- 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.
Even in ancient Greece, where, we are often told, homosexuality was institutionalised, relations between men maintained a well-measured distance from matrimony. The world of Greek homosexuality existed alongside the world of the family, as supplement or precursor but never as substitute. The homosexual roles of erastes (‘lover’) and eromenos (‘loved’) found their heterosexual parallels not with wife and husband but with the unmarried courtesan (eromene) and her lover (erastes). Most queer folk today have followed their example, negotiating a careful periphrasis around the discourse of wedded bliss, opting instead for the unchallenging space of what we might call the parigamic: the language of ‘lovers’, ‘partners’, ‘girlfriends’ and ‘boyfriends’, rather than ‘spouse’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. If gay weddings are suddenly more imaginable it’s not only because there is greater tolerance of homosexuality: equally important is the weakening of the link between marriage and reproduction in favour of companionship.
For all these reasons, the claim that there were homosexual marriages in Christian churches right up until the Early Modern period is a surprise, to say the least. What is going on? Is this evidence at last for Luce Irigaray’s claim that all men are secretly homosexual? Or did we simply misjudge the situation? Is it possible that gay people in the Middle Ages achieved what their more tolerated pagan predecessors could not? Was a gay counter-culture able to flourish in this oppressive environment? Or is it another example of some cultural contradiction, a historical oxymoron, an aporia?
John Boswell died from Aids at the end of 1994, just after dropping his bombshell, The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, in the United States. He had made his name at the beginning of the Eighties with Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, in which he tried to prove that homosexuality was accepted well into the Christian Middle Ages. It was distinguished not so much for its scholarship as for its political engagement, based on a strong conception of homosexuals as a transhistorical group. Whereas others had looked to anthropology and psychoanalysis to explain Greek homosexuality, Boswell saw it in terms of the liberation politics of the Seventies. It was simply the case that at that time and in that place ‘gay people achieved toleration.’ Since then, of course, gay studies has taken off into the distant realms of cultural theory and such statements look naive. When all the talk is of ‘gay performativity’ and the construction not only of gender but of ‘biological’ sex, to refer to ‘gay people’ in antiquity is as old-fashioned as flares.
It was interesting to see what Boswell would make of this theoretical ferment. But after a decade of criticism and some ridicule he seems to have modified his position hardly at all. The Marriage of Likeness is like a postscript to the earlier book, playing the same tune, but louder. Not only were gay people tolerated in the Middle Ages, but their relationships were affirmed and sanctioned by the Church.
This is a bold claim by a scholar who, as A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Chair of Yale’s history department, had every right to be taken seriously. Consequently, when the book was published in the US it caused a huge amount of controversy and even found its way into Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip. It was a wonderful theory, full of Boswell’s characteristic recklessness and panache, threatening to bring about a complete rewriting of the history of the relationship between the Church and the gay community. Unfortunately, the book fails to make a case that would convince even this inexpert and sympathetic reader.
To begin with, it is by no means certain that Boswell had discovered anything at all. The institution at the centre of the claim, adelphopoiesis, or ‘brother-making’, which seems to have been some kind of fraternal adoption, was already known to historians of late antiquity. Manuscript accounts of the actual procedures to be followed had already been catalogued or printed, and many were accessible in modern publications. Boswell’s contribution was not the discovery of a secret rite locked away for centuries in half-forgotten manuscripts but the reappraisal in terms of gay marriage of an institution already familiar to historians.
This re-interpretation begins with an insistence that it is misleading or ‘anachronistically literal’ to see the institution in terms of brotherhood. Boswell prefers to translate the crucial term as ‘same-sex union’, a far from neutral rendition that anticipates his conclusion that this is the equivalent of ‘heterosexual union’ – i.e. marriage. In the same way, adelphoi, the normal Greek word for ‘brothers’, becomes ‘those who are about to be joined’ or ‘those who have been joined’. Unfortunately, Boswell’s refusal to call a brother ‘brother’ makes a nonsense of the documents’ repeated assertion that the men bound in this way are to be attached ‘not in nature but in faith and the spirit’, an attempt to clarify the distinction, which Boswell’s translation has pre-empted, between brothers in blood and brothers before God.
The relationship thus established seems to fall far short of what one would expect from a ‘gay marriage’. For a start, it does not seem to have excluded the possibility of either or both participants being already married to women. Secondly, in itself it was not an exclusive relationship, and there was nothing to stop a particularly popular individual having a whole string of ‘brothers’. These alliances seem to derive from affection, friendship and social climbing, not sexual commitment.
