09 May 2011

Book Review: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

John Boswell was a prominent historian and a professor at Yale University. He died in 1994 at the age of 47 related to AIDS complications. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of homosexuality and religion, specifically homosexuality and Christianity.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe asserts, with an extensive reading of historical documents, that extensive same-sex unions similar to marriage existed in pre-Christian and Christian periods in Europe until the fifteenth century.

I resisted reading this when it first came out as The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. And when I bought the book several years ago, it went onto my shelf, like a handful of books that I buy with a heart of ambivalence.

But I'm glad I read it now and not then. Of course, his entire program flies in the face of the Foucauldean-based Queer Theory and the post-structuralist based analysis that is characteristic of so-called Queer Theory. Several scholars have continued Boswell's work as "Gay and Lesbian Studies" and I suspect my own work would fall into this latter category, although when I was in graduate school, I always thought I would finish with something interesting in Queer Theory).

I am not an essentialist but I also do not believe that people with same-sex interests did not form identities before the nineteenth century Euro-America or did not maintain same-sex relationships -- especially where concubinage had legal recognition and marriage was primarily about property.

What I found the most interesting about this book, which was not Boswell's intention, was the relationship of an idealist, anti-body, ascetic religion like Christianity to something like marriage (which previously was about material wealth and more recently about fertility and sexuality). It turns out, that the relationship was quite tortured. It wasn't until the same time that spiritual movements associated with the Holy Spirit emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth century that challenged the power of the church hierarchy that marriage became a required religious "sacrament"!

Now we have the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines pushing the Reproductive Health Bill when from the beginning Christianity pushed celibacy only. Celibacy was the highest virtue and everything else was a failure to live up to the highest spiritual aims of Christianity. Christianity rejected sexuality, the body, wealth. It was not a Christian value.

So what happened to same-sex unions in medieval Christianity? In the 1400-1500s, major homophobia entered into Western Europe and that also infected Christian theology. Boswell cites Dante for the proposition that gay sex was really only a small infraction for Christians (like others who were passionate in their sex) since they are on the highest rung of purgatory just out the gates of heaven! A major change obviously occurred shortly thereafter.

This leads me to again point out that the Catholic hierarchy of celibates are just not the right people to tell us about reproductive health. Reproduction is against the most fundamental tenets of Christianity and only became of interest when the hierarchy was losing its control over the masses and the political apparatus (1000 years ago).

The version I read was a 412 page paperback published by Villard (June 21, 1995), ISBN-13: 978-0679432289. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at amazon.com.

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