James Davidson

  • The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe by John Boswell
    Fontana, 412 pp, £8.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 00 686326 4

The ancients were fond of their tropes of impossibility – of rivers flowing backwards and cattle grazing at sea, fish feeding on dry land, gay men getting married:

Shades of our ancestors!
Is it a moral reformer we need, or an augur
Of evil omens? Would you be more horrified, or think it
A more ghastly portent, if women calved, or cows
Gave birth to lambs?

as Juvenal put it (with thanks to Peter Green). We have come a long way, of course, since that hysterical outburst. Having seen millennia come and go we have a right to be blasé about millennial prodigies. Genetic engineers have not yet managed the cow that walks on water, but the land-lubbing fish is generally admired as one of our more enterprising ancestors. Hitherto gay marriage has been left stranded, as far beyond our imaginations as it was beyond Juvenal’s in the second century AD. There remain, it seems, only two possible responses to an impertinence of this kind: the apoplectic and the apocalyptic. To the consternation of those who see themselves as rebels against the bourgeois sexual order it is buying a cottage together, not cottaging, that has historically been the more militant gesture for gay men. Likewise books that glorify homosexuals as outlaws, like Jonathan Dollimore’s Sexual Dissidence, have caused scarcely a ripple outside the literary critical lagoon, but when John Boswell, a rather old-fashioned medieval historian, claimed to have discovered evidence for gay marriages being celebrated and blessed inside Christian churches, he made waves.

It is not altogether obvious why the suggestion should be so shocking. Why is it stable and committed homosexual relationships that raise the hackles? One reason for surprise is that it goes against the Church’s reputation (fully deserved) as the major force behind the persecution and killing of homosexuals since the classical period. To imagine gay people getting married in a Christian church is rather like seeing the Nazi Party celebrate a bar-mitzvah. But this is not the whole problem. The question of suppressing or allowing gay marriage is rather different from the question of oppressing or accepting homosexuals.

The pagan world generally manifested much greater tolerance of homosexuality, but attitudes to anything remotely resembling a homosexual marriage were just as hostile. The reason is that marriage was explicitly a baby-producing arrangement. Putting homosexual relations in that context brought them into conflict with nature. Gay marriages offend against heterosexism and homophobia, but also against what we might call reproductionism (‘begetry’?). This is the logic that takes Juvenal from the all-male wedding to unnatural parturitions. Gay sex did not automatically raise the question of gender roles, but gay marriage did, bringing up the surreal and unnatural prospect not only of male wives and female husbands, which is bad enough, but of male mothers, too, producing some intractable images for historians of sexuality. Aristotle, for instance, relates the story of the tyrant Periander of Ambracia, who asked his boyfriend if he was pregnant yet and was assassinated for his insolence. Visitors to Holborn’s 17th-century molly-houses would have found not only men in drag but marriages in ‘chapel’ with ‘births’ and ‘baptisms’ to follow. It was one thing for Trajan to sleep with men, it was quite another when Nero got married to one, and on his honeymoon imitated the screams of a bride being deflowered.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in