Some of those who Boswell interprets as having been early pioneers of gay marriage also strain credulity. For they include such candidates as the hermit and ascetic St Theodore of Sykeon (who ‘lived for two years in a cave, and then for a time inhabited an iron cage ... He became Bishop of Anastasioupolis, but ultimately resigned to return to monastic life’) and the Emperor Justinian, who was responsible for the introduction of draconian penalties against homosexual activity in the sixth century, instigating a vicious witch-hunt in which many were castrated and died. In fact, the overwhelming evidence, some of it provided here by Boswell himself, points to fear and hostility rather than toleration. Whenever anything resembling a real gay marriage is discovered those involved are punished savagely. In 1578, for instance, it came to light that there had been a series of weddings between members of a fraternity of Portuguese and Spanish men performed in Rome at the Church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina. They had been worried, apparently, about having sex before marriage. Instead of commending their virtue, however, contemporaries like the Venetian Ambassador described their action as ‘horrifying wickedness’ and the authorities burned them alive.
In the face of these general considerations, the evidence Boswell marshals in support of his thesis looks thin. On the one hand, there are the supposed parallels with the wedding ceremony, parallels which are best explained as deriving from what both rites owe to the ancient semiotics of friendship and affection: the kiss, the clasping of me right hand etc. On the other, there is Boswell’s determined extraction of every possible carnal connotation from the most innocent vocabulary. When the Emperor Basil I ascended the throne, for instance, he sent for the son of the widow Danelis, ‘on account of their earlier partnership in spiritual brotherhood’. Boswell omits the clarification ‘spiritual’ from his translation altogether and notes that koinonia, ‘partnership’, can also mean ‘sexual intercourse’, commenting that the phrase ‘is thus richly freighted’. The publishers have done a marvellous job of backing up the text with documents and citations in all manner of ancient languages, but no amount of Old Slavonic can compensate the reader for so unreliable a guide.
Such sleights of hand seem to show that for all his bravura Boswell was quite aware of the fundamental weakness of his thesis; and although the publicity and his own Introduction focus on the gay marriage claim, this forms the subject of only a couple of chapters. Without the distraction of this wild-goose chase, the rest of the book treads on firmer ground, presenting a survey of peripheral issues in more general terms: the coming of Christianity, the development of nuptial offices, marriage and same-sex relationships in pagan antiquity. The latter is particularly valuable, a useful corrective to modern scholarship’s overemphasis on the contingent and transitory nature of ancient homosexuality.
Boswell encourages his readers to trust his untrustworthy interpretations with exhortations to ‘counter-intuitive thinking’. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be advice he was prepared to follow himself. In particular, he is unable to think himself out of the distinctively modern and Western view of human relationships that interprets all love and tenderness between men as signs of homosexuality. Among his illustrations, for instance, is a striking modern image of men kissing, a commemorative stamp showing a Russian peasant mouth to mouth with a member of the Soviet Army. This seems to be a graphic representation of comradely solidarity, but the caption reads: ‘Russians ... entertained less horror of homosexual interaction than did their Western contemporaries. It is possible that the artist was gay.’ The stamp, however, points to a different understanding of Boswell’s material, less sensational perhaps but no less important and resonant.
Male friendships in pre-modern Europe (as in the modern non-West) could be intimate and intense. In Elizabethan England, where much recent work has been concentrated, men would kiss and hold hands, even sleep together. They could talk to their friends in terms of love and devotion. Parting was the occasion for grief and melancholy. Such sentiments were not to be confused with sodomitical tendencies, which were regarded with horror. More recently, however, an extraordinary antithesis has been constructed around opposed poles of friendship and love, a distinction as fragile in practice as it is conventional in discourse. Intimacy and affection have been monopolised by sexuality, leaving only the lower reaches of feeling for an impoverished version of friendship. The opposition is now maintained so strenuously that an avowal of one kind of relationship is understood as a disavowal of the other: ‘We’re just good friends.’
This distinction is policed with particular urgency between men, whose friendships with one another are often decisively inhibited by homosexual panic. Where male-bonding survives – in the locker-room, for instance, or in the army – it is not merely a watered-down or frustrated version of homosexuality, but its structural antithesis, able to thrive only with the reassurance of noisy and overt heterosexism and collective homophobia, or even the protection of laws forbidding homosexuality altogether, ensuring that proximity will not be mistaken for intimacy. This paradoxical relationship between the homosexual and the homosocial has been elucidated in some excellent recent work by critics and historians of sexuality, in particular Alan Bray and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Boswell had little time for such sophistication, but it seems highly relevant to any understanding of adelphopoiesis.
The most striking feature of ‘made brothers’ is not their assimilation to the married couple, but their avoidance of such dangerous connotations within a superficially similar arrangement. There is great emphasis on the spiritual nature of the relationship, and a repeated concern in prayers that it should be ‘without scandal’. The ban on monks fraternifying is also best understood in terms of these anxieties. In the monastery, adelphopoiesis could have been the basis for something very like a gay marriage: no wives to get in the way, limitless opportunities for intimate cohabitation, and widespread homosexuality – no wonder it was forbidden. Boswell’s mistake was an understandable one. He confused passionate same-sex friendship with passionate same-sex sex. In fact, the former seems to have depended on the complete suppression of the latter. By making gay marriage unimaginable, homophobia made such intimate alliances possible in the first place.