Christian attitudes toward homosexuality achieved a certain notoriety in the early 1980s, has now returned to the field with a lengthy analysis of medieval liturgical texts, mainly from Eastern Europe, which deal with a phenomenon that he calls "same-sex union." Nowadays, such a phrase will most often be taken to imply gay marriage, though whether the documents cited by Boswell can bear this interpretation is another matter altogether. To be fair to Boswell, he admits that his evidence is ambiguous, and that the most that can reasonably be said is that homosexual relationships may have existed under the cover of ritual "brotherhood," which is what the documents he quotes actually deal with.
To understand and evaluate Boswell's argument, it is necessary to go back to the mentality that prevailed in premodern societies, and that still exists in many parts of the world today. In those cultures, relationships between the sexes invariably imply some kind of sexual union; the idea of a nonsexual male-female friendship simply does not exist. On the other hand, friendships between people of the same sex are frequent and encouraged. A man would normally be expected to spend most of his time with his friends of the same sex, whether plowing the fields, waging war, or just chewing the fat at the local tavern. Women would also live in a largely female world, where home and family would dominate their lives.
In the late twentieth-century West, this age-old pattern has been significantly ...1
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