Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: (Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century), by John Boswell.
Review by Alex Beecroft
Author bio: John Boswell (1947-94) was the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University and the author of The Royal Treasure, The Kindness of Strangers, and Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe.
3. Rome: The Foundation
4. The Scriptures
5. Christians and Social Change
6. Theological Traditions
7. The Early Middle Ages
8. The Urban Revival
9. The Triumph of Ganymede: Gay Literature of the High Middle Ages
10. Social Change: Making Enemies
11. Intellectual Change: Men, Beasts, and “Nature”
This is rightly called ‘a truly ground-breaking work’. For the first time in the debate over homosexuality, John Boswell has gone back to the sources and combed through an immense amount of writings by Latin, Greek and Early Medieval authors to find out what they really had to say. And it turns out that the picture is nothing like what we expected. As is often the case when human beings are involved, everything is much more complicated than it initially seemed.
Even in the society where we think we have the gay relationship pinned down to a socially acceptable model – the ‘classic’ Greek relationship of older lover with younger beloved – Boswell unearths numerous exceptions which disprove the rule.
That complication persists and increases when Christianity enters the picture. At this early date, in the process of formation, Christianity is being influenced by many different, conflicting, strands of thought, and – of course – is reflecting a society in Rome quite unlike our own. But Boswell picks these influences apart and shows that though Christianity took on board a Stoic distain for earthly pleasures, a Manichean distrust of the flesh and various other philosophies which valued chastity over sexuality, none of these sources are particularly homophobic. They are against sexual pleasure in any form. In contrast, at the same time, abbots, bishops and saints were writing love poetry to their same sex ‘friends’ which would later go on to form the seed of the medieval courtly love tradition.
Boswell acknowledges that there is no way of knowing whether sex featured in these passionate friendships, but he points out that the society of the time made no distinction between passionate friendships which did include sex, and those which did not. And he casually drops into the text the mention that gay marriage was legal and well known in Western society up until 342ad, while there were forms of Church liturgy for uniting a same sex couple in a forerunner of civil partnership. He follows the ups and downs of society’s tolerance through the fall of Rome to the rise of Medieval Europe, and draws interesting parallels between the fate of homosexuals and the fate of the Jews.
But it is hopeless to try and write a summary of what is a densely researched book, covering over a thousand years of social flux, and explaining the attitudes of ages which did not have the same conceptual framework as our own, let alone the same words. Better to read the book itself, taking it slowly to let it all sink in. Boswell’s style is pleasant, and the astonishing material makes for a compelling read, but it is heavy going, particularly while wading through footnotes in Latin and Greek. It could not be more worth it, however. Suffice it to say that this is an eye-opening book, a must read for anyone thinking of setting their work in antiquity, and a recommended read for everyone who did not know that our own age’s tolerance is part of a long tradition. It’s a warning too that it’s possible to have such tolerance and then to lose it so thoroughly that even the memory of it is wiped out. Something we should bear in mind if we’re ever inclined to grow complacent.